IN THE YEAR 650 THE EMPEROR JUSTINIAN sponsored the building of a monastery at Jebel Moussa on the Sinai Peninsula. It was built to enclose the Chapel of the Burning Bush ordered to be built by St. Helena, the mother of St Constantine the Great, at the site where Moses is supposed to have encountered God at the burning bush. The full, official name of the monastery is the Sacred and Imperial Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount of Sinai, but for centuries it has been known as the Monastery of St Catherine.
Justinian’s monastery still exists. The unique climate of Sinai has preserved some of the oldest Christian manuscripts in the world including the fourth century Codex Sinaiticus, a handwritten copy of the Bible. The monastery houses the most important collection of early icons in the world. Many of them look as if they were painted yesterday. The monastery also cherishes numerous relics, the most revered being the head and the hand of St. Catherine of Alexandria which rest in the monastery church.
In the eighth century the relics of St. Catherine were discovered buried in the ground by an ascetic who lived in the vicinity. They were later transferred to the monastery itself and placed in a sarcophagus near the principal altar. The saint’s head and hand remain there to this day, reportedly giving forth a heavenly scent and working countless miracles. Thus the liturgy calls Catherine “the protectress of Sinai” (troparion).
In the eleventh century Simeon of Trier brought a finger of the saint to Rouen. Other relics are found in churches throughout the Mediterranean, in Ethiopia and in India. Devotion to St Catherine thus spread throughout the Christian world.
The relics of Saint Catherine are brought out for the veneration of the faithful on special occasions, at which time each pilgrim is given a silver ring bearing the monogram of the saint. According to one tradition, Catherine had a vision in which she underwent a mystic marriage with Christ, who put a gold ring on her finger. Another version of the tradition says that, when Catherine was praying before a small icon of the Theotokos and Her Son, He turned His head and placed a ring on her finger. These rings are preserved by pilgrims as a blessing from the saint.
Who Was St. Catherine?
Despite the universal reverence for this saint in all the Churches, important questions about her identity remain unanswered. The first mention of her by name is in the Menologium Basilianum, a collection of saints’ lives compiled for Emperor Basil II who died in 886, over 500 years after her death. A longer life, by Simeon Metaphrastes, was written in the tenth century and is the source of all later compositions, including the hymns for her feast.
According to Simeon, Catherine was an extremely learned young girl of noble birth who protested the persecution of Christians under the Roman emperor Maxentius —whose wife and several soldiers she converted — and defeated the most eminent scholars summoned by Maxentius to oppose her. The spiked wheel by which she was sentenced to be killed broke, and she was then beheaded.
In the eighteenth century the Maronite scholar, Joseph Simon Assemani (1687-1768), seeking an earlier mention, identified Catherine with a young Christian noblewoman of Alexandria mentioned in Eusebius’ history of the Church, written less than 20 years after the persecutions of Diocletian and Maximinus. This woman was banished for refusing the solicitations of the emperor and suffered the confiscation of her estates.
Others have thought that Catherine is a fictional person, modeled after the neo-Platonist philosopher Hypatia who, according to the fifth-century Christian writer Socrates Scholasticus, “made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time.” This woman was killed in 415 by a Christian mob in Alexandria who believed she was influencing the city’s prefect against the bishop. This caused a great scandal in the Churches for, as Socrates observed, “Surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort.’ Those who support this theory believe that the story of a Christian woman philosopher martyred by the pagans might have been contrived to offset this scandal.
A Woman Philosopher?
Simeon Metaphrastes depicts St Catherine as a highly educated woman, a philosopher skilled in the Alexandrian tradition. Some people think that women emerged into public life only in the modern era. In the Hellenistic culture – and Alexandria was the educational center of the Greco-Roman world – learning and religion were the two fields most open to women. The degree of freedom a woman enjoyed depended largely on her wealth and social status. As a patrician, Catherine would have enjoyed such freedom and opportunity.
A slightly later example is St Marina the Elder, matriarch of a noble Cappadocian Christian family. Her grandson, St Basil the Great, described her as “the illustrious Macrina, by whom we were taught the words of the most blessed Gregory [the Wonderworker].” That a grandmother would teach her grandchildren religion is not unusual – that a grandmother would pass on to them the deeply philosophical writings of a disciple of Origen is beyond our imagination today.
St. Basil’s sister, Macrina the Younger, was named after her illustrious grandmother. She too was a noted Christian thinker who had considerable influences on her brothers Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa. By her time, however, Christian women had a new field of endeavor open to them: monasticism. With another of her brothers, Peter of Sebaste, she devoted her resources to establishing monasteries on the grounds of the family estate.
St Catherine is something of a symbol of an age in transition. She lived in a great center of Neoplatonism, a philosophy that was increasingly being mixed with superstition and divination. She died in the last of the great Roman persecutions and, through her relics, became a protectress of monasticism in which the Christian philosophy of theosis would thrive.
Sticheron at Vespers (Tone 2) – On the feast of Catherine, wise in God, O friends of the martyrs, let us hasten in joy to crown her with our praises as with flowers. Let us say to her, “Hail, for you refuted the insolent babbling of the orators and led them from ignorance to faith in God! Hail, for through love for your Creator you handed over your body to countless torments, resisting like an anvil without being burned! Hail, for by your pains you attained the object of our desires – the dwellings above, where you rejoice in eternal glory! May the hopes of those who sing to you never be disappointed!”
Exapostilarion at Orthros (Tone 3) – O Catherine, venerable virgin, glory of martyrs, you strengthen the courage of all women. You rejected as myths and foolishness the thoughts of philosophers who did not know the true God, for you had as your help the divine and all-pure Mother.