The Life of St. Catherine of Alexandria, the Great Martyr

The Life of St. Catherine of Alexandria, the Great Martyr


Kyriaki Karidoyanes FitzGerald, M.Div., Ph.D.

February, 2003



Tone 5

Let us praise Catherine the radiant bride of Christ,

Guardian of Sinai, our helper and supporter.

By the power of the Spirit, she silenced the arrogance of the ungodly.

Crowned as a martyr, she now implores great mercy for all.


The following is a description of the life of Great-martyr, St. Catherine of Alexandria; as has been sustained through the ancient spiritual tradition of Orthodox Christianity.  Scholars have found it impossible to verify the details of her life.  Nevertheless, the testimony to the gospel reality demonstrated through the veracity of her story may be just as compelling for us today, as it was for those who personally had come to know her many centuries ago.

Catherine lived in the early fourth century during the reign of Emperor Maxentius of Rome.  Maxentius, was a pagan and according to the practice of the civil religion of the time was worshipped as a god.  He actively persecuted Christians, as Christians committed treason for worshipping Christ instead of him.

Catherine also grew up in a pagan family and according to a number of sources, came from noble birth.  Some have stated that she was the daughter of the pagan King Costos of Cypress.  When she was quite young, her father was invited to Alexandria to serve as a counselor for the emperor.  Alexandria was one of the most beautiful and sophisticated cities of the Roman Empire, with arguably the finest institutions of higher learning.  Of particular importance during that era, was an almost over-zealous preoccupation among upper class Alexandrians upon the importance of philosophy.

Because of her privileged birth, Catherine naturally received the best and most exclusive education available at the time.  By all accounts she was a brilliant student, far excelling her peers in every subject, including in the sciences, oratory and philosophy.  By the time she was eighteen, however, it appears that she had reached the limits her pagan learning could offer.  It seems that for Catherine, this education was not enough.

As her mother sometimes traveled with her, Catherine was led by her to an elderly man whom a growing number in the city had come to revere for his unique teaching.  By this time, Catherine's mother had quietly already become a Christian.  In a deep sense, Catherine's mother knew why her daughter was experiencing an increasing frustration with her education and the direction of her life. Most likely, she brought her daughter to the elderly and holy man in order to expose her to the fullest measure of philosophy, which is philosophy as "the love for the Truth" or "the love of Wisdom".

After some time and instruction, Catherine became a believer in Christ.  The elder, now her tutor, one day directed her to pray to Christ, fast and keep vigil for the entire night and to later inform him as to what happened.  Catherine obeyed and during the night experienced a vision of Mary, the Mother of the Lord and the Christ-child, but the Child would not look at her, as she was "not worthy."  On closer consideration of this part of the story, the Greek word used to indicate worthiness has a rich and sometime broader connotation.  We might also consider that "worthy" in this case was indicating whether Catherine was "ready", as the Child directed her to return to her teacher for more instruction.

This must have struck the noble-born and brilliant woman forcefully, whom while attempting to be obedient, was probably not used to being told what to do, let alone being directed to "go finish her homework".  According to these accounts, she returned to the venerable, old man in order to complete her education.  After some unspecified amount of time of preparation, Catherine received baptism and later was again, directed by her spiritual father to pray to Christ, fast and keep vigil for the entire night.  This time, however, the Lord and His Holy Mother received her, even giving her in this vision a golden ring signifying her uncompromising fidelity to Christ.  When she awoke from this vision, the ring was still on her finger.

Not too long after this, Catherine happened to be at a public event held at a pagan temple.  At some point during the event, the emperor directed the abuse and killing of animals as living sacrifices.  Catherine publicly confronted him, chastising him for his tyranny and these senseless acts.  Perhaps because of her intelligence, eloquence and striking beauty Maxentius may have been more entertained than affronted by her at first. Rather than having her immediately martyred for defying him, he arranged a formal confrontation.  He assigned fifty of his foremost philosophers to debate their truth for hers.

The emperor apparently thought that his experts could undermine both Catherine and the spread of Christianity, but this clever calculation backfired.  His select philosophers, indeed, vigorously sought to convince her of the error in her logic. But, as reasonable and fair-minded scholars, they were also receptive to what she had to say.  She spoke to them about the ultimate expression of "the love of Wisdom". Somehow, through the manner she engaged them, the Vision that had been guiding her also melted the hardness in their own minds and hearts. Making good use of the gifts bestowed upon her, she was able to bear eloquent witness to the love of the living God.  And, as a result of her teaching, they professed Christ publicly and became her brothers in the Lord that day.  

The emperor was infuriated with this surprise turn of events.  He saw this as a direct attack upon his own power, glory and honor.  Here we must be mindful that all power, glory and honor belong to God!  By now, this already had become a deeply personal issue for the emperor, and his sole objective was to "break" Catherine. In order to re-gain power and control, he prompted a public act of intimidation. As a way to coerce Catherine to submit to him, he commanded that all fifty of his hand-chosen advisers be martyred in her presence.  Some sources say that Catherine blessed her cherished new spiritual brothers with the sign of the cross before they were executed.

The emperor had other business to conduct outside the city for a few days.  Remembering this, he ordered that Catherine be thrown in prison, so that he could also consider how to end this problem "once and for all" while he was away.  During his absence, his wife the Empress Faustina and one of his officers, Porphyrios came to meet the remarkable woman. Even while condemned to the inner depths of the dungeon, Catherine was able to share her Vision with them. There, in the pit of virtually unbearable isolation and darkness healing relationships began, grounded in the saving love of the living God. During the span of those few days, we are told that not only the Empress Faustina and Porphyrios, but also 200 members of the imperial guard became believers.  

Upon learning about this on his return, the emperor was incredulous.  Out of his rage, he promptly ordered each of their executions, including that of his wife. The emperor had had enough.  

He then thought hard about a method that would both humiliate and torture Catherine. He was desperate to regain power and control.  He had devised a wheel of spikes and razors upon which to kill her (henceforth called, "St. Catherine's Wheel").  She was to be publicly stripped, strapped to the device and spun to death. According to her legend, the moment she touched the devise, it blew apart killing some of her accusers.

This only further maddened the emperor.  

She finally was martyred through beheading.  Even here, it is reported that where Catherine's body had been severed a milk-like substance flowed and that a sweet smelling oil exuded from her bones.  To the foundation of her being, even from her very "bones", this part of the story could be telling us something much more wonderful about holy Catherine.  Far more than being the remarkable, inspiring and eloquent teacher of the faith that she was; Catherine was also a living presence of the healing and love of God to those who elected to be in her company.  All this indicates to us today that indeed, she was courageously faithful to her beloved Lord.  She was faithful with an integrity that was nurtured through the Holy Spirit, by His never-ending love for her.

Centuries later, her body was taken to Mt. Sinai where it has been enshrined at the ancient Christian monastery which is still there.  Today, she is also venerated as a patron saint for theologians, philosophers, scholars, teachers, students, preachers, orators, librarians and others.    


Printed with persmission of the author.

Copyright Kyriaki Karidoyanes FitzGerald, 2003.

All rights reserved.