St. Catherine of Alexandria
St. Catherine of Alexandria
Little is truly known of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, also written as St. Katherine of Alexandria, the fourth century martyr who is remembered on November 25th. Tradition hands down the story of Catherine, a virgin martyr of noble birth and quick mind who was killed for her faith around the year 305. However, popularity in the middle ages led to distortion and exaggeration which has left it unclear just what occurred in the life of the early martyr.
The Legend of St. Catherine of Alexandria
As mentioned, devotion to Catherine of Alexandria grew in popularity in the Middle Ages. Poems and songs were written about her, and paintings and statues were popular throughout Europe. Stories about her were embellished, sometimes one contradicting another, and as result, any true facts known about the woman’s life became obscured.
The popular legend of Catherine of Alexandria is that as a young noblewoman, Catherine had vowed to remain pure and virginal and devote herself to study and Christian philosophy. She was said to have been an intelligent and philosophical woman. At the age of 18, the tradition holds that she went to Emperor Maxentius, to rebuke him for his cruel persecution of Christians. Since he could not respond to her arguments, he gathered 50 sages to dispute with her. However, Catherine’s wisdom converted them and when they conceded that she won the debate, they were killed.
According to tradition, Catherine was imprisoned and converted all of her visitors to Christianity, even converting the emperor’s wife. It is said that after she converted another high official and her prison guards, Catherine was sentenced to death. She was sentenced to be killed on an instrument of torture called a “spiked wheel” or “breaking wheel.” However the wheel broke at her touch and so she was beheaded instead. In the Middle Ages, many priests preached on the merits of Catherine’s wisdom and defense of her faith, as well as her eloquent manner of converting pagans.
There were also other stories of the woman’s life, some contradicting others, and some containing historical inaccuracies and fanciful traits or phrases more characteristic of the Middle-Ages. As a result, we cannot take the stories as fact, though the morality described should be emulated.
From the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Catherine of Alexandria:
“It is not therefore meant to cast even the shadow of a doubt around the existence of the saint. But the conclusion reached when these texts have been carefully studied is that, if the principal facts forming the outline are to be accepted as true, the multitude of details by which these facts are almost obscured, most of the wonderful narratives with which they are embellished, and the long discourses that are put into the mouth of St. Catherine, are to be rejected as inventions, pure and simple.”
Due to the lack of knowledge surrounding the saint’s life, Catherine was removed from the calendar of saints to be commemorated universally in 1969; in 2002 her feast was again added to the calendar as an optional memorial.
Although the life of St. Catherine is obscured by legend, there is still much we can carry into our own lives. As Catholics we should always use our minds and reasoning skills to do God’s will and to constantly evangelize and defend the faith.
A Prayer to St. Catherine of Alexandria
Glorious St. Catherine,
Virgin and martyr, help me to imitate your love of purity.
Give me strength and courage in fighting off the temptations of the world and evil desires. Help me to love God with my whole heart and serve Him faithfully.
O St. Catherine, through your glorious martyrdom for the love of Christ, help me to be
loyal to my faith and my God as long as I live.