The monastery stands on one of the most hallowed grounds in Christendom for it was here that God declared to Moses from out of the burning bush, “Put off your sandals for the place on which you stand is holy ground.” And by drawing a parallel between the bush that flamed but wasn’t consumed and the virgin Mary whose immaculate virginity remained uncorrupted with the birth of Jesus, the first monks dedicated their monastery to the Mother of God. And if such a consecration were not enough, the basilica of Justinian that shelters the holy ground was dedicated to the Transfiguration, the moment when Jesus appeared to a group of his disciples in a vision with the prophets, Moses and Elijah, who had both spent quality time on the holy mountain that looms massively over the sacred site. Despite such exalted patronage, however, the monastery was rededicated in the 12th century to a maiden of Alexandria: St Catherine.
Perhaps it was the real presence of her relics discovered on a nearby peak that gave more tangible promise of intercession in the contentious lobbies of heaven. This fortuitous discovery certainly brought undreamt of wealth to the monastery. In 1025, Simeon, a charismatic member of the monastery, later to become a saint in Trier, was dispatched to Normandy to collect alms from noble benefactors. He carried with him three of the saint’s finger bones and a scented oil that seeped from her remains. One of the bones ended up in the Abbey of the Trinity in Rouen, and when it cured the Abbot’s toothache, the abbey was re-consecrated to St Catherine. And as the news of her healing powers spread, so did the number of churches and monasteries consecrated in her name; the universities of Paris and Padua adopted her as their patron saint; the Sainte Chapelle in Paris acquired a few drops of her precious oil; Joan of Arc communicated with her in a vision. All brought recognition and wealth to her principal shrine in Sinai.
Legend relates that St Catherine had been a maiden of noble birth and rare beauty, well schooled in poetry, philosophy and languages. Refusing any suitor who wasn’t able to match her in such breeding, wealth, grace and learning, she became resigned to the life of a studious maiden, until her mother, desperate for the happiness of her only daughter, took her to a holy man.
Whether the result was that which her mother had so dearly intended, we know not, for her daughter developed an unquenchable ardour for Christ to whom she became chastely betrothed in a radiant vision.
It was the time of the persecutions under Maxentius, and with the zeal of the newly converted, St Catherine sought to dissuade the emperor from his cruel and despotic ways. He marvelled at her learning and lusted after her beauty and called upon the greatest philosophers of the age to dispute with her to win her back to the pagan gods. But with inspired argument, it was St Catherine who vanquished the philosophers and brought them all to Christ. Seething with rage, Maxentius had the philosophers burnt at the stake and Catherine stripped and beaten until the flesh of her body was torn and bleeding. His fury spent, he again tried to beguile and seduce her, but she resisted and kept herself for Christ. Lust turned to malice and the jilted emperor conceived an instrument of torture in which wheels were spiked with blades and spun to sever the limbs of the stubborn maiden. But an angel of the Lord appeared and caused the wheels to shatter, and many in the Imperial household, including the Empress herself, were amazed and brought to the love of God. In a fury, the emperor had his wife put to death, and turning a last time to St Catherine, offered his empire in marriage if she would only forsake her God. But the saint refused and was martyred outside the walls of the city by having her head severed from her body. And in a miracle that made St Catherine the patron saint of lactating mothers, only milk flowed from her ruptured arteries.
Beautiful though the story may be, the truth behind the legend remains obscure. In 1969 the Vatican judged it to be apocryphal and had St Catherine removed from the calendar of saints. She is not mentioned in any of the early chronicles or martyrologies, a puzzling omission given that she had allegedly contended with the finest philosophers of the age and converted them all to Christianity. She does not appear in the works of Lactantius who had lived through the persecutions and chronicled them before his death in 320. And though there is a passing reference to a young, Christian noble-woman in Eusebius’ History of the Church who was invited to see the Emperor to become his mistress, her refusal was merely punished by confiscation of her estates and banishment.
Since the name Catherine comes from the Greek Katharos meaning “pure”, so gratuitously apt for a virgin, it has been suggested that her story was first construed as a fanciful allegory of virtue. The first written accounts don’t appear until the ninth or tenth century, and they have the character of medieval romances with a coy princess resisting suitors in the absence of her lover. The later emphasis on her learning may have been a belated scholastic repost to the death of Hypatia of Alexandria, a pagan lady of great wisdom, much respected by philosophers of the age, who was torn to bits by Christian mobs in 431 in a well attested atrocity that has long blighted the conscience of the church.
But beautiful stories which inspire the faithful have their own spiritual truth, and despite her dismissal from the holy ranks, the Vatican allowed her worship to continue. When John Paul II visited the monastery in 2000, he prayed at the shrine of St Catherine and shortly afterwards, in 2002, she was readmitted into the roster of saints.
The Orthodox Church has never failed in its veneration of the saint and the action of John Paul II can be seen as a step towards healing the rift separating the Eastern and Western churches since the time of the mutual anathemas of 1042 and the sacking of Constantinople by catholic troops in 1204.