I think Lay Siege to Heaven is the best of de Wohl’s books. He has always done his homework on the historical context for any of his books and there’s a great deal of history here, but in this book he seems to have a strong understanding of Catherine Benincasa and her mother which gives a strong, three dimensional figure to both women. The books isn’t really about Mona Lapa Benincasa but she is there and you can’t help getting to know her.
Louis de Wohl does not give us a sloppy plaster saint, but rather a woman of fire and energy driven by her love of God and His demands on her. He treats her relationship with God well and seems to have a good grip on the miraculous happenings from her intersession. I particularly love the way she seems to tell the hospital doctor off for being lazy lying dead in bed. Up he gets – plague free and alive again – and sets about his work with the same gusto she had with her care of the plague victims crowding the hospital and town of Sienna.
De Wohl does not shy away from the terrible mess the Church was in, with weak, comfort loving Popes keeping the Bride in her Babylonian Captivity in Avignon. The greed, simony and vice of the whole Avignon set up is made clear by de Wohl who has his information from history, the writings of St. Catherine’s friend Fra Raymond Capua and from Catherine’s amazing and at times rather shocking letters.
For the last ten years of her life (she died at the age of 33) Catherine ate nothing but the Eucharist. She is not the only saint who has been a living proof of the life of the Bread of Life. There’s a touching scene in the book in which the Pope, to test Catherine’s obedience, asks her if she would eat something should he command her.
She says she would obey him and eat whatever he commanded, but she could not obey him if he asked her to keep it down. She had eaten less and less over the years as food immediately came back until she stopped eating altogether.
There is a great deal of historical and biographical information on St. Catherine of Siena as well as the historical record of the years of her life. De Whol has been faithful to this giving the book it’s authenticity.
He touches briefly on her relationship with St. Bridget of Sweden and her daughter St. Katrin of Vadstena (aka St Catherine of Sweden). There’s a moment when she had asked Katrin to negotiate with the awful Queen Joanna of Naples and Katrin still smarting from what had happened to her older brother Karl, refused.
The Church has produced a few very great saints and St. Catherine of Siena is one of the greatest.
A chapel built on a rock in the grounds of the St. Malo retreat centre is named for her and was visited by Bl. Pope John Paul II. Recently a massive flood and mudslide destroyed a lot in the area although the floods came right up to the rock the chapel remained untouched. Catherine weathered the storms that hit the Church in her era, and those storms were great as the Popes were so weak. But she prevailed and at last the pope returned to Rome where he belonged and the beginning of the renewal could take place. There are many times over the 2000 years since Christ established His Church on Peter -Kephas- the rock and the apostles that the storms and flood waters looked to destroy her; but His promise stands firm.