Today, the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. One of the churches in our diocese is dedicated to Saint Catherine, and I wrote a four-page biography of her for their parishoners. I thought that today would be a good day to reprint it.
Saint Catherine was born in 282, in Alexandria, Egypt. He mother was Queen Sabinella, while her father was King Costis or Costus, from Rome. Costis' mother was an unknown Armenian woman who died in childbirth, while his father was Constantinius Chlorus, who became the Emperor of Rome in 293. Sadly, Costis did not live to see his father become the emperor; he died while Catherine was young, making her the only heir to the kingdom.
In ancient times, Alexandria was famous for being a great center of education; it once housed the largest library in the entire world. Many wealthy Romans sent their children there to be educated. Because Catherine was a princess, she was educated like any other child of noble birth. She quickly fell in love with school and education, and she studied for hours without end. Her favorite pastime was studying the Greek philosophers, especially Plato.
Catherine became well-known for her education and skills in philosophy, and she was able to surpass many of her male contemporaries. The Egyptian citizens, however, did not approve of her studies. They did not think it was right for a woman to be so enthusiastic about learning. Instead, they thought she should concentrate her efforts on finding a good husband, so Egypt would have a king to inherit the throne.
Catherine was too concerned with her schooling to engage in courtship, and besides, she had no real interest in getting married. She began to put off the question of finding a husband by saying that she refused to marry anyone, unless he was superior to her in every way. "The only husband for me," she said, "must be smarter than I am, nobler than I am, of higher rank than I am, and especially if he is going to become king, he must be compassionate towards everyone, unlike the brutish kings of the past who thought they could never be wrong."
Needless to say, no one could be found who fulfilled Catherine's standards for the perfect husband. The few suitors who met with her were all quickly dismissed. Catherine would say something like "He is not handsome enough for me" or "He is too stupid to be the King of Egypt". Then she would leave them and return to her studies.
In addition to being a center of education in those days, Alexandria was also a center of Catholicism. The Bishop of Alexandria was considered to be the second most important Bishop in the world, after the Pope in Rome. In fact, the word "Pope" first comes from the town of Alexandria. So it was no surprise that one of the Catholic citizens of Alexandria heard about the princess' refusal to marry, and he decided to do something about it.
This man, who was a hermit and an ardent devotee of Mary, boldly proclaimed that he found the perfect husband for the princess, a man who fulfilled all of her requirements. He was allowed to have a meeting with Princess Catherine. She laughed when she first saw the hermit, because it seemed ridiculous that this man could have found the perfect husband for her.
But then the man showed her a picture of Jesus and Mary, and he explained that she should become a Bride of Christ, because Jesus met all of her requirements and more. Jesus is wiser than anyone else, because he is the wisdom of God. Jesus is of higher rank than anyone else on Earth, because he is the King of Kings and the natural-born ruler of humanity. Most importantly, Jesus shares his infinite compassion and justice with everyone, regardless of their rank or status.
Catherine was intrigued by what the hermit said, and she began to look into the matter herself. She was converted almost overnight. She soon lost interest in her studies of philosophy, and she refocused her energies on studying Christianity. She studied the Gospels, and she was amazed to find that they were filled with higher wisdom than any of the other books she had read. She quickly sought out all the religious texts she could find, and she built a small prayer chapel in the palace.
One night, Catherine had a heavenly vision. In this vision, she went to a sanctuary, and angels came to meet her. She fell to the ground in humility and worship, and one of the angels told her, "Rise, dear sister Catherine, for the King of Glory delights to honor you." Catherine rose, and she followed the angels to the presence of Mary, Queen of Heaven.
Catherine was astonished with delight to see the Virgin Mary and all her heavenly servants with her. As the Egyptian Princess, Catherine was used to seeing royal courts decorated in fineries, but the splendors of heaven far surpassed any palace Catherine had ever seen on Earth. As the Psalmist says "How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord God of hosts...one day within your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere." (Psalm 84:2, 11)
The Virgin Mary is the spiritual mother of us all, and she welcomed her daughter, Catherine. Mary leads all good Christians to her divine son, Jesus, and so, Mary took Catherine through the heavenly courtyard to the divine throne. Catherine marveled at everything she saw, but what made the greatest impression upon her was the layout of the palace, which was intimately familiar to her. In preparation for her arrival, it seems, the throne room had been rearranged, so everything was in the same place as Catherine's throne room in Egypt. Despite the similarities, Catherine could not help but think that, compared to the Lord's heavenly dwelling-place, her throne room was only a pale imitation.
The King of Glory, Jesus Christ, was seated upon the very throne which, in the Egyptian palaces, Catherine normally sat upon. The courtroom, full of angels and saints singing praise to God in loud voices, fell silent, as the Virgin Mary presented Catherine to Jesus. Jesus asked Catherine what she desired, but she was too afraid to speak in his presence. The Virgin Mary answered on her behalf, saying that Catherine wanted to become a Bride of Christ. She wished to consecrate her virginity and dedicate her life to the heavenly bridegroom, after the example of the holy saints who had come before her, such as Saint Lucy and Saint Agnes, both of whom were still alive at this time.
Jesus gave Catherine a passing glance, then he turned away from her, saying, "She is not fair and beautiful enough for me."
After Jesus said these words, Catherine awoke from her vision. She began weeping, because she had been rejected by Christ, in the exact same way that she had rejected others. The just judgment against Catherine recalls the words of Jesus during the Sermon on the Mount: "Do not judge others, so you may not be judged yourself. For as you judge, so you will be judged, and the measure with which you judge others will be measured out to you" (Matthew 7:1-2).
Catherine began to feel a great sorrow for the way she had lived her life, because she had let her studies make her arrogant and proud. She had acted as if she was better than everyone else, just because she was a princess; she had deliberately ignored the truth that other people were her equals, her brothers and sisters, because we are all children of God. With great sadness, she reflected on all the times she had not followed Jesus' commandment to serve and to love others.
Catherine vowed to repent from her former way of life, and she confessed all that happened to the hermit who first introduced her to Christianity. She begged him to tell her what she could possibly do to make herself worthy of the heavenly Bridegroom. She longed to be united to Jesus; her soul was thirsting for the true and living God. The hermit, seeing her earnest desire, agreed to catechize her and to baptize her.
The night after her baptism, Catherine had a dream where the Blessed Virgin and her divine Son again appeared to her. Mary presented her to Jesus, saying, "Behold, she has been regenerated in the water of Baptism." Then Christ smiled on her and said, "Ah, now she is fair and beautiful enough for me". Jesus placed a ring on her finger to signify their spiritual marriage, and when she awoke, the ring was still there.
After that, Catherine's life was generally a happy one, even though she often came into contention with certain citizens who either didn't like Christianity or didn't like her decision to never be married. Catherine did her best to be a good ruler, and it is said that she made significant achievements in the field of education, apologetics and philosophy, although none of her written works survive.
Catherine's life changed drastically when she was twenty-four, and her mother died. As the only heir to the throne, Catherine became Queen Catherine. The historians of this time period, all of whom were Romans, say almost nothing about her work in Egypt; they focus exclusively on her interactions with Rome.
As the new Queen of Egypt, Catherine was required to have an audience with the Roman Emperor, Maximinus the Second (sometimes confused with his contemporary, Emperor Maxentius). The formal intention of the meeting between the two rulers was to reaffirm the alliance between Rome and Egypt, as well as to discuss various treaties and other issues that they felt were pertinent. However, Catherine was not interested in discussing matters of wealth and politics with the emperor. Her main concern was reversing Maximinus' decision to renew Christian persecutions in his territories. The two leaders quickly got into an argument, and she used her superior intellect to counter all his claims about the evils of Christianity. Emperor Maximinus was stunned into silence.
Queen Catherine returned home to Alexandria, but Emperor Maximinus was not satisfied at having lost an argument with a woman, especially a foreigner. Maximinus later contacted the various scholars in Alexandria, whose education was being officially financed by the Roman government. He ordered the scholars to continue the debate with Queen Catherine, until she admitted she was wrong.
The scholars, fifty in total, did not want their funding revoked, so they met with the Queen. Over the course of the next few months, Catherine was sustained by the power of God during her debates with the scholars. She was not only able to defeat their flawed arguments, but she was able to convert them to Christianity.
Emperor Maximinus was back at Rome when he heard that his scholars had lost the debate. He ordered his soldiers to kill the scholars, and he requested a second meeting with Queen Catherine. She made the journey to Rome, where she was well-treated, as a foreign dignitary and the granddaughter of a previous emperor. It is unknown whether or not Catherine met her relatives Saint Helena and Constantine the Great during this visit to Rome.
This time, Maximinus tried a different approach with Catherine. Instead of arguing with her, he treated her as an honored guest, and he tried to impress her by showing off the wonders of the city, the splendors of his palaces, and the strength and size of his formidable army. The emperor said that it was not good for the Egyptian queen to be unmarried and childless, and he suggested that he would make an excellent father for her children, as a way of uniting their two countries.
Catherine refused this offer. She boldly said that she would never marry the emperor, because she had dedicated her life to Jesus, because he was a foul man who was persecuting Christians, and besides, Maximinus was already married to somebody else. Catherine wisely decided to leave the room before Maximinus could make any more unwanted advances towards her.
The emperor returned to his quarters, rather upset. He tried to speak to his wife about how Catherine was brutish and ill-mannered, but the empress refused to listen. His wife said that Catherine was a lovely woman, and that the two of them had become good friends during Catherine's stay. In fact, the Empress was so impressed with Catherine that she was interested in becoming a Christian herself.
Emperor Maximinus became furious at this, and he claimed that Catherine was an evil bewitcher whose goal was to destroy the Roman Empire. "This Egyptian Queen is a second Cleopatra," he said, and he immediately sentenced her to death for being a Christian.
Saint Catherine was thrown in a dungeon for twelve days. After this, she was taken to the torture room and tied to a spiked wheel to be killed. This is a specific type of torture that was used to execute criminals; it slowly tears a person's body apart, through the movement of the wheel. However, once Saint Catherine was tied to the wheel, it broke into pieces. Because of this, the breaking wheel is sometimes called "Catherine's Wheel", and it often appears in pictures of Saint Catherine.
Because the wheel was broken, the soldiers could not kill Saint Catherine as planned. Instead, they put her in prison. The question of what to do with Catherine went back to Emperor Maximinus. He was advised to release Catherine, in order to avoid a potential war with Egypt. Maximinus disagreed, because he cared more about his personal pride than the welfare of his citizens. He ordered the Roman soldiers to scourge Catherine, then to behead her. This grim death sentence was carried out on November 25, 307.
Legend has it that Catherine's body was taken to Mount Sinai by angels, and she was buried there. Saint Catherine's monastery was built in that location, about 250 years later, and the monastery is still there today.
Saint Catherine is the patron saint of philosophers, students, maidens and preachers.