The Orthodox Pages

email: pater@christopherklitou.com 

TALK ON WOMEN SAINTS

 THE GREAT MARTYR ST CATHERINE

THE ALL-WISE OF ALEXANDRIA

  26th May 2011

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Last week we saw the life of St. Mary Magdalene and sieved out the truths and lies associated with her name. Mary is honoured by the Church with the title “Equal to the Apostles”. Today we will look at the life of one of the Church’s female great-martyrs. This is our last talk of the season, but when we return in the autumn it would be good to continue with this series of women saints and see a female saint from the monastic rank of saints. Today I have chosen as a representative of the female great martyrs St. Catherine of Alexandria who is honoured by the Church with the added epithet “The All-wise”. St. Catherine is one of the best known and best loved of the female saints in both east and west. In the Roman Catholic Church she is numbered among the Fourteen Holy Helpers who are a group of saints venerated as the most helpful saints in heaven because their intercession is believed to be particularly effective, especially against various diseases.
St. Catherine was one of the most influential saints in the religious culture of the late middle ages, and arguably considered the most important of the virgin-martyrs. Her power as an intercessor was renowned, and firmly established in most versions of her legend, in which she specifically entreats God at the moment of her death to answer the prayers of those who invoke her name. The development of her medieval cult was spurred by the reported rediscovery of her body around the year 800 at Mount Sinai, with hair still growing and a constant stream of healing oil (Myron) emitting from her body. Throughout the centuries she was unceasingly praised by preachers and sung by poets. The devotion to St. Catherine made her the patroness of young women, philosophers, preachers, theologians, wheelwrights, millers, and other workingmen. Theologians, apologists, pulpit orators, and philosophers implored her intercession before studying, writing, or preaching, they besought her to illumine their minds, guide their pens, and impart eloquence to their words.
Before we look at who St. Catherine was, something must be said about the authenticity of the various texts containing not only the legend of St. Catherine, but for all saints in general especially the great martyrs of the early centuries. Many contemporary hagiographers look upon the authenticity of the various texts on the lives of the saints as more than doubtful. It is true that during the middle ages narrators used a lot of their imagination to charm their readers and to stimulate devotion to a particular saint by recitals of the marvellous and extraordinary. Much of what was said and done by the saints cannot be proved, for example, in the life of St. Catherine there are long discourses supposed to have been said by the saint. These are not to be taken literally as a word for word quote by the saint. Some of the dialogue is true but some was guesswork at what might have been said and was added to embellish the storyline. This doesn’t mean that the story should be rejected as pure fiction. The principal facts forming the outline are to be accepted as true and without any doubt testify that St. Catherine was a real person who martyred for Christ in an terrible era of persecution which we cannot even begin to fathom.
St. Catherine was born of noble birth in the Greek speaking great city of Alexandria in Egypt. It is said that she was of royal blood and was a descendant of the Ptolemy Kings of Egypt. Her father was named Constans and according to a Cypriot tradition, he was governor of Cyprus and was then transferred to Alexandria. His brother remained in Cyprus and when Catherine’s father died it is said that she came over to Cyprus to be with her uncle. When he discovered that she was sympathetic to the Christian religion he had her imprisoned firstly at Salamina and then in Paphos and was then sent back to Alexandria. Today in Cyprus near the cemetery of the ancient city of Salamina, there is a prison known as the prison of St. Catherine. As I said this is a Cypriot tradition and is not found in most legends of St. Catherine.
From a young age Catherine had a great yearning for studying and through her reading she was well learned in Greek and Roman culture and science. She studied the great poets Homer and Virgil, she studied medicine and read Hippocrates, Galen and Philistion, but most of all she occupied herself studying the great philosophers like Aristotle, Plato and Socrates. She was well leaned in the art of rhetoric and was an eloquent speaker. She was also well leaned in many languages. In fact she was so bright and full of wisdom that people who saw and heard her remained astounded. On top of all this it is said that she was of exceptional beauty.
With such beauty and wisdom all in one package so to speak, many rich and powerful young men with families in high places sought Catherine’s hand in marriage. But Catherine refused every suitor saying that she had decided to live her life in solitude as a virgin. Her mother, a secret Christian, but influenced by other relatives, pressured her daily saying that she must marry and have children so that there would be descendants to carry on the family titles of honour. To put a stop to all the pressure and find peace, Catherine said to her mother and relatives: “If as you say I have qualities over and above other girls then find me a young man who surpasses me in nobility, wealth, comeliness, wisdom and education and I will marry him. But if he lacks any of these qualities be sure that I will not marry him.” Many suitors were found, but no one came near to having the same qualities that Catherine possessed let alone surpassing them.
Eventually, her mother, seeing that she couldn’t persuade her to marry, sent Catherine for advice to her own spiritual father—a saintly elder pursuing prayerful deeds in solitude in a cave not far from the city. Having listened to Catherine, the elder said that he knew of a youth who surpassed her in everything, such that “His nobility is second to none, his beauty more radiant than the sun, his wisdom governed all creation and his wealth beyond anything anyone could imagine. Catherine, thinking that he was speaking of an earthly man was surprised and asked if there was really such a person. When the elder reassured her that there was indeed such a person, Catherine asked if she could see and meet with this person. You can he replied, but you must listen carefully to what I will tell you. He gave her an Icon of the Mother of God holding the infant Jesus in her arms and told her to go home and close the door of her room and there to pray all night to the Mother of God to guide and enlighten her and tomorrow to return to continue their discussion.
Catherine did as the old man told her. She prayed all night, but being tired, she eventually fell asleep. In a dream she saw the Most Holy Virgin with the holy infant in her arms who radiated more than the sun, but Catherine couldn’t see his face because he was facing his Mother. In her dream Catherine moves around to try and see his face from another angle, but each time Christ turns his face in the opposite direction. The Holy Virgin then tells him to look upon Catherine and see how beautiful she is. But the child continues to look away saying that she is dark and ugly and cannot bear to look upon her. But his mother continues: “she is so beautiful and wiser than all the philosophers, she is more noble and wealthy than all the other young girls of the city.” And Christ replied: “She is uneducated, a beggar and worthy of contempt. As long as she is in this condition I will not allow her to see my face.” My child, added the Mother of God, don’t despise her, but help and guide her how she may see your bright face. At this Christ said: “tell her to go back to the elder who gave her the Icon and he will advice her in what she must do. Only in this way will she see my face and feel inexpressible joy and find happiness.”
Early in the Morning Catherine returned again to the elder, deeply saddened, and told him of the dream she saw. The Elder instructed her in the faith of Christ, and Catherine listened with great care. Her wise mind and sensitive heart realized the truth of what the Elder was telling her and asked to be baptized. After receiving baptism from the Elder, Catherine returned home and that night she had another dream. Again she saw the Mother of God with the infant Christ in her arms, but this time he gazed at her with a sweet and loving smile. The Holy Virgin asked him “how does the young maiden seem now?” and he answered: “Now she is bright and glorious, wealthy and all-wise. I see nothing of her old self upon her; the darkness has gone, her ugliness has disappeared, she is no more a beggar to be reviled; she is full of grace and virtue. Now I agree and decide to take her as my betrothed as my incorrupt bride.” In her dream Catherine sees herself falling to the ground with tears saying: “My Lord, I am not worthy to see thy kingdom, but make me worthy to be thy humble servant.” She then sees the Mother of God take her right hand saying: “My Son, give her the ring, that you may be wed, and make her worthy of thy heavenly kingdom.” Christ then puts a ring on her finger and tells her: “Today I receive you as my bride. Preserve this agreement between us and do not receive another earthly bridegroom.” With these words Catherine awoke from her dream and saw that on her finger was truly the ring Christ had given her in her dream. In remembrance of this first miracle, pilgrims visiting St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt are given a silver ring as a blessing.
From that moment on Catherine dedicated herself wholeheartedly to Christ. Her newly embraced faith made a big impression on everyone in Alexandria. She tried to do as many good works as she could to please her Bridegroom Christ. Christ had become her whole life, she continually thought of Christ, she studied Christ; she lived for Christ and worked unceasingly for Christ. She became an exemplary example of a Christian virgin, but there was pain in her heart when see saw that other maidens and a great many people were still in the darkness of paganism, without yet knowing Christ. She therefore gave herself completely to preaching the Christian faith. With her example and her eloquence of speech, she drew many citizens of Alexandria. Like a fisherman, she threw her net towards the upper classes - the nobility, the wealthy families and well educated. But things were not so easy and without danger. During the time that Catherine lived, Christianity was ruthlessly persecuted. If anyone openly admitting that he was a Christian, it was tantamount to writing his own death sentence. He would first be interrogated and then the trials of martyrdom would begin which were quite frightful and always ended in death. In spite of these terrible sufferings the Christian martyrs remained steadfast to their faith in Christ and would finish their earthly life with the name of Christ on their lips.
During the time of Catherine, the Roman Emperor was Maximinus II Daia who is described by ancient historians as a vicious, boorish, uneducated tyrant known for his brutal persecution of the Christians. He was a pagan fanatic who demanded that everyone even babies were to attend the public sacrifices to the state gods.
At this time the emperor Maximinus was in Alexandria for a pagan feast day. He wanted to make this feast especially splendid and sent a general order for everyone in Alexandria and the surrounding region to come and for each to bring a sacrifice. Whosoever dared to ignore the command would be punished severely. The day came for the great sacrifice and the emperor himself sacrificed 130 bulls. He was followed by the lords and other nobility. The cries of the sacrificial animals, the smoke and the smell of the sacrifices, the endless blazing of fires, and the bustling crowds at the arenas filled Alexandria. Seeing the crowds running in fear to sacrifice to the idols against their wish, Catherine was deeply saddened because she knew that at that moment many Christians were out of fear betraying their faith and losing their souls. She took it upon herself to persuade them not to give up faith. She went around the city encouraging the Christians not to offer sacrifice and not to attend the pagan festival. Even to the pagans she tried to persuade them that it was stupid and senseless to sacrifice and worship lifeless statues made of stone and wood which had no power. Catherine foresaw that Alexandria would not only be flowing with the blood of bulls, but also of many Christians who resisted and didn’t break under torture.

The saint's love for the Christian martyrs and her fervent desire to lighten their fate impelled Catherine to go to the pagan temple and seek out the persecutor emperor Maximinus. See reached the main entrance to the temple and asked to speak with him in person. Maximinus saw her and ordered the guards to let her in. She bowed as was fitting before the emperor and introduced herself. Then with boldness the saint confessed her faith in the one true God and with wisdom denounced the errors of the pagans. She quoted philosophers whom the emperor admired and showed him that even they said that the gods he worshipped were man made. They were just men who were renowned for their heroic acts and statues were made to honour and remember them: statues which now he bowed down to as gods. The emperor was full of anger that Catherine had insulted his gods, but at the same time he was captivated by her beauty and wisdom. He remained silent for a while not knowing how to confront her. He then ordered her to wait until after the sacrifices had been made and then he would listen to what she had to say.
After the pagan festival, the emperor ordered that Catherine be brought before him. He listened to her as she tried to persuade him to put aside the pagan gods and accept Christ the one true God. Maximinus saw that before him stood a wise young girl skillful in the use of words and that he was no match for her. He feared that he would be shamefaced before her and so justified himself saying that it was not permitted for the Emperor to discuss with women, but he would gather the wisest men in the empire who would make her realize that she was deluded and mistaken about his gods.
Catherine was placed under guard and remained confined until the Emperor sent out letters to all the wise men of the empire asking them to come to Alexandria and with their wisdom to convince a wise young girl who ridiculed the gods of the superiority of pagan wisdom. For this they would be rewarded handsomely. 150 (some accounts say 50) wise and learned men responded to the Emperor’s request and appeared before him. Maximinus told them to not make the mistake that they would be dealing with just some ordinary girl. She was a skilful opponent and they should carefully prepare beforehand the arguments they would use to convince her. He also warned that if they were not successful they would be humiliated and put to death.
The order was given for the people to gather at the amphitheatre to witness the public discussion between the wisest of the empire and the wise Catherine. Before Catherine was lead from her prison to the amphitheatre, it is said that she was visited by the Archangel Michael who told her not to be afraid. God would give her knowledge and wisdom and she would get the better of the 150 wise men. They in turn would be converted to the Christian faith and receive crowns of martyrdom.
Catherine was brought into the amphitheatre and the wisest of the sophists began the discussion saying: “so you are the person who has insulted our gods.” Catherine replied: “I am, but I did not insult them, I just spoke the truth. My wisdom is given me by the true God of the Christians. He is light and with him their is love and righteousness. Tell me what is your opinion about your gods because their lives are full of hate, enemies and shameful acts.” The sophist replied: “You are mistaken, Our Gods have been praised by great poets; the incomparable Homer calls Zeus the Great god and the others as immortals.” At this Catherine replied: “don’t forget, O wise man, that Homer does not only say this about Zeus, but in many places he calls him a liar, a manipulator, and a cunning deceiver. We see in your false gods fearful passions, jealousies and hatred, one plotting against the other. When they fight against each other who’s side do you take without offending the other? Catherine continued to show them how their gods were full of human passions and introduced them to the teaching of Christ and that he is the creator of the world and how he became a man to save mankind. The wise man remained speechless and as though his mind at that moment received enlightenment, he agreed that Catherine was correct in all that she said.
Seeing what had happened, the emperor was raging with anger not only because the wisest of his wise was put down by Catherine, but more so because he had changed sides and believed in the God that Catherine had spoken of. He then ordered the other wise men to confront her, but they refused: no one wanted to continue the discussion. They all agreed that the best person won and took Catherine’s side saying that: “how can we confront her words which are so true?
This sent the shamefaced emperor into a raging madness and he ordered for a fire to be lit in the main city square and to burn the 150 sophists. Catherine told them that they were blessed; they had come out of the darkness and entered the light. The fire that awaits you is a baptism and it is a door that will lead you to peace and eternal happiness. After encouraging them she made the sign of the cross on each of their foreheads and sent them to their martyrdom. The soldiers took the 150 sophists and one by one threw them onto the burning fire. In the evening certain pious Christians came to take what was left of their remains and were greatly surprised. The men were indeed dead, but their bodies remained untouched by the fire that not even a single hair was burnt. The Christians took their bodies and buried them. The memory of these wise sophists is remembered by the church on the 17th of November or on the 25th November the same day as St. Catherine.
When Maxininus saw that he couldn’t win using wisdom, he decided to win Catherine over using other tactics. He began to complement her and entice her with the promise of riches and fame. He promised to make her his queen and would give her half his kingdom and she would live with him in palaces. Catherine was not to be taken in by this new approach and told him that she was already married to Christ and would take no other husband. Her only desire was to be with him and that she desired martyrdom far more than the glory and riches of earthly kingdoms. At this the emperor ordered her to be stripped of her fine clothing and to be mercilessly whipped. She was beaten for two hours and blood flowed from the wounds her body received. She was then cast into prison with orders that she should not be given food for twelve days. By then he would decide how he would put her to death.

His wife, the Empress Augusta, a woman of good character who had heard much about the saint, wanted to see her. Having prevailed upon the military-commander Porphyrion to accompany her with a detachment of soldiers, Augusta went to the prison and bribed the prison guards to let them in to see the prisoner. The empress was impressed by the strong spirit of St. Catherine, whose face glowed with Divine grace. After listening to Catherine explain the Christian teaching, the Empress was converted and believed in Christ. The Saint told the empress that in three days she would receive a bright crown from the holy angels, she told her that “you will suffer for a while and after that you will go to the heavenly kingdom and live in eternal joy.” Augusta was afraid at these words and told Catherine that she feared the tortures and her husband who was hard and inhumane. At this the saint reassured her that at that moment Christ will be in her heart and will give her the strength and courage to withstand the unbearable pains of torture.
The Military commander Porphyrion heard the conversation between the Empress and Catherine and asked her if it was really true that her God grants those that believe in him eternal life and salvation. He went on to say that for some time an unknown power had been drawing him to the Christian faith. For days he had on his mind the heroism of the Christians but more so now that he saw the example and courage of the saint. He then openly admitted that he also was a follower of Christ. The other soldiers who were lined up in the prison corridors heard their commander and among themselves also admitted that they had the same thoughts. It was better to believe in someone who promised love than in an earthly lord who painted the place with blood.
For twelve days Catherine remained in prison without being given food as the Emperor had ordered, but according to tradition God sent a dove daily with food for the saint. After the twelve days she was brought again before the emperor who on seeing that she wasn’t the least bit weakened through the lack of food, became angry and thought that someone had secretly taken her food and was ready to punish the prison guards. Catherine then told him that he unjustly suspected that anyone of his servants of guards had given her food and that her Lord Jesus Christ took care of her needs.
Maximinus tried to control himself and made one last attempt to win Catherine over. He spoke to her sweetly with compliments and promises of fame and riches, but Catherine remained steadfast in her love for Christ. At that moment the district officer came into the room and told the emperor that he had found a way in which he could convince the saint or let her die a terrible death. He told the emperor to make a mechanism of four wheels that turned each other and around the wheels to stick nails and sharp blades. Show her the contraption which should frighten her, but if this fails then tie her onto the wheels and turn them. As she turns the blades and nails will tear at her flesh and her death will be terrible and frightful. The emperor liked the plan and immediately ordered the technicians to create the mechanical contraption. In three days it was ready and Catherine was brought to see it. The emperor told her to have a good look at what awaits her describing to her how her flesh would be torn apart, but she needn’t suffer if she gave worship to his gods.
Catherine was unmovable in her love for Christ and seeing this, Maxininus ordered for her to be tied to the wheels. The saint was placed on the wheels and everyone waited for her body to be torn to shreds, but an angel smashed the instrument of execution, Catherine was loosed from her bonds without a scratch on her body and the wheel spikes exploded into the air and killed the executioner and others who were standing nearby.
Many who saw the miracle shouted “Great is the God of the Christians” and were converted. The news of what had happened reached the ears of the emperor’s wife Augusta and finding courage went to confront her evil husband. She told him that he was foolish and stupid in his insistence to go up against the true God and to continually torture his servant. Maximinus was lost for words when he realized that the Jesus whom he had relentlessly persecuted had now infiltrated into his own household. He became like an uncontrollable wild animal and for a moment forgot about Catherine and turned all his hatred towards his wife. He ordered that her breast be cut off and then to cut off her head. Her memory is remembered by the Church on 23rd November or together with St. Catherine on the 25th.
The military commander Porphyrion with the other soldiers came at night and secretly took her body and buried it. On seeing that his wife’s body was missing, Maxininus demanded to be told who were responsible. When no one answered, he randomly chose some standing by to be punished. At this Porphyrion and the soldiers admitted that they had taking the body and also openly admitted that they too were Christians. This was too much for Maxininus, first his wife and now his best military commander and loyal soldiers. He doesn’t ask for any explanations but demands that they all be beheaded. Porphyrion and 200 soldier martyrs are also entered into the Church’s calendar and remembered on 24th or 25th November.
The next day Catherine was again brought before the Emperor and he makes one last attempt to win her over with promises of marriage honour and glory. Catherine refused and he orders her to be beheaded in the city square. A day was set for the execution and countless people turned up to see the event. With the executioner and sword by her side Catherine lifted up her eyes to heaven and thanked Christ. She prayed that after her martyrdom that her body would disappear and be preserved whole and to be given the power to help those who called upon her name for assistance. She then gave a sign to the executioner and he raised the sword and cut off her head. This was on the 25th November 307AD.
According to the life story of the saint, two miracles happened at the moment of her death. The first that instead of blood, milk flowed from her neck and the second that her body disappears in front of everyone’s eyes. The angels had transported it to the peak of Mount Sinai, which from that time forth has been called St. Catherine’s Mount and where a small stone church was built.
Because Mount Sinai is the place where Moses saw the burning bush, it became a favourite place for early anchorites who settled throughout the south Sinai. Even today traces of their chapels and cells can be seen. When the Empress Helen went to Jerusalem in the year 327AD, monks of Sinai appealed to her for the construction of a church at the site of the Burning Bush. In 330AD this chapel of the Burning Bush was completed and is sometimes referred to as the Chapel of Saint Helen. In the sixth century the Emperor Justinian I (527-565) built the existing monastery and surrounding walls enclosing the Chapel of the Burning Bush. Two inscriptions dating from that time are carved into the beams of the basilica. The one says, “For the salvation of our most august emperor Justinian.” The other says, “For the memory and repose of our departed empress Theodora.” The empress Theodora died in the year 548, and the basilica is first mentioned by Procopius, writing about the year 556. This allows a dating of the basilica to within a few years. To this day, the fathers of Sinai commemorate the sovereigns Justinian and Theodora at every Liturgy as the founders of the holy monastery.

Around the year 800, monks from the Sinai Monastery found St. Catherine’s relics at the peak of the mount and had them transferred to the Basilica. Over the centuries parts of her relics were taken to other churches in the empire, but the head and left hand are still preserved at the monastery. The relics of Saint Catherine are brought out for veneration by the faithful at which time each pilgrim is given a silver ring bearing the monogram of the saint, in honour of the ring that Saint Catherine received from Christ. These are preserved by pilgrims as a blessing from the saint.
The official name of the Monastery is the “The Sacred and Imperial Monastery of the God-trodden Mount Sinai” but due to the numerous pilgrims it gradually became known as St. Catherine’s Monastery.