Saint of the Day – 25 November – St Catherine of Alexandria (Died c 305) Virgin and Martyr, Philosopher – One of the Fourteen Holy Helpers – Patronages: unmarried girls and women, apologists, craftsmen who work with a wheel (potters, spinners), archivists, dying people, educators, jurists, knife sharpeners, lawyers, librarians, libraries, mechanics, millers, milliners, hat-makers, nurses, philosophers, preachers, schoolchildren, secretaries, stenographers, students, tanners, theologians, haberdashers, wheelwrights, 6 Universities worldwide, 12 Cities, 2 Diocese. It is important to note that whilst much of St Catherine’s history is regarded as apocryphal (by historians), St Catherine, like many of the early Martyrs, did exist though the details and circumstances of her life are probably partly unknown.
According to the traditional narrative, Catherine was the daughter of Constus, the governor of Egyptian Alexandria during the reign of the emperor Maximian (286–305). From a young age, she devoted herself to study. A vision of the Madonna and Child persuaded her to become a Christian. When the persecutions began under Maxentius, she went to the emperor and rebuked him for his cruelty. The emperor summoned 50 of the best pagan philosophers and orators to dispute with her, hoping that they would refute her pro-Christian arguments but Catherine won the debate. Several of her adversaries, conquered by her eloquence, declared themselves Christians and were at once put to death.
Catherine was then scourged and imprisoned. She was scourged so cruelly and for so long, that her whole body was covered with wounds, from which the blood flowed in streams. The spectators wept with pity but Catherine, strengthened by God, stood with her eyes raised to heaven, without giving a sign of suffering or fear. He ordered her to be imprisoned without food, so she would starve to death. During the confinement, angels tended her wounds with salve. Catherine was fed daily by a dove from Heaven and Christ also visited her, encouraging her to fight bravely and promised her the crown of everlasting glory.
During her imprisonment, over 200 people came to see her, including Maxentius’ wife, Valeria Maximilla – all converted to Christianity and were subsequently martyred. Twelve days later, when the dungeon was opened, a bright light and fragrant perfume filled it and Catherine came forth even more radiant and beautiful.
Upon the failure of Maxentius to make Catherine yield by way of torture, he tried to win the beautiful and wise princess over by proposing marriage. The saint refused, declaring that her spouse was Jesus Christ, to whom she had consecrated her virginity. The furious emperor condemned Catherine to death on a spiked breaking wheel but, at her touch, it shattered. Maxentius ordered her to be beheaded. Catherine herself ordered the execution to commence. A milk-like substance rather than blood flowed from her neck.
Angels transported her body to the highest mountain (now called Mount Saint Catherine) next to Mount Sinai, where God gave His Law. In 850, her incorrupt body was discovered by monks from the Sinai Monastery. The monks found on the surface of the granite on which her body lay, an impression of the form of her body. Her hair still growing and a constant stream of the most heavenly fragranced healing oil issuing from her body. This oil produced countless miracles.
Saint Catherine was one of the most important saints in the religious culture of the late Middle Ages and arguably considered the most important of the virgin martyrs, a group including Saint Agnes, Margaret of Antioch, Saint Barbara, Saint Lucy, Valerie of Limoges and many others. Her power as an intercessor was renowned and firmly established in most versions of her hagiography, in which she specifically entreats Christ at the moment of her death to answer the prayers of those who remember her martyrdom and invoke her name.
The pyrotechnic Catherine wheel, from which sparks fly off in all directions, took its name from the saint’s wheel of martyrdom.