Catherine: Scholar, Martyr, Virgin, Saint

NT; (c) Stourhead; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

In one of those ironies of God’s history, the patron saint of philosophers is a teenage virgin martyr from the fourth century, Catherine of Alexandria (+305), who dedicated herself to study ‘from a young age’, and who, as her disputed biography (written centuries after her death) relates that in a contest arrange by the emperor Maxentius, she bested the best pagan philosophers of her time. Said emperor, when he perceived she could not be beaten by reason, attempted to win her over in his own clumsy way by the art, if you will, of love, with an impromptu proposal of marriage, which Catherine of course refused, being already wedded to Christ, besides her awareness of the futility of such a union.  In his anger, Maxentius had her tied to a torture wheel to ‘break’ her, but the wheel broke instead; hence, Catherine was summarily beheaded. While in prison, being fed miraculously by a dove, her wounds tended by angels – for she was cruelly scrounged – she converted hundreds to the Faith, including the emperor’s own wife. After death, her body was transported to Mt. Catherine, in Egypt, next to Mount Sinai, where her reputedly incorrupt body still resides, in the midst of the famous monastery, which has stood since its foundation in the mid-sixth century.

Some revisionists claim that Catherine’s story is actually an inversion of the later death of the pagan philosopher-mathematician Hypatia (+415), who was lynched by a mob – the story goes, of Christian ‘lectors’ – apparently by and large for political reasons. Hypatia’s ‘martyrdom’ comprises one of those anti-Catholic tropes, hyperbolically exaggerated from its origins in a complex history, along with Galileo, the Inquisition, the Crusades, and on it goes.

But Catherine’s historical veracity is attested by the consistent devotion of the faithful, who have always been attached to her intercession as one of the most popular of early saints, and it was Catherine whom Joan of Arc claimed appeared to her, to prompt her on her own mission in freeing France from English domination in the 15th century.

Perhaps in response to such sensus fidelium, Catherine’s feast, removed in the sometimes too-hasty revisions after Vatican II, was put back into the universal calendar in 2002 – November 25th – under Saint John Paul II, no mean philosopher himself.  She is also the patron saint of unmarried women and students.

Besides her philosophical acumen, Catherine’s name means ‘always pure’, something we could use a lot more of in today’s all-too impure world.  As the Catechism declares, there is a deep connection between “charity; chastity or sexual rectitude; love of truth and orthodoxy of faith”, or, as it may be put “between purity of heart, of body and of faith” (cf., #2518).

This is a large part of the reason why the modern world cannot see truths which seem so obvious and clear and, again, Pope John Paul in Evangelium Vitae taught that one of the primary causes of the current abortion holocaust is the ‘trivialization of sexuality’, and Saint Thomas rightly claimed – and evidence is not wanting – that nothing so blinds the mind as lust and sexual deviance. Alas, the world – and the Church – are now learning this the long, long way around.

Pray to Saint Catherine, that we all may be given eyes to see and ears to hear

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