By Sr. Kathryn, SSJD.
Rom 8.15-18 Ps 128 Matt 10.28-33
We remember today St Catherine of Alexandria. Her martyrdom took place during the reign of the emperor Maxentius at the beginning of the fourth century, not long before Christianity became legal. She was of noble lineage, very wealthy, beautiful, and had received the best education available at that time. She had studied science, philosophy, medicine, poetry, languages, and rhetoric and had an exceptionally high level of natural intelligence to go with that education. Everyone who knew her were astounded by her in almost every respect. Given all these virtues and wealth, she had many suitors and yet had no desire for marriage, so to avoid the persuasion of her family, she stipulated that any marriage partner would have to match her in intellect, be equal in wealth, wisdom, beauty, and compassion, pretty much eliminating all suitors. Seeking a future for her daughter, her mother went to a holy man on the outskirts of Alexandria for advice. Catherine spoke with the holy man who described some one who is majestic, wise, and wealthy, compassionate, and loving beyond comparison, he then showed her an icon of Christ. Christ in a vision to Catherine advised her to return to the holy man for guidance and teaching, she became baptised and a deeply devout follower of Christ and the Virgin Mary. As the readings and psalm today have the singular feature of the word fear of God, which I interpret as reverence and awe. Catherine herself lived and acted in a way that honored God and Christ in pursuing, expressing, and acting on her faith.
To return to our story. At that time the emperor Maxentius was himself in Alexandria for a pagan feast day. Because of this, the feast was especially splendid and crowded. 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 all Alexandria. Human victims, some of the rebellious groups who were against the emperor and the pagan beliefs, also were brought—they were consigned to death in the fire as all those who confessed Christ, and those who did not recant under torture were.
Seeing these persecutions Catherine went to the emperor and rebuked him for his cruelty and the foolishness of the pagan gods and religion. It not being appropriate for the emperor to debate with her himself, the emperor summoned fifty of the best pagan philosophers and orators to dispute with her and change her mind, hoping that she would refute her pro-Christian arguments. Regardless of their arguments they could not defeat Catherine who won the debate with her superior intellect and learned explanation of the Gospel. Her adversaries, influenced by the debate, converted to Christianity and were at once put to death by the emperor.
Catherine was imprisoned and hundreds of people came to see her including Maxentius’ wife, Augusta, who all converted to Christianity. When Catherine would not yield by way of torture the emperor tried to silence her by offering her marriage and immense wealth if she would recant and follow the pagan gods but Catherine refused. Furious of this rejection he condemned Catherine to be put to death on a spiked execution breaking wheel, it acted similarly to the crucifixion. Legend has it that the wheel shattered at her touch, but romanticism aside, I believe she must have suffered greatly in this public display of cruelty and torture, although we are told this torture did not end in her death. Maxentius then in frustration and obsessed to get rid of her once and for all, ordered her to be beheaded. Along with her were the emperor’s wife, and 200 soldiers, as the emperor had executed all those known to him who had converted to Christianity.
Her relics today are held at St Catherine’s monastery at Mount Sinai, one of the oldest Orthodox monasteries in the world. If you go there as a pilgrim you are given a ring with Catherine’s name on it in memory of your pilgrimage.
Being both a woman of courage and intellect and grounded in Christ’s teachings she would have posed a formidable threat to the power structure of her day. Mary Beard, Professor of Classics, writer, and lecturer has researched the challenge that women have faced in her book Women & Power, A Manifesto. Mary Beard cites how we can look to ancient times to find the seeds of misogyny right through to today. To quote: “When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice.”
Mary Beard offers an irresistible call for women to speak up, act and redefine their power. This action by St Catherine at the time of her life, emphasizes the greatness of her courage to stand up to the dominant male power structure and speak when women’s voices were not heard.
Other famous women of the Middle Ages, include Hilda of Whitby that we recently celebrated, Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich and Joan of Arc. These women significantly influenced their own time as well as later generations through their vision and ability to act on that vision. How women were perceived by, how they were considered as legal and social entities by the law, and how they lived out their lives were never precisely the same, but they all took control of their situations to live as independent women, within a patriarchal society.
If the position of women is a test by which the civilization of a country or age may be judged, I think it is a poignant symbol of how much work still needs to happen. How many lives of women whose names are lost due to patriarchal control we will never fully know. As Mary Beard tells us that what is required is social change more than just empowerment of women. To quote: “It means thinking about power differently. It means decoupling it from public prestige. It means thinking collaboratively about the power of followers not just of leaders. The ability to be effective, to make a difference in the world, and the right to be taken seriously, together as much as individually.
St. Catherine is a model for today’s youth and especially women, proving that wisdom, intelligence, knowledge, and perseverance are gifts with which even the youngest of Christ’s followers are endowed. St. Catherine used those gifts to stand up for her faith in God and love of Christ, and to bring others to Christ so they could know the joy she knew in being loved by God. Whatever gifts we may have they all fade in significance in comparison with our relationship with God. We have to put that relationship first and be prepared to suffer and even die for it.
We also give thanks for young women of today, Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg, Vinisha Umashankar, Sii-am Hamilton, Elizabeth Wathuti, all sharing their struggles and frustrations on the world stage, raising awareness of injustice, and challenging our beliefs and voicing their dreams for a better world for all.
May it be so, Amen.