The Feast of the glorious Great-Martyr St. Catherine of Alexandria [ἡ Ἁγία Αἰκατερίνα ἡ Μεγαλομάρτυς] is celebrated in both the East and the West, though to differing degrees. For centuries, St. Catherine of Alexandria was universally revered as a great early martyr, and ranked with St. Barbara, St. Margaret of Antioch, St. Agnes and St. Lucy. In the East, veneration of St. Catherine has remained consistent, though in the West, the strength of the celebration of St. Catherine of Alexandria’s Feast has fluctuated depending upon location and time. Her Feast was celebrated with the utmost solemnity, and up through the 17th century it was ranked as a Holy Day of Obligation in France. In the Roman Rite, St. Catherine has long been regarded as one of the 14 Holy Helpers – powerful intercessors before the Throne of God, and she has continued to be remembered in the Roman Martyrology; in 2002 St. Catherine’s Feast was declared an Optional Memorial on the Roman Calendar.
Who was the illustrious St. Catherine of Alexandria, the beautiful and intelligent martyr whose powerful intercession was even mentioned by St. Joan of Arc? The earliest surviving written account of her life dates to the year 866, approximately 560 years from the date of her death, though a consistent oral tradition existed prior to the written account.
Catherine enjoyed an affluent life in the center of Hellenistic culture as the daughter of the pagan ruler of Alexandria, King Constas and his wife, Queen Sabinella. As a highly privileged daughter, St. Catherine received an enviable education, tutored by the finest philosophers and scholars of antiquity. Catherine was as beautiful and affable as she was intelligent. Though many eligible suitors sought her hand in marriage, she was compelled by a desire to preserve her virginity, and vowed to her parents to only marry a man who “surpassed her in wisdom, wealth, illustriousness, and beauty.”
St. Catherine’s own mother, Queen Sabinella, was a secret convert to Christianity. Recognizing the many gifts with which her daughter was endowed, Queen Sabinella sent Catherine to study with her own spiritual father, who , according to tradition, lived as a hermit in a cave outside the metropolis of Alexandria. The pious spiritual father listened to the young Catherine as she earnestly poured her heart out. He confided that he knew of a young man whose attributes far exceeded all of Catherine’s. The wise elder told Catherine that this young man possessed a “beauty was more radiant than the shining of the sun, a wisdom that governed all creation, riches that were spread throughout all the world—however this did not diminish but rather added to the inexpressible loftiness of his lineage.” At the description of Jesus given by the elder, Catherine’s heart longed for a Heavenly Bridegroom. Before sending the young virgin away, the spiritual father showed the child an icon of the Most Holy Theotokos, the Mother of God, cradling the Christ Child in her maternal arms. He instructed Catherine to pray to the Mother of God – the Mother of the Heavenly Bridegroom – and beseech Her to intercede.
Catherine prayed as she was instructed, and that night received a heavenly vision of the Christ-Child. However, the Christ Child turned away from her and told her that because she had not been washed in the waters of Baptism and sealed with the Holy Spirit, that she was shabbily dressed and unfit. St. Catherine returned the next day to her spiritual father, who received her warmly. He instructed her in the faith, and urged her to pray unceasingly, and to remain pure. Catherine then received the Mystery or Sacrament of Holy Baptism. Later the Blessed Mother again appeared to St. Catherine, holding the Christ Child. This time the He smiled at her tenderly and bestowed upon her a ring, as a pledge of love from her Heavenly Bridegroom.
A short time later, the Emperor Maximinus traveled to Alexandria for the occasion of a pagan festival. Fires blazed as sacrifices were made to the pagan gods. The scent of the flesh of Christian martyrs mingled with that of sacrificial animals, smoke and incense. St. Catherine appealed to the Emperor Maximinus himself in an attempt to save the lives of fellow Christians. As she boldly stood before the pagan emperor, confessing the true faith, Maximinus was stunned by both her intellect and beauty. Maximinus ordered dozens of his most learned philosophers and rhetoricians to debate the courageous young virgin – she prevailed. In fact because of the irrefutable wisdom of St. Catherine’s arguments many of them were converted and in turn martyred as well. After failing to convince the maiden with augmentation, the Emperor sought to entice her with promises of wealth and power. Her refusals enraged Maximinus who ordered that Catherine be cruelly tortured. Maximinus’ wife, the Empress Augusta heard about the illustrious maiden, and arranged meeting with her in prison. St. Catherine’s face glowed with the grace of God, and her testimony was so persuasive that the Empress and her entire guard and entourage were also converted to Christianity.
The following day, St. Catherine was brought again to the court and under threat of having her bones crushed via the spiked breaking wheel, she was ordered to recant her faith and to offer incense to the pagan gods. She refused and as she was lead to the instrument of torture an angel miraculously smashed it to pieces. The Empress Augusta, her guard and entourage came forward and confessed their faith and support for Catherine, and were beheaded. The Emperor once again attempted to seduce Catherine to renounce her faith and accept his offer of marriage. Once again Catherine confessed her limitless love for her Divine Bridegroom, and was beheaded.
According to tradition, the relics of the holy martyr were miraculously transferred to Mt. Sinai by an angel. Her relics were discovered on that site around the year 800 and transferred to an ancient monastery built by the Emperor Justinian I (526-567) on the site that is revered as the location of the Burning Bush through which God spoke to Moses. The original chapel built on that site dates to St. Helen, the mother of Constantine. This site is revered as sacred to this very day.
St. Catherine of Alexandria remains a paragon of excellence. Through her witness for Christ we find a quintessential model of courage, purity, wisdom, and piety. While these qualities existed in rudimentary form in her young soul, it was only after seeking the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, the wise counsel of a spiritual father, and ultimately the gift of the grace of Baptism that these virtues reached perfection. As we celebrate St. Catherine of Alexandria’s memory and invoke her intercession, let us strive to emulate her virtues.