It could have been a Washington story: she was young and beautiful, from a wealthy and influential family. She had received the best education that money could buy and her suitors were the most eligible bachelors from other leading families. She lived in tense times when it was important to be on the right side of the issues; it could be dangerous to challenge the authorities. But the story of St. Katherine of Alexandria goes far beyond the rise and fall of political careers in this country. Her decision to challenge the prevailing order and to stand up against the demands of the pagan emperor brought her the crown of martyrdom and an eternal place among the saints of God.
Katherine was born of noble parents (some accounts call her father a king) in late 3rd century Alexandria, one of the most important cities of the Roman Empire. Although Katherine’s father had died when she was a young girl, she had continued to move in privileged circles and, by the marriageable age of 18, she was being encouraged to “make a good match.” Katherine far outshone all of the young men she knew in her knowledge of philosophy and science and her rhetorical abilities. She declared that she would marry no one who was not her equal in every way.
Katherine’s mother had become a Christian, but had done so secretly, as there was a persecution of Christians underway, ordered by the Emperor Maximian (305-313). But she knew that the time had come to introduce her daughter to the faith. To help Katherine in her decisions regarding marriage, she took her to her own spiritual father, a hermit who was living a life of prayer in a cave outside the city. The wise elder showed Katherine an icon of the Theotokos and the Christ child, told her to meditate on it and pray that she would then see the most worthy of all men.
After praying much of the night, Katherine had a dream in which the Christ child turned His head away from her and refused to look upon her. He chastised her for being ugly, of poor lineage, and for having no intelligence – the opposite of the very things she prided herself on. In contemplating the dream the next day, Katherine slowly began to take the first steps toward holiness. She began looking at herself through the eyes of our Lord and knew that she had to learn humility and to use her gifts for serving Him. The young woman sought instruction in the Christian faith from the elder and soon professed herself a follower of Christ – wholly devoted to defending Him against any who would deny Him – and she was baptized.
The Emperor came to Alexandria for a great pagan festival and all the citizens – especially those from prominent families – were expected to join him in sacrificing to the Roman gods. Katherine refused and was outspoken in her denunciation of the activities.
Perhaps out of a desire to help a citizen “save face” and remain in good standing in the public mind, Maximian brought in his learned philosophers to persuade the girl to “come to her senses.” But Katherine – on fire with the zeal of her conversion – was able to debate so successfully with these men that they conceded the debate to her. Maximian’s good will was now gone and in his fury, he had the philosophers executed. Fear of such a punishment did not deter Katherine, and she still refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods.
The Emperor then ordered that the young woman be placed on a large wheel, a device for torturing prisoners in an effort to break their wills. But the angels were with Katherine and the wheel broke, so she was thrown into prison.
By now, news of these events had spread all over Alexandria and among the curious who came to visit Katherine in prison were Augusta Vasilissa, the Emperor’s wife, and Porphyrius, the general who commanded the Emperor’s soldiers. Both of these important people were so moved by Katherine’s words and her courage that they, too, were converted to Christianity.
Finally, on November 25 (in the year 310 or 311), the Emperor had Katherine beheaded. Only a few years later, the new Emperor, Constantine, made Christianity legal and ended the persecutions carried out by his predecessors. The example of St. Katherine’s steadfast courage helped many to come into the Church. Her relics were taken (some say by angels) to Mt. Sinai, in the Egyptian desert, where they are still venerated today.
May all who are tempted to make idols of beauty, wealth, social status or intelligence seek the prayers of St. Katherine. And may she come to the aid of all in positions of influence who courageously speak out for the truth.