Of all the female saints, next to S. Mary Magdalene, S. Catherine is the most popular: venerated by men as the divine patroness of learning; and by women regarded as the type of female intellect and eloquence, as well as of courageous piety and chastity. She is the inspirer of wisdom and good counsel in time of need—the Minerva of the heathens, softened and refined by the attributes of the Christian martyr.
Constantius Chlorus, the father of Constantine the Great, had a first wife before he married the Empress Helena. She died in giving birth to a son, whose name was Costis, and whom his father married to the only daughter and heiress of the King of Egypt, a virtuous princess, whose name was Sabinella; with her he lived and reigned for several years, but after the law of the Pagans, for they were, unhappily, idolaters.
Like all mothers who bring forth saints, Queen Sabinella had a prophetic dream, in which was prefigured the glory of her first-born. In due time she gave birth to a daughter, who was named Catherine. From her earliest infancy she was the wonder of all who beheld her, for grace of mind and person. At the age of fifteen there was none comparable to her in the learning and philosophy of the Gentiles. The works of Plato were her favourite study; and the teaching of Socrates had prepared her to receive a higher and a purer doctrine.
The king her father, who loved her, ordained to wait upon her seven of the wisest masters that could be gotten together; but Catherine, divinely endowed, so far excelled them all, that they who came to teach her became her disciples. Moreover, he ordained for her a tower in his palace, with divers chambers furnished with all kinds of mathematical instruments, with which she might study at pleasure.
When Catherine was about fourteen, her father, King Costis, died, and left her heiress of his kingdom. But when she was queen, Catherine showed the same contempt for all worldly care and royal splendour that she had hitherto exhibited, for she shut herself up in her palace, and devoted herself to the study of philosophy. The people of her country were discontented at this and the nobles came to their lady and queen and desired that she would be pleased to take a husband who should assist her in the government of the country, and lead them forth to war.
She was much abashed and troubled at this request. Her mother, Sabinella, also intreated her saying, “Alas, my daughter, where shall ye find such a husband?” and Catherine answered, “If I do not find him, he shall find me, for other will I none;”—and she had a great conflict and battle to keep her virginity.
Now there was a certain holy hermit who dwelt in a desert about two days’ journey from the city of Alexandria; to him the Virgin Mary appeared out of heaven, and sent him with a message of comfort to the young Queen Catherine, to tell her that the husband whom she had desired was her Son, who was greater than any monarch of this world, being himself the king of Glory, and the Lord of all power and might. Catherine desired to behold her future bridegroom. The hermit therefore gave her a picture representing the Virgin Mary and her divine Son; and when Catherine beheld the heavenly face of the Redeemer of the world, her heart was filled with love of his beauty and innocence; she forgot her books, her spheres, and her philosophers; Plato and Socrates became to her tedious as a twice-told tale. She placed the picture in her study, and that night as she slept upon her bed she had a dream in which she journeyed by the side of the old hermit, who conducted her towards a sanctuary on the top of a high mountain; and when they reached the portal, there came out to meet them a glorious company of angels clothed in white, and wearing chaplets of white lilies on their heads; and Catherine, being dazzled, fell on her face. She was finally led into an inner chamber in which she was presented to Our Blessed Lady, who led her by the hand to Our Lord, saying to him, “Most sovereign honour, joy, and glory be to you, King of Blessedness, my Lord and my Son! Lo! I have brought into your blessed presence your servant and maid Catherine, which for your love hath renounced all earthly things.” But the Lord turned away his head, and refused her, saying, “She is not fair nor beautiful enough for me.” The maiden, hearing these words, awoke in a passion of grief, and wept till it was morning. Then she consulted the hermit who instructed her fully in the Christian faith: then he baptized her, and, with her, her mother, Sabinella.
That night, as Catherine slept, the Blessed Virgin appeared to her again, accompanied by her divine Son, and Mary again presented Catherine to the Lord who smiled upon her, held out his hand and plighted his troth to her, putting a ring on her finger. When she awoke, Catherine looked and saw the ring upon her finger; and henceforth, regarding herself as the betrothed of Christ, despised the world, and all the pomp of earthly sovereignty, continuing to dwell in her palace until Queen Sabinella died, and she was left alone.
At this time the tyrant Maximin greatly persecuted the Church, and, being come to Alexandria, he gathered all the Christians together, and commanded them, on pain of severest torments, to worship the heathen gods. S. Catherine came forth and confronted the tyrant, pleading for her fellow Christians, and demonstrating the truth of the Christian and the falsehood of the Pagan religion arguing for a long time after the manner of the philosophers, quoting Plato and Socrates, and the books of the Sibyls.
Maximin being confounded by her arguments ordered that fifty of the most learned philosophers and rhetoricians be collected from all parts of his empire to confront Catherine. In the end they were struck dumb by her superior learning and were converted to the faith of Christ. The emperor, enraged, ordered them to be consumed by fire and ordered Catherine to be imprisoned and starved to death. In the dungeon Catherine prayed to her heavenly bridegroom, and the angels descended and ministered to her, whereupon those attending the prison fell down at her feet and declared themselves Christians.
Maximin, returning to Alexandria, was seized with fury, but being more than ever inflamed by the beauty and wisdom of Catherine, offered to make her his empress, and mistress of the whole world, if she would repudiate the name of Christ. She would not; therefore he commanded that they should construct four wheels, armed with sharp points and blades-two revolving in one direction, two in another-so that her tender body should be torn into ten thousand pieces. So they bound her between the wheels, and, at the same moment, fire came down from heaven, sent by the destroying angel of God, who broke the wheels in pieces, and, by the fragments which flew around, the executioners and three thousand people perished.
The tyrant repented not, but ordered that Catherine should be scourged with rods and beheaded by the sword, which was done. And when she was dead, angels took up her body, and carried it over the desert, and over the Red Sea, till they deposited it on Mount Sinai, where, in the eighth century a monastery was built over her remains, which are revered to this day.