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Setting the World on Fire: The Brief, Astonishing Life of St. Catherine of Siena by Shelley Emling: A Book Review

Setting the World on Fire: The Brief, Astonishing Life of St. Catherine of Siena
Author: Shelley Emling
Genre: Nonfiction, History, Biography, Religion
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Release Date: April 5, 2016
Pages: 256
Source: Netgalley/Publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Synopsis: One of only two patron saints of Italy, the other being St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine was ahead of her time. As a political powerhouse in late 14th century Europe, a time of war, social unrest and one of the worst natural disasters of all time--the plague, she worked for peace between Christians while campaigning for a holy crusade against Muslims. She was illiterate but grew into a great writer by dictating to assistants. She was frail and punished herself mercilessly, often starving herself, while offering moral guidance and inspiration to kings, queens and popes.

     It's easy to see why feminists through the years have sought to claim the patronage of St. Catherine. From her refusal to marry to her assertion that her physical appearance was of no importance, the famous Saint is ripe for modern interpretation. She was a peacemaker during Siena's revolution of 1368, sometimes addressing thousands of people in squares and streets; she convinced Pope Gregory XI to return the papacy to Rome at a time when the Catholic Church was unraveling.

     How did this girl, the second-youngest of 25 children of a middle-class dyer, grow to become one of the most beloved spiritual figures of all time, a theological giant to rank alongside the likes of Thomas Aquinas? In Setting the World on Fire, Emling gives an intimate portrayal of this fascinating and revolutionary woman.

     My Review: St. Catherine of Siena was not only one of the Catholic Church’s greatest mystic, she was also one of its greatest writers. She wrote a book called Dialogues, a conversation between God and the human soul about spiritual life. She is also one of the few women that was given the title of Doctors of the Church. In this biography of the saint, this novel focuses on her accomplishments as well as her struggles.

     St. Catherine of Siena was the daughter of a wool dyer. She was known as a happy child. When she was six years old, she received a vision of Jesus that profoundly changed her life. After this, she became melancholic. She also defied her family by not marrying and instead devoted her life to God, which eventually her family supported her. Soon, Catherine attracted a large group of followers and eventually she became involved in the political and social matters of the church. One of her accomplishments was that she brought Pope Gregory XI back to Rome. For seventy years, the popes left Rome and established their pontiff in Avignon, France. However, her accomplishment was short lived, for Pope Gregory died, and this divided the Church which led to the Great Schism, an event that spanned for four decades where the Catholic Church had two popes. Yet, while this event distressed her, she nevertheless continued to be a prolific secant of the church.

     Overall, this biography focused on St. Catherine of Siena’s legacies as well as disappointments. This novel only focuses on the basics of St. Catherine’s life, and I would have liked for the biographer to give more details to certain events of her life. However, this book was a quick and easy read. I recommend this book for the general reader and for those who do not know much about St. Catherine of Siena. Setting the World on Fire is a great tribute for a woman who worked until her dying breath to reform the Catholic Church and to try to bring about peace and prosperity.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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