The Importance of Being Catherine

Bernardino Luini - Saint Catherine

Perhaps a little flight of fancy may be allowable on Black Friday, either to lighten the mood or distract from the serious business of spending money one doesn’t have on things one doesn’t need, or the even more serious business of spending money one needs on the things one doesn’t have.

Today is the feast of St Catherine of Alexandria. According to legend, she was both nobly born and a scholar, and probably beautiful as well. She was certainly brave. Having herself become a Christian at about the age of fourteen, she converted hundreds of others to follow suit and stood up to the Emperor Maxentius, rebuking him for his cruel persecution of her co-religionists. The emperor was a fair-minded man and arranged for a debate between Catherine and fifty of the best pagan philosophers he could find. Naturally, Catherine won the debate, convinced many of her hearers to become Christians (although the result was instant death) and was summarily imprisoned for her pains. While there she converted Maxentius’ wife to Christianity (not exactly a recipe for harmony in the imperial household), bore torture bravely, spurned Maxentius’ own proposal of marriage and finally died gloriously at the age of eighteen. Her last act of power was to shatter the spiked wheel (the so-called catherine wheel) on which Maxentius intended her to die, thus forcing him to have her beheaded instead (an allegedly kinder death).

It is a racy story, but behind the legend we glimpse something worth pondering: a brave woman, ready to defend her faith, whom no earthly power could crush or subdue; one who was valued by the early Church not only for her bravery but also for her gifts of scholarship and leadership. St Catherine of Siena lived a very different kind of life, one that is well documented so her story need not be repeated here, but there are important elements in common with her Alexandrian predecessor. Catherine of Siena had courage of a high order, taking popes to task and standing up for what she believed to be right. She was also, quite clearly, a person others instinctively trusted as leader and guide. One might think she was a little autocratic at times, but she worked well with Raymond of Capua, showing a talent for collaboration that suggests a much more complex personality than her admirers sometimes admit.

Finally, there is a third Catherine, D. Catherine Gascoigne, first abbess of Cambrai, whose stout defence of Fr Augustine Baker and his way of prayer led to some extraordinary tensions within the English Benedictine Congregation in the seventeenth century. D. Catherine steadfastly refused to yield when ordered to give up Fr Baker’s books. She and the community she served quietly clung to the old English mystical tradition, persevered with the ambitious study programme set by Fr Baker himself and demonstrated that it was possible to be both a loyal daughter of the Church and have a mind of one’s own where such intimate things as prayer were concerned.

The discerning reader will, of course, have caught my drift; and incidentally understood why I am named for the third Catherine and keep my feast-day on that of the second. These three remarkable Catherines demonstrate the steely grace of Christian womanhood — the determination to do what is right, come what may. Although none of them minced her words, I cannot think of anything attributed to them that smacks of unkindness or injustice; and that is hugely important. We know they had their faults or, shall we say, their trying side — Catherine of Siena, in particular, must have been hard to live with at times — but it is not that which we remember. Their zeal, their compassion, their sheer energy commands our respect and makes us want to emulate them. As you negotiate the rocks and shallows of Black Friday, spare a thought for the importance of being Catherine. Give thanks for these three great saints* who shine a bright and glorious light in the Church and on the world — and pray for all the other Catherines who have yet to achieve such sanctity.

  • D. Catherine Gascoigne has not been canonised but few who have studied her life and writings doubt her holiness.
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