By Lisa Powell
St. Catherine of Alexandria’s feast day was Nov. 25. My first introduction to her came through an old Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward film called “A New Kind of Love.”
In the film, the career-driven tom-boy played by Woodward gets dragged into a festival in Paris supposedly celebrating St. Catherine, during which time unmarried women drink champagne, wear wild hats, and march through the streets together to the shrine of St. Catherine where they leave her gifts and ask her for a husband. There Catherine advised Woodward to get a makeover. Hardly the saint you would expect women theologians to turn to as exemplary.
However, although Catherine may be a patron saint of unmarried women, “spinsters” and the like, she is also a patron saint of philosophers. Legend has it that this highly educated young woman converted to Christianity in the fourth century and at age 18 confronted the emperor who was persecuting Christians.
Astonished by her intelligence, the emperor had his top scholars and philosophers question her, and many of them converted. For the audacity of leading the top pagan thinkers to conversion, she was soon martyred on a spiked wheel.
Thus, Catherine is remembered for her keen mind. Perhaps this is why the biographer of 17th century Mexican nun Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, narrates a similar scene in Juana’s youth. As a teenager, Juana, known for her learning in an age when women weren’t publically educated, was invited to the viceroy’s court. There she not only enjoyed great popularity for her wit, but she was questioned by 40 renowned Mexican scholars. According to her biographer, she defended her ideas, “like a royal galleon attacked by small canoes.” Juana, like Catherine, is remembered for her learning, intelligence and theological acuteness.
At the end of her life Sor Juana herself attended to St. Catherine’s legacy, writing songs for the cathedral Mass in Oaxaca, Mexico, celebrating the feast of St. Catherine. Here are some of the verses she wrote for that liturgy, translated from the Spanish:
Catherine bears the victory!
For with knowledge pure and holy
She’s convinced the learned men
And has emerged victorious
— with her knowledge glorious —
from their arrogance profane,
which would convince and conquer her.
But Catherine is the victor!
The learned men of Egypt, by
a woman have been vanquished,
to demonstrate that sex is not
the essence of intelligence.
She studies, and disputes, and teaches,
and thus she serves her Faith;
for how could God, who gave her reason,
want her ignorant?
I admit that I first researched St. Catherine and her feast day because I thought it would be a good day to get all my single girlfriends at seminary together to drink champagne and wear ridiculous hats, but when I learned about her story, what she represents, and the inspiration she has been to Christian women throughout the centuries, her feast day has taken on new meaning. What little is known about her is likely legend, but she gained great popularity in the middle ages; Joan of Arc was among her devotees.
This is possibly because St. Catherine of Alexandria is remembered not just as a martyr, but a scholar and an articulate expositor of Christian thought from the ancient church, venerated during centuries when women were discouraged from theological inquiry and study.
(Powell is an assistant professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)