The nonexistent patroness of philosophers

Today is the feast of St. Catherine of Alexandria, the patroness of us philosophers.

The trouble is she may not have existed – even though her tomb is at St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai and St. Joan of Arc identified her as one of the voices speaking to her. She is also one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, revered for their intercession with God.

At the very least, the legend of her life is legendary.

St. Catherine, in San Miniato, Florence

St. Catherine, in San Miniato, Florence

According to the legend, she was a precocious 18 year old Christian in Alexandria. She was brought before the emperor who was astounded by her wisdom and learning. He brought in fifty philosophers to refute her, but they ended up converting to Christianity – so powerful was her logic. The new Christian philosophers ended up being burned alive.

Catherine was sent to prison where she converted the emperor’s wife, the jailer, and two hundred members of the imperial guard. This, of course, did not please the emperor.

What a missionary she was! What a great philosophic debater!

The emperor then tried to torture her on a spiked wheel, which broke apart (and, of course, injured bystanders). She was finally beheaded. After her death her body was carried by angels to Mount Sinai.

Fantastic and amazing as the tale is there is probably an element of truth in the midst of all the legend.

A young woman probably converted many by her simple wisdom and suffered for her faith in a God beyond all human wisdom, perhaps revealing the subversive wisdom of the crucified and risen Lord.

Robert Ellsberg puts it beautifully in All Saints:

[St. 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.

An added note: St. Catherine’s feast was suppressed from the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar in 1969 but restored in 2002 as an optional memorial


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