November 24 – Catherine of Alexandria

Catherine of Alexandria (ca. 282–ca. 305) was the daughter of the governor of Alexandria (later traditions make him a king), and given a top-notch education in the pagan philosophy of the day. What she knew about Aristotle would make Thomas Aquinas (Jan 28) blush, and she knew her Plato, too. Her parents were determined to marry her off, and she was not unwilling, but did not find any suitors to her liking. This one was too poor, that one was too ugly, the other one was too far down the social pecking order, and every fourth one was too unlearned (or downright stupid). No, this beautiful, learned, rich, highly intelligent and well-born woman wasn’t about to marry someone who was not as all-those-things as she.

One night Catherine and her secretly-Christian mother had the same dream: a beautiful lady showed them, as in a runway show, all the rulers, wise men, rich men, etc., of the earth. Catherine looked them over but could find no suitable suitor. Then the emcee (who was—shhh, don’t tell anyone—the Theotokos* herself!) brought forth her Son. “That’s him!” said Catherine, not knowing who he was. “I can’t marry her,” said the Lord. “She’s a pagan.”

Catherine awoke devastated, and her mother suggested they go visit the local hermit, Ananias (“Pineapple Man”). He taught her about the Gospel, and gave her the Scriptures to read, and before long she was as learned in divine theology as she was in “profane” philosophy (she had the unexpurgated edition of Epicurus). She was baptized, and had another dream, in which Jesus gave her a wedding ring. (A nice one, too, not something from a gumball machine like I gave my wife.) When she woke up, she still had it. It was a treasured relic for many centuries but if it’s still extant my sources do not say where it is.

When she heard that the government was torturing and killing Christians, she went to Emperor Maximian (who was in town for some festival), scolded him for his cruelty and impiety, and argued the True Faith to him. Unable to refute her, he called his fifty top philosophers (that our leaders no longer keep fifty philosophers on retainer is a shame and a scandal, this philosophy major avers), who were also unable to refute her. Max had them killed, and Catherine tortured. When they put her on the wheel, a delightful torture device long beloved of Christians and pagans alike (alas), it burst asunder. Upon seeing this, 200 audience members, including the Empress, professed faith in the Savior.

Finally, our brave philosopher was beheaded, and her relics were removed by the angels (or their representatives) to Sinai, where a monastery, which is still there, was soon to be founded. The relics were rediscovered in the ninth century, and the monastery is now unofficially named after the greatest female thinker in the history of Christendom (I mean Catherine, not Marie Antoinette, in case you were confused). Pilgrims to St. Catherine’s are given a ring as an evlogia (blessing). Kind of like a souvenir, only holier.

Catherine was one of the most popular saints of the middle ages (she is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers), and was one of those who appeared to Joan of Arc. She (Catherine, not Joan) is the patroness of philosophers, lawyers, librarians, archivists, potters and spinners (get it?), numerous towns, and the University of Paris. Sadly she was removed in 1969 from the General Roman Calendar of saints, but she was restored in 2002 as an optional memorial, so that’s cool. Oodles (to use the technical term) of cities, churches, and girls are named after her, as well as a popular firework (Catherine wheels). Some men say she never existed. Some men feel threatened by smart women. Coincidence? You make the call.