June 4, 2020
Catherine of Siena, one of the four “real saints” of the West identified by Meher Baba, was born in 1347, the year the bubonic plague first arrived in Europe. A generation later, in 1374, the plague returned. By one description, “it struck like lightning. A man would be well in the morning and dead before evening.” A third of the population of Siena died. While most people fled the city, Catherine, now in her late twenties, and a small group of devoted companions whom she called “the Beautiful Brigade” remained, working with the sick and the dying, offering whatever help they could. During the plague, Catherine worked closely with Father Matteo di Cenni, the rector of Mercy Hospital, whom she loved very much. While tending his patients, Father Matteo himself was stricken. He took to his sickbed, made his last confession, and prepared himself for the inevitable. When Catherine learned of his condition, she hastened to the hospital. Bursting into his room, she cajoled him, “Get up Father! Have something to eat. There’s work to be done. This is not the time to be lying in bed!”. The priest, who had been near death, was so surprised that he got up! Discovering that he was completely free from pain and fever, he returned quickly to work. There are many such anecdotes about St. Catherine. She has been called “embodied fire”, aflame with love for God. She radiated joy and compassion for all, and at the same time she was boldly outspoken, intensely practical, and brooked no compromise. A being whose love for God left no room for fear, her bright cheer inspired everyone around her to excel, even in the midst of chaos and at the height of the epidemic. One of her well-known mottos was “Love does not stay idle.” I was reminded of St. Catherine while reading about the great influenza pandemic in the autumn of 1918, just as the First World War was ending. Then, as now, there was a serious shortage of nurses in the hospitals to care for the rapidly increasing numbers of the sick. In Philadelphia, the Catholic archbishop of the city urged his nuns to leave their convents and care for those suffering. Though they had no medical training, 2,000 nuns volunteered. According to one account: They signed on for 12-hour shifts, navigating the unfamiliar streetcar system through a city made still with fear… They tended to stricken men, crammed 30 to a ward, with the dirt from their factory jobs still smeared on their faces and hands. Hallucinating patients tried to climb out of windows, tore at the bedsheets, threw glass tumblers at their nurses and begged God for mercy. In private homes, the sisters found parents dead in their beds while their hungry children cried in the next room. “The windows were closed tightly, and we felt we could taste the fever,” one nun recalled later. The epidemic in Philadelphia lasted about six weeks, during which 12,000 people died. Of the 2,000 nuns who had volunteered, only twenty-three passed away. Like St. Catherine, the nuns of Philadelphia gave living expression to Meher Baba’s words: Those who have been initiated into the eternal values of inner life must assume the responsibility of driving away unwarranted gloom and depression and cheering those who are in deep sorrow. When crisis is upon one, let one's thoughts not be for self, but for others—for the claims of the divine Self which exists equally in all. In His Grace, Murshida  Kiley Bense, “The Nuns of 1918”, New York Times, March 20, 2020.  Listen, Humanity (1967 printing.), p. 140.