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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Saint Catherine of Alexandria

Protectress of the Order

PhotobucketThe monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai is renowned as being the oldest continuously occupied monastery in Christendom. Yet it was first dedicated not to St. Catherine but to the Transfiguration of Jesus. Its architect began building the monastery walls in 542. Three centuries later, guided by a dream, the monks of this monastery found on the mountain the body of a woman, whom they took to be Saint Catherine--a body presumably miraculously flown there from Alexandria.
Falconius, archbishop of San Severino, speaks of the translation of the body of Catherine to the top of Mount Sinai. "As to what is said, that the body of this saint was conveyed by angels to Mount Sinai, the meaning is that it was carried by the monks of Sinai to their rich dwelling with such a treasure--It is well known that the name of an angelic habit, and that monks, on account of their heavenly purity and functions, were anciently called 'angels'" (Husenbeth).

Nothing is known for sure about her except that she was a maiden martyred at Alexandria under Maximinus Daza as related in the History of the Church (viii, c. 14) by Eusebius. Her acta, say she was the daughter of king Costos of Cyprus, who had been called to Alexandria to be a counselor to Emperor Maximinus. Philosophy was very fashionable in Alexandria's high society and Catherine was devoted to study, so that she had a good dose of it before she reached 18. During the course of her studies she learned about Christ. Then Catherine was converted by a vision of Our Lady and the Holy Child.

When Emperor Maximinus began his persecutions, the 18-year-old Catherine, who was very beautiful, went to the emperor and rebuked him for his tyranny as he stood in the middle of a pagan temple. Unable to answer her arguments, he called in fifty philosophers to confront her. After they admitted themselves to be convinced by her arguments, the furious emperor sentenced them to be burned.

PhotobucketThe emperor offered to marry her, but she refused because Christ had already appeared to her in person and placed his gold ring on her finger (like St. Catherine of Siena); for this reason Greek Christians call her 'Ækatharina,' that is, 'ever pure.' She was beaten for two solid hours and then imprisoned, and the emperor departed to inspect a camp. In her cell she was fed by a dove, and Christ appeared to her in a vision.

When he returned, he found that his wife, Faustina, and an officer, Porphyrius, had gone to visit Catherine out of curiosity and were converted, and that Porphyrius had converted 200 men of the imperial guard. All were condemned to death.

Catherine was sentenced to be killed by means of a wheel set with spikes or razors, now known as "St. Catherine's wheel." When she was placed upon its rim, her bonds were miraculously loosened, the wheel broke, and the spikes flew off, killing onlookers. Finally, she was beheaded, as she called down blessings on all who should remember her. From her severed veins flowed a white, milk-like liquid instead of blood. It is claimed that for many years oil oozed from her bones; this oil was prized as medicine and for lamps in holy sanctuaries.

PhotobucketIn 527 Emperor Justinian built a fortified monastery for the hermits of Mt. Sinai, and the body of Catherine is supposed to have been taken there in the 8th or 9th century; since then it has borne her name. In the 11th century, Simeon, a monk of Sinai, went to Rouen to receive an annual alms of Duke Richard of Normandy. He brought with him some of Catherine's relics, which he left there. She was one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, who were highly venerated individually and as a group during the Middle Ages because of the enormous amount of miracles that were done through their intercession.

Saint Joan of Arc heard and faithfully followed the voice of Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret. Perhaps the Lord gave Catherine to Joan to help her in her debate with the famous theologians. The real Passion of Catherine is the same as Joan of Arc's, which fortunately we know in all its details. Joan is the Catherine of modern times, indeed of all times. And so to be a woman, a saint, and a philosopher like Catherine, there is no need to be a king's daughter; the Hail Mary and Our Father are enough. No doubt Catherine had the simplicity of a shepherdess. Though philosophy and religion will never be found in perfect harmony, what matters is faith, pure and simple faith, and we rejoice that it is so. Saint Dominic also had heavenly visions of her and chose her and Mary Magdalene to be protectress of the Dominican Order.


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