St. Catherine, Virgin and Martyr
St. Catherine was born at Alexandria, of pagan parents. She was gifted with great personal beauty, and possessed so extraordinary a mind, that she mastered all the sciences which, at that period, flourished in her native city. The only science of which she had no knowledge was that of eternal salvation; but this, too, she at last obtained in the following manner: It seemed to her, in her sleep, that the Queen of Heaven was standing before her in wondrous beauty, carrying her divine Son in her arms. But the latter, turning His face from her in displeasure, said that Catherine was ugly, because she had not been baptized. Catherine awoke, and, while thinking over her dream, she was inspired by Heaven to resolve to become a Christian.
When sufficiently instructed, she received holy baptism, after which the Blessed Virgin again appeared to her with Christ, who, looking tenderly at Catherine, placed a ring on her finger, as a sign that He had chosen her for His bride. On awaking, she found a ring on her finger, and, without delay, determined to consecrate her virginity to the Lord, and to become a more zealous Christian.
Maximin, the emperor, had appointed a certain day to celebrate a public sacrifice in honor of the false gods, and all the inhabitants of the city were commanded to take part in it. Catherine was deeply grieved to see that the people should thus honor the devil, and not have any knowledge of the true God. Arming herself with courage, she went fearlessly into the temple, where the emperor personally assisted at the sacrifice, and, addressing him with Christian freedom, she represented to him his blindness in worshipping idols, and endeavored to convince him of the truth of Christianity. The emperor was greatly surprised that a maiden should dare to speak thus to him, but was, at the same time, fascinated by the appearance and eloquence of Catherine. No sooner had he returned to his palace, than Catherine again appeared before him, and spoke so forcibly of the falsity of the heathen gods, and of the truth of the Christian religion, that the emperor knew not what to reply.
What he was unable to do, he thought others could do for him; therefore he summoned some of the most learned men into his presence, to answer Catherine’s arguments, and persuade her to renounce the Christian faith. But the Almighty, Who, by a feeble maiden, could bring to naught the wisdom of the pagan sages, inspired St. Catherine with such eloquence, that she succeeded in convincing them of their error so completely, that they publicly renounced it, and proclaimed the Christian faith as the only true one. The emperor, enraged at so unexpected an issue, ordered these new confessors of Christ to be immediately executed. He then endeavored to win Catherine from her faith by flatteries and promises; and when he found that his words made no impression on the mind of the virgin, he began to threaten, and finally sent her away to be tortured. She was scourged so cruelly and so long, that her whole body was covered with wounds, from which the blood flowed in streams. The spectators wept with pity; but Catherine, strengthened by God, stood with her eyes raised to heaven, without giving a sign of suffering or fear.
After this cruel treatment she was dragged into a dungeon, and, by the command of the emperor, was left without food, in order that she might slowly pine away. But God sent an Angel, who healed her wounds and filled her heart with indescribable comfort. The Lord Himself appeared to her, encouraged her to fight bravely, and promised her the crown of everlasting glory. Some writers add, that the empress, having heard much of Catherine’s wonderful learning, eloquence and fortitude, had deep compassion upon her, and secretly went at night with Porphyrius, the captain of the guard, to visit her in her dungeon. When she beheld Catherine’s wounds healed, and the virgin resplendent with more than human beauty, she was speechless with surprise. Catherine made this miracle an occasion to speak to her of the omnipotence of the Most High, and of the falsity of the heathen gods. She spoke with such overwhelming eloquence, that the empress, as well as Porphyrius, promised to embrace Christianity.
Some days later, when the emperor was informed that Catherine was not only still alive but in better health than ever, he had her brought before him, and again assailed her with promises and menaces. Finding, however, that she was as firm as before, he gave orders that she should be bound to a wheel studded with sharply-pointed spikes and knives. The Christian heroine was not horrified at this inhuman order, but called with unwavering trust on God. When the executioners had seized her, and bound her on the wheel, the Almighty sent an Angel, who loosened the fetters and broke the wheel to pieces. Many of the spectators, on beholding this miracle, cried aloud: “Great is the God of the Christians! He alone is the true God!”
Maximin remained blind, and was thinking of new torments, when the empress came forward, reproached him with his barbarity towards a weak and innocent maiden, and boldly confessed that she herself recognized and worshipped no other god but the God of the Christians. The tyrant, hearing these words, lost all control over himself, and ordered the empress and Porphyrius to be immediately beheaded, and Catherine, as an enemy of the gods, to be taken to the public market-place and put to death by the sword. The fearless virgin went joyfully to the appointed place, exhorted all the people who had come to witness her death to abandon idolatry, prayed to God for their conversion, and then received the stroke that sent her soul to heaven. Ancient authors testify that milk flowed from the body of St. Catherine instead of blood, as had formerly happened at the death of St. Paul. Her body, they add, was miraculously carried by angels and buried on Mount Sinai, in Arabia.
I. Before Catherine was baptized she saw that the Divine Child in the Blessed Virgin’s arms turned its face from her; but after she had been received in the holy Church by baptism, it looked most tenderly at her. The reason of this was that before baptism, she was in sin, and after it, she was cleansed and endowed with spiritual beauty. Sin deforms the soul of man and makes it horrible in the eyes of God. Baptism, and after baptism, true penance, cleanses it again from all impurities, and gives it such beauty, that even the Almighty looks upon it with love. What is the appearance of your soul? If it is stained with one single sin, it is more deformed and horrible in the sight of God, than anything on earth. It resembles Lucifer, but is more horrible to look upon than he. Lucifer was the most beautiful of Angels, but one sin changed him to such a degree, that if you saw him, you would die of horror.
How dreadful must be the appearance of your soul, if it is disfigured not only by one, but by many sins? Why then do you not hasten to do penance, which will cleanse like a second baptism? Why do you not endeavor to keep your soul clean and beautiful? If your face bore a blemish, which made you an object of disgust to every one, would you not make every effort to remove it? Why not do the same with your soul, which, on account of sin, is a horror to the Almighty? If you were assured that, immediately after committing sin, you would lose all beauty of face and form, and that you would be changed into a frightful monster, would you commit the sin? Most certainly not. Why then do you become guilty of it, knowing that it deforms your soul, that it destroys all its beauty, and changes it, in the eyes of God and all the Saints, into a most frightful monster? “Those who wish to preserve the beauty of their soul, avoid sin; for there is nothing that deforms the soul so much as sin,” writes St. Lawrence Justinian.
II. Catherine took great pains to acquire worldly knowledge, but at last became acquainted also with the most necessary of all sciences, that of salvation. All other sciences would have been useless to her without this one. There are a great many persons in our days, who study many different sciences and arts; they spare neither expense nor labor nor time to become proficient in them, and they are honored by the world for their acquirements. But the science of salvation, the one most needed of all, is not attained nor esteemed. We find persons in the higher stations of life, who know not even the first principles of the true faith. Other knowledge they have acquired, but they know less of the science of salvation than many of the lower classes, less than children ten or twelve years old. What does all their science profit them? of what avail is all they have learned, when they do not study the science of salvation and do not conform their lives to its precepts? Should you ask in what the science consists, St. Thomas will answer you as follows: “In knowing, first, what you must believe; secondly, what you must hope and fear; thirdly, what and whom you must love; fourthly, what you must do; and fifthly, what you must avoid to gain life everlasting.”
To say this in fewer words, it consists in knowing what we must believe, do, and avoid in order to gain heaven. And where can we learn this science? Certainly not in worldly, or immoral books, not in the theatre, not in the society of frivolous people; but in sermons and instructions, in devout books and pious meditations. Have you heretofore endeavored to attain this science? Have you employed to this end all necessary means? Do you conduct yourself in accordance with the precepts of this science? Three important questions which well deserve to be seriously considered. For if you do not endeavor to learn the science of salvation, if you do not employ the necessary means for learning it, you never will learn it, and hence will be for ever unhappy, for your ignorance will be wilful, and therefore guilty. And if, though you have acquired this great science, you do not live in accordance with its teachings, then your knowledge of it will help you as little as it helps the devils and the damned, who also knew what was necessary to gain salvation, but lived not in accordance with their knowledge.
“It is of no avail,” says St. Prosper, “to learn what we must do, and not to rule our conduct accordingly.” Christ says: “If you know these things, you shall be blessed if you do them.” (John xiii.) Knowledge alone does not save, but living and acting in accordance with our knowledge, gains us life everlasting. To know and not to act accordingly, makes us deserving of punishment. Christ Himself says of the servant who knew the will of his Lord and acted not accordingly: “He shall be beaten with many stripes.” (Luke xii.) What is to be done, therefore, it is easy to infer. Endeavor to learn the science of salvation, employ all the means necessary for its acquirement, and then regulate your life by your knowledge. Parents are obliged, under pain of eternal punishment, to see that their children are early instructed in this science, which is more needful knowledge for them than any other. Woe to those parents who neglect this duty!
Lives of the Saints: Compiled from Authentic Sources with a Practical Instruction on the Life of Each Saint, for Every Day in the Year by Rev. F. X. Weninger. Permissu Superiorum. New York: P. O’Shea, Publisher, 67 Barclay Street and 42 Park Place. 1876.