On John 14:2 for the Feast of St. Catherine of Siena

The House of Catherine of Siena -photo by Gryffindor, used under license, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ File:House_Catherine_Siena_Apr_2008.jpg

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” (John 14:2) or “mansions” as the King James Version has it. The image is beautiful and has spawned many a lyric. There’s the song sung by Elvis Presley— “In my father’s house are many mansions/If it were not true he would have told me so/He has gone away to live in that bright city/He’s preparing me a mansion there I know.”  There’s folk-singer Pete Seeger ‘s progressive version: “My Father’s mansion’s many rooms/Have room for all of His children/As long as we do share His love/And see that all are free.”

I don’t voluntarily listen to country and western music—unless I’m stuck in a car driving across Texas—but there’s also someone with the improbable name of Moe Bandy who has apparently written a song that goes like this: “In my father’s house [are] many mansions/Though tonight some make their bed along the streets.”  There’s also the exuberance of the Mississippi Mass Choir singing: “I’m leaving my house/On my way to god’s house/My house is decaying ya see/but in my father’s house/ there are many mansions/And one of them belongs to me.” Or in Bob Dylan’s turn as a Christian singer, there’s a sly reference: “They say in your father’s house, there’s many mansions/Each one of them got a fireproof floor.”

However, none of these contemporary songs really do justice to the gospel text: “dwelling place” is a much better translation than “mansion.”  For the King James Version translators, the word “mansion” did not mean a large and luxurious home; it simply meant “a dwelling place” or, more specifically, “a dwelling place within a larger house” (See Shorter OED). But popular culture didn’t catch onto the changed meaning of the English word “mansion.” And so, “preparing a place” in one of those “mansions” came to mean, in the popular imagination at least, restoring the balance between the have’s and the have-not’s—“dwelling place” became, in pop culture, a heavenly McMansion to be doled out in compensation for earthly deprivation.  Now, I don’t doubt that such a putting-right of want and injustice will indeed take place. But I don’t think that is really what this morning’s gospel passage is actually getting at: rather, it is about union with the Lord in the bosom of the Father, which can occur as well—maybe better—in a cell as in a mansion. 

Our text falls in John’s gospel after a section in which the Lord has described the death that he must undergo, and his words are comfort for the understandably anxious disciples.  The disciples fear that the Lord’s death will be the end. Only in retrospect would it be possible for them to fully comprehend the words of Jesus. Experience will eventually make it clear:  the Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection will bring the indwelling Spirit, and Jesus will be with them always (cf. Matt. 28:20), intimately united with them in his Church—a union dramatically realized in the Most Blessed Sacrament.  Only in retrospect would they see the place prepared as an extension of the intimacy they have already enjoyed.  So, yes, the place that Jesus goes to prepare certainly has its eschatological aspect, but isn’t there a foretaste to be experienced while still on the way?

Catherine of Siena, who we commemorate today, describes how we might begin in the here and now to move into that dwelling place prepared for us, how we might begin to move into a state of union with the way, the truth, and the life.  In a dream, she heard the Lord saying to her: 

“Do you know, daughter, who you are and who I AM?  If you know these two things you have beatitude in your grasp.  You are she who is not, and I AM HE WHO IS.  Let your soul become penetrated with this truth, and the Enemy can never lead you astray” (in the Legenda ).

It’s such a simple thing to say (beatitude results from self-knowledge and from knowledge of God), but throughout the remainder of her brief life, Catherine returned over and over to this fundamental point, trying to plumb the profundity of her dream, developing its implications in her Dialogue and letters. In order to be “united with and transformed in God,” she says, we must “dwell within the cell of […]our soul[s].”  And then, in one of her charmingly mixed-up metaphors, she tells us that within the cell of our souls is a well which at first appears dry, filled with earth.  On descending into the well, we find earth and water: “in the earth we recognize our own poverty: we see that we are not.  For we are not. We see that our being is from God. ” The earth in the well within the cell of the soul is self-knowledge.  We see ourselves as we are—radically dependent on God for our very being.  But the cell’s well’s earth reminds us not only that we are entirely dependent upon Him for our existence, but also that we are broken and sinful.  But, as we excavate the well, we also discover the water: the “ineffable blazing charity” of God toward His unruly creatures:  “I see next that as we discover the earth we get to the living water, the very core of the knowledge of God’s true and gentle will which desires nothing else but that we be made holy.” Catherine later calls the soul “a dwelling place [that] is spiritual and [that] you carry … with you constantly.”

So, in one sense, when Jesus says that he goes to prepare a place for his disciples in that House with many mansions, he is offering his disciples something far more than a consolation prize for having had no earthly place to lay their heads during this life.  He is offering them a dwelling forever with Him in beatitude. And, in another sense, there’s no need to wait for the hereafter, because it’s here today. No need to call the movers, just enter the cell, climb down into the well, face the earthy self, and let the grace of God flood in.


About theMB

I have studied or worked at church-related institutions of higher education for more than thirty years. Although I am a professional librarian, now serving as the Director of the library at Nashotah House Theological Seminary, the focus of my personal study and research has increasingly been in the area of Ascetical Theology. I now teach courses in that discipline in Nashotah House's distance learning programs.
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One Response to On John 14:2 for the Feast of St. Catherine of Siena

  1. avatar Cliff Thurber says:

    Good afternoon Dr.Sherwood- I finally got a chance to review your post in Saint Catherine. Thank you- I found this relevant for several reasons. The first is that I was blessed by being able to visit Sienna, Italy about 15 years ago and while there went to visit the relic of Saint Catherin’s hand. It was remarkable in its setting. The second is that I have just finished my contemplative prayer and some of the images that she uses are identifiable, at least for me.

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