Isidora vs. Catherine of Genoa

Welcome to the first matchup of the week AND the last battle of the Saintly Sixteen. The first will be last, and the last will be first, apparently, and all that. Today we return to the ever-confusing Confusion Corner quadrant of the bracket as Isidora the Simple faces Catherine of Genoa. You'll recall that to get to this round, Isidora defeated Simeon the Holy Fool while Catherine took out her namesake from Bologna.

If you missed the results of Friday's fracas, Ives of Kermartin reached the Elate Eight by taking down Dunstan 67% to 33%.

And, since it's Monday, you'll want to keep refreshing your browser all day until Monday Madness miraculously shows up at some point. But in the meantime, go vote!

In the fifth century CE, Lausus, chamberlain to Emperor Theodosius II of Byzantium, commissioned Palladius of Galatia to write a history of the Desert Fathers, which thankfully also happens to include some Desert Mothers in it. It is from Palladius’s account that we know the story of Isidora the Simple, who he calls, “The Nun who Feigned Madness.”

This single anecdote is the only record we have of Isidora. The text of the Lausiac History reads, “In this monastery there was another virgin who feigned madness and possession by a demon.” Here he records how the other nuns despised her, refusing to eat with her, and that she willingly undertook the dirtiest and most strenuous labor, so that they called her, "the monastery sponge." Instead of a tonsure or cowl, like the other religious wore, she donned rags on her head. Palladius reports she satisfied herself with crumbs and the scrapings from the kitchen pots she washed. And although she was treated cruelly by the other nuns, “Never did she insult anyone nor grumble nor talk either little or much.”

It is only when the holy anchorite Piteroum seeks her out at the behest of an angel that Isidora’s true nature is revealed. He goes to the monastery of the Tabennesiot women, seeking a nun wearing a crown on her head, who he has been told is holier and better than him.  When the nuns had presented themselves and still he hadn’t seen the one with the crown, he asked who was missing. They replied, "We have one within [who is] mentally afflicted.” Isidora did come when called, and “perhaps perceiving what was the matter, or even having had a revelation,” Palladius speculates she is intentionally ignoring the summons out of her humility.

When she finally meets him, he sees the rag on her forehead and falls to his knees, asking “Do you bless me?” Farcically, she also falls at his feet and asks, "Do you bless me, Master?" The nuns believe she is mocking or parroting him and call her sale, which means a holy fool. And Piteroum turns the insult on the women. "You are sale. For she is abbess to all of us.” The nuns, finally seeing Isidora for what she was—devout and humble, not possessed or deficient, confessed their cruelty toward her.

Isidora, “unable to bear her glory and the honor bestowed by the sisters, and burdened by their apologies,” left the monastery never to be seen again. In this simple story of Isidora, we see how even those committed to God can fail to understand true humility, yet when we truly see saintliness like Isidora’s, we can surrender our pride and repent.

—Amber Belldene

Catherine of Genoa

“Lenten fasts make me feel better, stronger, and more active than ever.”

So said Catherine of Genoa (1447 – 1510), and it is a fitting reflection for this season. Catherine’s spirituality was a deep and consuming mysticism – a personal connection to the Divine.

This deep, personal connection defined Catherine, as she put it: “My me is God nor do I recognize any other me except my God himself.”

This was not, for Catherine, a loss of self. Instead, it was an encounter with God’s love, a powerful and transforming force which became her guiding principle and source of meaning: “Love is a divine flame” and also “I shall never rest until I am hidden and enclosed in that divine heart wherein all created forms are lost, and, so lost, remain thereafter all divine; nothing else can satisfy true, pure, and simple love.”

Many a great mystic has written such words over the century while removed from daily life in a monastery or hermitage. But Catherine was immersed in the incarnate life – ministering to the sick in hospitals during the pandemics and plagues of 15th Century Italy. Reflecting on Catherine’s contribution to the world, in 2011 Benedict XVI said of her “the humble, faithful, and generous service in Pammatone Hospital that the Saint rendered throughout her life is a shining example of charity for all and encouragement, especially for women who, with their precious work enriched by their sensitivity and attention to the poorest and neediest, make a fundamental contribution to society and to the Church.”

Catherine applied her experience of God’s consuming love to the Medieval understanding of Purgatory. Rather than a land of fear and punishment, Catherine envisioned Purgatory as an even more personal encounter with the same powerful love she experienced:

“When God sees the Soul pure as it was in its origins, He tugs at it with a glance, draws it, and binds it to Himself with a fiery love that by itself could annihilate the immortal soul. In so acting, God so transforms the soul in Him that it knows nothing other than God; and He continues to draw it up into His fiery love until He restores it to that pure state from which it first issued.”

Even when it purifies and perfects, this love is not a source of fear but a joy and a motivation to living out our faith in the world. In Catherine’s words: “I find in myself by the grace of God a satisfaction without nourishment, a love without fear.”

With Catherine, may our Lenten fast lead us to encounter the Divine flame of God’s love, and drive us to a faith that is stronger and more active than ever.

--David Hansen

[poll id="324"]

Isidora: Wikimedia
Catherine: Vision of Saint Catherine, Marco Benefial, 1747


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79 comments on “Isidora vs. Catherine of Genoa”

  1. To poor Catherine, bereft and alone,
    Purgatory was something well-known.
    Ten long years as a bride
    Made her look deep inside
    Where she found that her saintliness shone.

    1. A remarkable poet, John Cabot!
      He makes hagiography habit.
      When we're voting for saints
      Vivid portraits he paints.
      Now I’ve one chance to thank him. I’ll grab it!

      1. Well done! This is probably the first (and only?) limerick containing the word 'hagiography'.

      2. Wow! Thank you, Emily! I agree with Jennifer; that is an excellent limerick, and slipping "hagiography" in without annoying the meter maid is pure lagniappe. I hope you'll write more.

        1. Perfect summation of Catherine's life! A daily contest isn't complete until your limerick has been added.

    2. Another jewel! When I am torn about voting, I often resort to your limericks to 'break the tie'. Thank you for sharing your gift with us.

  2. I cannot comprehend why Isadora feigned incomprehension. She demonstrated humility but in a way that led other nuns to sin, She was a victim enabler.

    1. Remember Jesus said to do good so that no B one could see. And the other nuns showed their true nature.

    2. As one who prefers to do work to the best of my ability and that in its self is the reward I totally get Isidora. And when she was made much of she took a hike. Victim enabler really that requires the glare of wintery disapproval

    3. She was simply exposing the sinful ways people treat those they deem deficient. As an autistic person who also struggles with anxiety disorder, I see Isidora as someone in deep solidarity with everyone despised because of their neurotype and/or mental illness.

    4. So if we are unkind to another person who is different, who might have a mental illness, who does not act as we expect or hope ~ it is the other person's fault that we are unkind? I think not.

    1. I was thinking the same thing--I wonder how tales like this get re-shaped over the years!

    2. As a cat lover I have always loved Smart's observation that his cat "is the servant of the living God" plus all the rest. Your reminding us of that part of Smart's "Jubilate Agno" put a much-needed smile on my face -- and my cats are pleased too!

      I voted today for Catherine because I found the description of her spirituality in today's bio so inspiring. But I have been really moved by everybody who's spoken up for Isadora and called attention to our self-gratifying, shameful tendency to judge others, especially when we think they're lacking or different.

    3. No, Isadora is not like Cinderella.
      And I very much doubt Disney would understand the depth and power of the Holy Fool tradition.
      I praise God for the wisdom of those who recognized, and have kept alive, the wisdom of Isadora's story. And voted for her.

  3. I suspect that there are many Isadoras in our lives, misjudged, defamed. I am glad to learn her story and take a second look at those I have ignored.

  4. The write up about Isidora serves as a reminder to those on the inner circle of church to beware of looking down on those who may seem "foolish."

    1. Thank you for this, Susan. I also voted for Isidora (well, assuming you did!) although I’m quite certain she will not win. Before she disappears, I want to say a bit more in her defense. I’m very grateful to Amber Belldene and all the celebrity bloggers for the wonderful work in helping us to know what we know from the historical record, but also to imagine what we can from that same source. In Isidora’s case, if we imagine out from the little that the historical record gives us, I wonder if one of the biggest challenges she might have faced was that the other nuns put her in a box, labeled her, because of her behavior. Without understanding her motivations or inner experiences, they (and her future biographers and hagiographers) labelled her “simple”—or “mad” or “insane”. How many of us in the past year have behaved in inexplicable ways that others might not understand—or have wanted to distance ourselves from others for a moment of peace? For me Isidora reminds me how little we can sometimes know of others experiences, but, if we are human, how close those experiences can be to our own--and how much we can learn from that also about ourselves.

      1. And some of us are still labeling her. . .do we never learn? Another voter called her a “victim enabler” today. Please.

      2. Thank you. I too am one of the minority who voted for Isidora, precisely because she colored outside of the lines of the coloring book we call the church. As Christopher Smart wrote in Jubilate Agno: For I binder the same accusation as my Saviour. For they said “he is beside himself.” May we all be equally “beside ourselves” as Kit Smart and Isidora.

        1. Who doesn't envy an underdog. I admire her humility. I, too, voted for Isidora. Wish that I could be as humble a servant.

        2. Christopher Smart's cat Jeoffrey was never "beside himself" but he could "wreath[e] his body seven times round with elegant quickness" and he could "camel his back to bear the first notion of business"; he was a most supple creature and a figure for divine reflection. "For he knows that God is his Saviour."

      3. Julia, I love what you said. I had a hard time choosing between the two but I am going to vote for Isidora now.

        1. Thanks, Story. I appreciate you saying that--and appreciate the words of everyone who has spoken up for Isidora. Remarkable women in today's contest.

  5. Thank you to both Amber and David for wonderful write-ups that lead me to pause and think more deeply about humility and purgatory.

  6. There is much to be learned from both lives. God’s love surrounds both women and each response is so different. Maybe this will encourage us to have more compassion for those fellow parishioners who exhibit faith and service in unique ways.

  7. My vote is for Isadora simply to honor her life. From the description given she does sound like she was indeed mentally ill and not well liked because of her peculiar ways. Voting for her today is my way of saying that we are all Gods beloved, no matter what our disability or the relational challenges that brings to others in our circle. I am reminded of a particular woman from our parish that many, frankly, did not know how to best be in fellowship with her and so avoided her. She was a dear woman who loved Jesus, but didnt express that in a way others felt comfortable with. I'm very sure, however, that Jesus loves her dearly and was/is quite pleased by her love for him.

  8. Isadora. Overlooked due to her strange manners, even when identified as holy, her humility overcame her. God loves/loved her no matter what disability she had.We must be reminded of her when we see people who are considered quite odd or unloveable and know that that too are loved by the Holy One.

  9. Whay am I so drawn to the extreme (holy?) reitcence of this saint (Isadora)? Might it be that she was filled with that which Catherine of Genoa was seeking and writing? (Not intending to create a competition between them.)

  10. Isadora's stories refer to her as feigning mental affliction but there is nothing there that indicates that she ever stopped oe that she was ever anything but mentally afflicted. I am wondering if the only way she could get any credit for her saintliness was if she was feigning mental affliction rather than actually being so. In other words still being misjudged. I am voting for her in honor of the people with "mental affliction" who have taught me much about humility, faith, courage, strength, joy, and hope.

  11. "Isidora did come when called, and “perhaps perceiving what was the matter, or even having had a revelation,” Palladius speculates she is intentionally ignoring the summons out of her humility."

    The line above from Amber Belldene's write up for Isadora the Simple seems contradictory. Is suspect it should read "Isidora did not come when called, . . ." which would better fit the "intentionally ignoring" part later on in the sentence. Or maybe it was supposed to indicate that she had been called earlier along with all the other sisters, but did not come until this time, after the monk had met all the other nuns and is missing the words, such as 'this time' at the beginning of the line, that would clearly indicate that.

  12. My problem with Isadora is that, like so many stories of saints of that period, her biography is just a little over the top, and reads more like a romance than a presentation of facts . I prefer my saints to be human rather than being so super-human one could never aspire to be like them As an example, one of my favourite saints is Teresa of Avila, who, when reproved by one of her more ascetic companions in the convent because she, Teresa, was thoroughly enjoying a dinner of partridge, riposted with, "There's a time for piety and a time for partridge. This is the time for partridge." Catherine, who is much more real to me, gets my vote this time as she did in the Saintly Smackdown.

    1. Gaen, are you familiar with Benjamin Britten's setting of "Rejoice in the Lamb"? It's lovely!

    2. I agree. I view Isadora as a well told tale by the males who wrote Church history. Be humble, ye women, submit, serve, ask nothing for yourself; only then will God the father look favorably upon you. Her sister nuns are exonerated once they buy this teaching.
      It’s not about kindness to the mentally disabled, they being the beloved children of God, at all. It’s about female piety being tied to subjugation. Catherine for me.

  13. I voted today for Catherine in thanksgiving for all those who are ministering in hospitals during the pandemic, and also because I would love to sit and listen to Catherine speak about faith and share more of her insights. I am saddened that she is recognised more for her service than for her intellect.

  14. Sorry, but according to what was written, Isidora chose to encourage fellow nuns to be cruel to her in order to be the humblest of the humble, and thus to win the saintliness prize. Yes, it sounds as if she was mentally ill, but unlike many other mentally-questionable saints (Francis comes to mind), her illness did not result in good for other people. "By their fruits you will know them" works for me.

  15. Catherine of Genoa's story was of becoming spiritual after 10 years of a bitterly neglected, unhappy, childless marriage. Afterward, her husband finally went bankrupt & then took the unexpected turn of becoming spiritual. Together, they ministered to the sick in a Late Middle Ages hospital in the large port city of Genoa. Catherine even took significant managerial & financial responsibilities in running the ever-busy hospital.

    I always re-read the initial Lent Madness write-ups that have information about the saints who have made it past the original 32. Sometimes other websites add worthwhile facts -- or parts of legends.

  16. As I posted previously, for hundreds of years, people with mental retardation or decreased
    capacity were shunned, tormented and physically abused by family and general society. Finally,
    progress has been made and while abuse still continues in some places, schools and organizations
    have taken the place of those who fear differences. If you want to experience pure joy, love and
    compassion - attend a Special Olympics...the competitors exhibit the above and more!
    Yeah for Isidora!

  17. Oh To have the great flame of love that Catherine had would be a joyous experience. Her great love for God gets my vote.

  18. While Isidora is like the Saintly Cinderella, I voted for Catherine, the mystic who stayed in the world. I love her passion for connection with God while serving others. I'm all in for her!

  19. In many ways a hard choice, but reading of Catherine's view of Purgatory and sense of being drawn up into God's "fiery love" struck me like a huge bell ringing in a tall church tower.

  20. "A virgin who feigned madness and possession by a demon.” We would call that today "hysteria," thanks to Freud. And it wouldn't be a feint; it would be a condition of self-loathing and self-displacement due to abuse or trauma or patriarchal repression. Freud worked with Dora, but it could have been this early Isi-Dora. If only Isi could have found a sympathetic ear within the monastery to work out a talking cure; it's too bad Piteroum didn't take on that task. As an anchorite, he held that function: from within his cell to listen to people and give counsel. Like an ancient psychotherapist. This "simple story" sounds much more like a literary stick with which to beat a community of women for being Madchen in Uniform instead of docile wives. Very convenient that Isi disappeared in a puff of smoke after shaming a community of women. I went with Catherine of Genoa for a number of reasons, one of which was her Purgatory-positive vision of the afterlife. Perhaps she had read Dante's Divine Comedy, wherein the souls in Purgatory gladly and faithfully perform their labors of repentance, and where there are shouts of angelic joy when each soul casts off the bonds of the old level and breaks through to a new and higher level of ascent to the heavenly vision.

  21. Thank you Linda for your beautiful, thoughtful reply about how we experience and treat those with mental illness or odd behavior. My mother’s mental illness greatly impacted how she was treated by nursing home staff, her assisted living facility and a hospice nurse who evaluated her at the end of her life as she died, in great pain, from stage four lung cancer. Her odd way of expressing her pain was laughed at and interpreted as being combative, so no one wanted to deal with her. In the last 24 hours of her life, another hospice nurse immediately sent her to our local hospice house and she died with dignity, free of pain. It has been five years and I have been planning to write an article about this experience, and include interviews with NIMH.

  22. Catherine's words regarding the Lenten fast rang a bell for me today. This year has been challenging and I find myself counting the days; Catherine has helped me renew my determination to keep reading and praying and to avoid the sugar.

  23. I love Catherine's grace-filled vision of purgatory! It embodies the "wideness in God's mercy" which I strive to trust in ... even for those figures in times both present and historic for whom I struggle to feel merciful.
    Isidora's story, even if the seeds of factual truth in it are hard to discern, is a very helpful reminder to us all to see all of our neighbors as perfect and beloved of God, and to treat them accordingly. But my vote today goes to Catherine.