Tag Archives: women

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.

Agnes, the countercultural virgin

St. Agnes was martyred at the age of 12 or 13 for having refused to sacrifice to idols as well as for rejecting offers of marriage.

Having consecrated herself to Christ as a virgin at a young age, she was handed over to civil authorities. When she refused to sacrifice to the idols or to marry one of her suitors, she was placed first with the pagan Vestal Virgins and then in a brothel. It is said that when she was stripped naked, her hair grew to cover her.

In any case, the authorities tried unsuccessfully to burn her and finally killed her by the sword.

For some this is a story about sex and idolatry, but Robert Ellsberg in All Saints puts her life in a different context:

In the story of Agnes, however, the opposition is not between sex and virginity. The conflict is between a young woman’s power in Christ to determine her own identity versus a patriarchal culture’s claim to identify her in terms of her sexuality. According to the view of her “suitors” and the state, if she would not be one man’s wife, she might as well be every man’s whore. Failing these options, she might as well be dead.

Virginity is a way not only to consecrate her to Christ but a way to resist the powers of this world that reduce women to sexual objects to be conquered by men. The virgin is a woman who has obtained freedom to be who she is, made in the image and likeness of God.

Married women also partake of this freedom, as they live as true partners with their spouses, not defining themselves by their “man,” but living with their spouse as people united in love, respecting the dignity of each other. Faithful spouses resist the powers that identify people as merely genital or use sex as a form of power and conquest.

Ellsberg notes that in regard to St. Agnes,

“Virgin” in this case is another way to say Free Woman.

I would say that all women who recognize their dignity and live their lives in contrast to the sexualized culture of power and inequality can be Free Women.