By Victoria McCaslin
Being in Siena was like waking up in a romantic comedy every single day. I rolled out of bed, opened the window, swung open the shutters, admired the passersby. As I walked the streets I liked to imagine the soundtrack to an indie film playing in the background – there I was, an American abroad, assimilating. My morning routine could have easily been turned into an opening montage, I thought, where I smiled at my neighbor and joked with the man who made my cappuccino. I was surrounded by beautiful cathedrals, beautiful people, and beautiful pastries. I was living the dream. Well, I was trying.
I had decided that my month in Italy would be a break. I would leave all my baggage at home and start fresh. My manipulative relationship, my unhealthy dietary habits, my crumbling friendships – all would be left back in the States to be dealt with upon my return. I would reinvent myself for my new location, get a clean start at being who I wanted.
This, of course, was easier said than done. I still woke up every morning to concerning texts from my boyfriend, still pored over menus to find a lighter option, still wasn’t getting responses from my friends when I sent them a text about how I missed them. But I was in Italy. I was in Siena! How can anyone be sad in Siena?
I still managed it. I struggled to find my place in the medieval city and within my study abroad group. How friendly was too friendly? How many rules could I test before it was too far? The girls with boyfriends would commiserate together, talking about how they missed their significant other but how they still talked on the phone every night so it wasn’t too bad. I couldn’t relate. My boyfriend, claiming he had nothing to say, turned down my requests for calls. The single people gawked at the attractive Italians, joking about finding an Italian husband. I didn’t think I should be doing that either, so I hovered between the two groups, unsure what to say.
There was also the issue of food, as there always is, and it was quickly overtaking my other problems to take up residence at the forefront of my mind. There were some athletes on the trip and their daily conversations seemed to always circle back to the food. “My mom,” one of them said early on, “said not to eat the food – just to have a taste of it, like one bite, and then eat something healthy.” She couldn’t have known, of course, what that meant to someone who just started eating again. We’d only just met. But food and talk of food was everywhere in Italy (unsurprisingly) and I could feel it taking over my life.
That’s when I met Saint Catherine.
I took a left out of my apartment, avoiding the waiter at the restaurant next door who always flirted with me, and headed toward San Domenico. I had snuck out without inviting my roommate, who had quickly become one of my best friends on the trip, because I wanted to be alone this time. I had a mission, and it had to be solitary. The weather had finally warmed up, and the mid-morning sun enabled me to leave my jacket at home as I maneuvered my way through the city. As I passed the bar where I ordered my morning cappuccino and cornetto in jumbled Italian, the owner called out a friendly “Ciao!” He seemed to appreciate my lame attempts at his native tongue, even though he ended up switching to English for my benefit after I struggled through a few phrases.
My approach so far in Siena had been to blend in – one of my attempts at reinventing myself – and this was doubled when I was alone. I tried to mimic the popular styles as much as possible, buying scarves from the local shops and leather bags in Florence. Skirts past the knees and shirts that covered my shoulders were essential for visits to cathedrals, which were basically daily at this point. Even still, I felt intrinsically (and embarrassingly) American. I couldn’t seem to shrug off my past, despite my best efforts.
San Domenico became my favorite place in Siena the moment I stepped inside, like stepping into a place from my past life. The hush that enveloped me as soon as the heavy wooden doors closed felt like a comforting hug. Inside its walls no one knew I couldn’t speak Italian, or that I barely knew my way around the city despite the fact that I had already been there for two weeks. No one cared, either. Everyone seemed to be experiencing the soft stillness that a holy place brings, regardless of religion or culture. A sense of peace settled around me, like a heavy quilt placed over my shoulders. Trancelike, everyone moved around each other, each in their own world.
This was my first time going alone, and I stared at the map on my phone as I turned down tiny city streets. I passed the stationary shop where I had purchased my notebooks for class, the book store where I bought a copy of The Name of the Rose for my older brother, and the grocery store where my roommates took turns buying fresh bread for dinner.
I rounded the corner, and there it was. A large, intimidating brick cathedral in the Gothic style, it dated back to the 1200s. Tourists clustered outside its doors. I weaved my way through the different tourist groups, overhearing snippets of English, Mandarin, French, and other languages I couldn’t recognize. It was busier than last time I had visited, and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to get a look at what I came for.
My worry was unfounded, though. Once I stepped into the large, open interior of the church there were few visitors. The high, vaulted ceiling further added to my feeling of smallness and inferiority – it was a welcome one. I felt myself relax, easing into a comfort I usually only find when I’m alone or with a close friend. I headed deeper into the building and toward the right wall. A lone woman was there, maybe around 40, kneeling in front of the altar. I knelt down a few feet away, not wanting to interrupt her conversation with the unseen, and hoping for my own.
I lifted my eyes, and there it was: what had brought me back to this church, this time alone. My exes fixated on the altar in front of me. Behind twisting gold bars, lit by harsh lighting from below, sat the severed head of Saint Catherine.
I didn’t know about Saint Catherine before arriving in Siena. I was raised Protestant rather than Catholic, and the Protestants aren’t big on saints. I read about Catherine for class, and my initial interest was an amalgamation of admiration, concern, and disgust. A saint, a mystic, a writer, she was as multifaceted as she is controversial. Born in 1347 to a wealthy couple who had already born twenty-two children (though not all of them had lived), her childhood is filled with fantastical stories about her relationship with the divine. She chopped off her hair when her mother told her she had to get married, determined to live for God instead of a man. She burned her skin with hot water and developed sores on her body, hoping to keep her male suitor at bay. It’s said she levitated down the stairs one day as a young girl, lifted by God.
When she was older she nursed plague victims during the Black Death. When she felt herself becoming overwhelmed by her revulsion, she fought it off by drinking pus from their diseased bodies. Her odd relationship with eating didn’t end there. She barely ate, fasting so much she stayed the size of a child her entire life. Her doctors scorned her for this, but she said she couldn’t eat. It was impossible. She shoved sticks down her throat and claimed that the only food she needed was waiting for her in heaven. By the end of her life, she only ate one thing a day – the wafer that stood for the body of Christ during the Eucharist.
She died in Rome at the age of 33, her physical form ravaged by a life of starvation. The people of Siena begged for the body of their Patron Saint to be returned to them, but instead, Rome cut off Catherine’s head and one of her fingers and kept the rest of her. Her head and finger sit in San Domenico, free for any visitors to see.
I like to think that when she died, Catherine sat in heaven and ate for a week straight.
Saint Catherine didn’t seem to hold the same appeal to the rest of my classmates that she held for me. I can’t really blame them for that. When given our assigned reading starring St. Catherine, most of my classmates found it to be quite revolting. I did too, of course. I read it while sitting on my bed, two feet away from my roommate as she listened to a podcast. I yelped when I got to the part about pus.
“Have you read this yet?” I asked her when she removed an earbud, no doubt curious as to what elicited my animalistic squeak.
“No, not yet. What, is it bad?”
“Dude, it’s gross.”
And it was gross. But during class discussion the following day, I felt the class’s desire to write St. Catherine off as a poor, sickly anorexic, and I felt oddly protective. I wanted to defend her. Yeah, she was sick. But that wasn’t all she was.
St. Catherine of Siena was a writer. She wrote and wrote and wrote – she wrote to the Pope in Avignon, pleading for his return to Rome. She wrote hundreds of letters. She wrote so much, in fact, and had such extensive knowledge of Catholic doctrine, that she was one of the first two women to be named by the Catholic Church a “Doctor of the Church.” She wasn’t just a great woman writer – she was a great writer. She held political influence, travelling all over the country to advocate for change. Why were we all talking about what she ate? Why weren’t we talking about the people she helped, about the impact she made?
I felt the same righteous indignation come over me that I feel when Sylvia Plath is written off as a depressed woman who killed herself, that I feel when Van Gogh is made out as the crazy painter who cut his ear off. Why was that all anyone could see?
The class was talking about fasting, the religious practice of going without food. I remained mostly silent throughout the discussion, struggling to translate my thoughts and feelings into words.
“People did that back then,” my professor explained. “Fasting was a sign of dedication to God. It was a rejection of the physical body for spiritual purposes.”
I raised my hand, feeling it tremble ever-so-slightly in the air. I didn’t know what I was going to say, but I had to say something. It felt imperative that I contribute in some way. When she called on me, I willed my voice to remain steadier than my hand. “They still do, though. People still fast for religious reasons. Like, I know someone who was hospitalized because they weren’t eating.” My heart pounded in my ears. “But they would make excuses and say it was fine, because Jesus did it.”
My professor nodded, a look of concern on her face.
“But,” I continued, “people will use anything to excuse not eating. If it’s not religious fasting it’s intermittent fasting – that’s the big thing right now – or Keto, or something else….” My words trailed off into nothingness, my brain unsure how to make my point. Maybe I didn’t have a point. “If someone is sick,” I struggled on, “then they’ll find a way to justify it.”
“Thanks, Victoria, that’s interesting,” my professor encouraged. I was overwhelmed. I didn’t say anything else.
On one of my last visits to San Domenico I bought a pendant with an image of St. Catherine on it. I can’t bring myself to wear it. My feelings on her are too complicated. I worry about the glorification of her starvation, the influence she could have on young girls who don’t know any better. But I also think about what she offered me – a home in a foreign city, comfort in a time of need, a figure to relate to as I sought to find my place.
She remained with me, occupying space in the back of my mind. During the rest of my time in Italy, I tried to eat without mentally calculating the calories and carbs of every particle of food I consumed. I drank a cappuccino when I wanted one instead of opting for green tea and put sugar in it without (too much) remorse. If I wanted two pastries for breakfast, I got two pastries for breakfast. If I wanted tiramisu after dinner, I got tiramisu after dinner and ate it with gusto. I had heaping helpings of pasta which I drank with wine (red and white).
If heaven is real, I hope St. Catherine is feasting.