The non-existent patroness of philosophers

Bernardo_Daddi_-_St_Catherine_of_Alexandria_with_Donor_and_Christ_Blessing_-_WGA05852Today is the feast of St. Catherine of Alexandria, the patroness of philosophers.

There is only one problem. She probably didn’t exist.

But the legend is fantastic and fascinating.

She was brought before the emperor and tried to convince him about Christ. He was flabbergasted and brought in fifty of his philosophers to argue with this woman.

But the emperor’s attempt to win Catherine over backfired.

She ended up convincing the philosophers who professed their belief in Christ before the emperor. They subsequently lost their heads – philosopher martyrs!

The emperor sent her to jail. (There are some reports that he didn’t kill her right away because he wanted her as his consort – typical macho emperor.)

But Catherine could not be stopped. She converted the jailor, two hundred of the imperial guard, and even the emperor’s wife – all of whom were martyred for the faith.

The frustrated emperor tried to kill her by placing her between two spiked wheels. She touched them and they broke into thousands of pieces and killed some bystanders. (She’s also the patroness of wheelwrights!)

Finally he had her beheaded.

But the story doesn’t end there. Angels came and carried her body off to Mount Sinai where there is now an Orthodox monastery – St. Catherine’s.

There is much we could learn from St. Catherine’s story.

I particularly call to mind two women philosophers who influenced me – Hannah Arendt and Simone Weil. But I also recall women theologians, including the Catalan Benedictine nun Teresa Forcades who recently wrote a book on Weil and Dorothy Day, Por amor a la justicia, which I hope I can find and read some day soon.

But I think Robert Ellsberg puts it well, at the end of his meditation of St. Catherine in All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time:

She [Catherine] may continue to represent the subversive power of women’s wisdom, a voice which many would like to silence lest it subvert the whole world with its irrefutable logic. So Catherine continues to inspire and illuminate us with her edifying story, like the light emanating from a distant star which no longer exists.

What makes for peace

If this day you only knew what makes for peace
—but now it is hidden from your eyes.
Luke 19: 42

Jesus cries even today,
because we have preferred the ways of war,
the way of hate, the way of being enemies.
Pope Francis, 19 November 2015 

As war fever mounts, it might be useful to consider these words from an essay of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton from “The Root of War Is Fear.”

The essay can be found in New Seeds of Contemplation. But when it was first published in The Catholic Worker, it included the following words in an introduction which are not found in the original book.

What are we to do? The duty of the Christian in this crisis is to strive with all his power and intelligence, with his faith, his hope in Christ, and love for God and man, to do the one task which God has imposed upon us in the world today. That task is to work for the total abolition of war. There can be no question that unless war is abolished the world will remain constantly in a state of madness and desperation in which, because of the immense destructive power of modern weapons, the danger of catastrophe will be imminent and probable at every moment everywhere. Unless we set ourselves immediately to this task, both as individuals and in our political and religious groups, we tend by our very passivity and fatalism to cooperate with the destructive forces that are leading inexorably to war. It is a problem of terrifying complexity and magnitude, for which the Church itself is not fully able to see clear and decisive solutions. Yet she must lead the way on the road to the nonviolent settlement of difficulties and toward the gradual abolition of war as the way of settling international or civil disputes. Christians must become active in every possible way, mobilizing all their resources for the fight against war.

First of all there is much to be learned. Peace is to be preached, nonviolence is to be explained as a practical method, and not left to be mocked as an outlet for crackpots who want to make a show of themselves. Prayer and sacrifice must be used as the most effective spiritual weapons in the war against war, and like all weapons, they must be used with deliberate aim: not just with a vague aspiration for peace and security, but against violence and war. This implies that we are also willing to sacrifice and restrain our own instinct for violence and aggressiveness in our relations with other people. We may never succeed in this campaign but whether we succeed or not, the duty is evident.

At the end of the essay Merton reflects on what we should be praying for when we pray for peace.

So instead of loving what you think is peace, love other men and love God above all. And instead of hating the people you think are warmakers, hate the appetites and the disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed— but hate these things in yourself, not in another.

So today in the wake of violence let us pray for peace, for our conversion to the way of the Christ of peace, for the abolition of war.


From the church “Dominus flevit” in Jerusalem


Like stars in the darkness

In the midst of the terror in Paris and Beirut in the past week, while thousands flee the violence in Syria, while many remember the terror and the killings in Kenya and Nigeria, while war and bombing continues to kill many in the Middle East and elsewhere, while hospitals are bombed, while violence and hunger leaves many victims throughout the world, many feel as if the end of the world is at hand. Many feel, as we read in today’s first reading from the prophet Daniel 12: 1-3, that we live in a time “unsurpassed in distress.”

Many have felt this throughout history. The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem felt like the end of the world to the Jews. The fall of Rome to the “barbarians” felt like the end of civilization. The black plague led many to think that the end of the world was at hand.

But Jesus reminds us in today’s Gospel, Mark 13:32, that no one, but the Father, knows the day and the hour.

Yet, I ask, what can we do in the midst of the darkness?

The last line of the reading from Daniel can give us hope and also challenge us:

Those who lead the many to justice
will shine like the stars forever.

There are many voices that would lead us to the supposed justice of vengeance and extermination of our “enemies.”

But there are voices that urge us to the justice, the righteousness, of God, a justice that seeks to offer a different vision of the world, that refuses to demonize even those who commit terror, that challenges us to be creative, loving, and merciful.

The violence of terror is meant to leave us paralyzed by fear. But the justice of God is meant to guide us to new ways of living and loving.

I don’t have answers, but I think that we do have a guide – Jesus. We also have guides among us who offer us a different vision of justice.

Last night I noted that several persons have recalled the Last Testament of Dom Christian de Chergé, one of the Trappists kidnapped and killed by extremists in Algeria in 1996. The full text can be found here, but a few phrases might help us to meditate in the midst of the darkness

I ask them to associate [my] death
with so many other equally violent ones
which are forgotten through indifference
or anonymity.
My life has no more value than any other.
Nor any less value.

I should like, when the time comes,
to have a moment of spiritual clarity
which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God
and of my fellow human beings,
and at the same time forgive with all my heart
the one who would strike me down.

Dom Christian is one of those stars who can guide us to the true Justice, the God of mercy and all-embracing love.

May we see his light and follow him on the way to real peace.

Solidarity with the victims

The terrorist attacks in the city of Paris have stirred up feelings of solidarity and concern – which is right and good. We are called to feel and respond to the suffering of all people.

But for me it is paradoxical that a single terrorist attack evokes so much concern and news, while every month more than 300 people are killed here in Honduras, while each day, while, according to the World Food Program, “Poor nutrition causes nearly half (45%) of deaths in children under five – 3.1 million children each year.” I recall the thousands killed in Gaza last year, the tens of thousands fleeing Syria, those feeling hunger and gang violence from Central America. The list goes on and on.

The deaths in Paris ought to open us to wider compassion, a compassion a which embraces all the victims of violence, including all the victims of structural violence which leaves so many powerless and hungry.

The words of Martin Luther King, Jr., from June 1961, can help us open our hearts in this time of pain and sorrow:

“This is to say that all life is interrelated. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality; tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. As long as there is poverty in this world, no man can be totally rich even if he has a billion dollars. as long as diseases are rampant and millions of people cannot expect to live more than twenty or thirty years, no man can be totally healthy, even if he just got a clean bill of health from the finest clinic in America. Strangely enough, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way the world is made. I didn’t make it that way, but this is the interrelated structure of reality. John Donne caught it a few centuries ago and could cry out, ‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main . . . any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’ If we are to realize the American dream we must realize this world perspective.”

May our solidarity embrace all people.

Mother Church

Today is the feast of the dedication of the Basilica of Christ the Savior and Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist – more commonly known as St. John Lateran, the pope’s cathedral.

It’s an impressive church and probably the major basilica I most appreciated when I visited Rome in February 2013. St. Peter’s felt more like a mall than a church; St. Paul’s outside the walls was almost deserted when I visited; St. Mary Major does house what is called the manger, but except for some mosaics it didn’t move me.

But there was something about St. John Lateran that struck me.

Maybe it was because I went to Mass there and it felt like a place of prayer.

San Giovanni in Laterano, Roma

San Giovanni in Laterano, Rom

Maybe it was the apse mosaic with the small image of St. Francis of Assisi beside the image of Mary.

St. John Lateran apse

St. John Lateran apse

Or maybe it was the sculpture of St. Francis and his companions across the park, facing the church. In the Lateran palace Francis sought the approval of his new order of mendicant friars. The pope was probably a little reluctant to accept this strange group, but he had a dream that the Lateran church was falling down and a strange guy, whom he later recognized as Francis, sustained the church.

St. Francis facing the Lateran

St. Francis facing the Lateran

St, Francis (facing the Lateran Palace)

St, Francis (facing the Lateran Palace)

Pope Leo XIII

Maybe it was the tomb of Pope Leo XIII with its triumphant statue of the pope who initiated the modern era of Catholic social thought with his encyclical on labor in 1891, Rerum Novarum.

Maybe it was the nearby baptistery with an image of the deer seeking living waters.


But then it might just have been because God and the people of God were present at worship.

This is what I thought of this morning as I read from a sermon of St. Caesarius of Arles in Benedictine Daily Prayer:

We celebrate the birthday of this church, dear brothers and sisters, with a joy that pleases Christ. Yet, remember that we ourselves must first be God’s true and living temple. Nonetheless, Christians rightly keep the anniversary of Mother Church, who has given them spiritual rebirth….
If then … we want to celebrate the birthday of a church with real joy, we must avoid destroying by sin the temples of God which we ourselves are.

Rich and poor

we want to make “the rich poor and the poor holy,”
and that, too, is a revolution obnoxious to the pagan man.
Dorothy Day, November 1949

Servant of God Dorothy Day was born on this day, November 8, 1897.

In today’s Gospel, Mark 12: 38-44, Jesus is contrasting the religious leaders and the rich with the poor, especially a poor widow.

The religious leaders “devour the houses of widows.” In the days of Jesus, the Roman and the temple taxes would have made life difficult for the widow who had little or nothing to live on and depended on her children and the kindness of others.

But, according to Jesus, the religious leaders often do not note the poor.

But Jesus does, sitting in a place in the Temple where he can see how people give.

In this he notes the poor widow who gives just two small coins. “She, from her poverty, has given all she had, her whole livelihood.”

Whether she was giving because she had to and was thus using up all her resources, which were being devoured by religious leaders or whether she was giving all she had out of her sense of gratitude to God for all she had received – little though it may have been, Jesus sees her as a sign of the reign of God.

She is the one who gives all she has and, hopefully, lets God and the community support her.

Would that we who have much can learn that poor widow – how to give to God all we have and all we are, trusting in the providence of God and finding in the community the source of all we really need.

In such a way we can change from being the rich who devour the homes of widows to being the “poor” who share all we have.

Martyred for greeting the outcast

“Outside, the Temple is burning, and this too is a house of God. . . .
The Jews are my brothers and sisters,
also created with an immortal soul by God!”
Father Bernhard Lichtenberg

On November 5, 1943, Father Lichtenberg died while being transported to the Dachau concentration camp.

As provost of St. Hedwig’s Cathedral in Berlin, he had been outspoken against the Nazi’s campaign for euthanasia, writing the chief physician of the Reich:

“As a human being, a Christian, a priest, and a German, I demand of you that you answer for the crimes that have been perpetrated at your bidding, and with your consent, and which will call forth the vengeance of the Lord on the heads of the German people.”

He also spoke out clearly in defense of the Jews after 1938 Kristallnacht, when the Nazis attacked Jewish businesses and homes and gave clear signs of what they planned.

He was finally arrested in 1941 after his home was searched and notes were found for a sermon denouncing a statement of a Nazi official that greeting a Jew on the street was an act of treason. He was going to respond to this with the biblical admonition, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

In one sense, Father Lichtenberg was martyred for being willing to greet Jews on the streets of Berlin.

Greeting and acknowledging the marginalized, the persecuted, is a revolutionary act, an act rooted in the revolution of love that Jesus calls for among his followers.

What would happen – or, rather, what does happen – when one greets the refugee, the immigrant, the drug addict, the gang member on the street with love?

In some cases, people are mocked for their willingness to love. In other cases, they might even be locked up.

Have we come so far from Nazi Germany? Have we followers of Christ given up the call to welcome the stranger, to protect the persecuted, to put ourselves at the side of the poor?

May Blessed Bernhard Lichtenberg inspire us to stand with all those who suffer.


This post was inspired by Robert Ellsberg’s “Blessed among Us” entry in November 2015’s Give Us This Day. Subscription information available here.