In her Dialogue with God, St Catherine of Siena opens a window onto the encounter of a human soul with the divine. By all accounts a woman of considerable independence of mind and forthright courage, involved both in caring for poor and sick people in Siena and in personal interventions in the complex political and ecclesiastical crises that marked fourteenthcentury Italy, she was also from an early age deeply informed by prayer. It is not surprising, then, that this sustained prayer handed down to us, among the first texts of Western Europe to be written and printed in the vernacular, should indicate an inseparable relation of action with thought, of work with contemplation. Our interest here, however, is not in the details of her life, for in any case these are often difficult to disentangle from fervent accounts of good works embellished with pious stories. Reading the lives and texts of saints is a hermeneutic exercise of considerable sophistication in itself. Rather our attention is drawn to a pattern of reflection that unfolds in the Dialogue, a pattern that is at once so familiar and so strange to contemporary hearing that one might easily miss what it has to say to us. Yet in this pattern something about the distinctiveness of ethics and something about the nature of redemption is disclosed, and together these things may shed light on the desires and the projects of contemporary feminist ethics. So it is my intention here, not to try to figure out the life of St Catherine, but rather to let her figure us out, and so to let her prayer inform what the ethical life of woman might yet become.
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