Guest post by Denise Renner.
For we have not by following artificial fables, made known to you the power, and presence of our Lord Jesus Christ; but we were eyewitnesses of his greatness.” (2 Peter 1:16)
We received an icon of Saint Catherine of Alexandria as a gift a couple years ago. She hung in our son’s bedroom, out of sight and out of mind, until we moved and I placed her in our kitchen. Having her as a constant companion throughout my day made me curious to know more about her. And her story is extraordinary.
As a young Christian girl in Egypt during the 4th century, she confronted the Roman Emperor Maximinus II because of his violent persecution of Christians. Debating and ultimately converting some of his scholars only served to further anger the emperor, who sentenced the insolent and eloquent Catherine to death. But at her touch, the wheel she was condemned to die on was destroyed. She was ultimately beheaded, and her body was transported to Mount Sinai by angels—a Catholic saint if ever there was one.
But then I read the boiler plate: there have been embellishments, and there is a lack of historical documentation; there are even claims that Catherine did not exist, that she is a purely legendary figure based on the pagan philosopher Hypatia.
This bothers me.
Maybe because I grew up reading literature that dealt with the stuff of everyday—suffering, loss, death, tragedy—and spent little time in mythical worlds and the fantasy genre, I find the stuff of real life infinitely more compelling than smidgeons of reality padded and puffed up beyond all recognition with the fantastic. A big part of my conversion was realizing that truth could objectively be found in the Church. After conversion, it was disheartening to discover what felt like an absence of just that.
Things I had previously dismissed—saints, apparitions, relics—were suddenly becoming part of my culture, and part of the heritage we were passing on to our children. I remember the first time I heard the term “pious fake” applied to a relic. I thought, Well, of course. Nothing sounded more Catholic than fake bones and body parts being venerated all over the world by laypeople who did not know the difference, and probably did not even care.
If relics could be both pious and fake, then what of the Communion of Saints? Could a saint be both the stuff of legend and still intercede on our behalf? What of Saint Catherine, who was either a character in a fictional romance or a devout Christian martyr, depending on who you ask and where you looked for information?
Of one thing I am certain: the inner Doubting Thomas has surfaced more since becoming Catholic. There was less to question as a Lutheran, less demanded of the faithful. I accepted Martin Luther, who was one man, terribly and fearfully easy to relate to. Not so in the Church founded by Jesus Christ. I struggle mightily to relate to Saint Catherine of Alexandria, even the most simple version of her life: a young girl martyred for her faith. Even if you lop off the bit about confronting the emperor, her torture and beheading, and the transportation by angels—she is still much more than I was at her age, and more than I am now.
So why gild the lily? Perhaps that is just part of the mystery of the faith and its transmission to future generations. And maybe we all struggle, in our own unique way, with some form of perceived “excess” when we come into the Catholic Church.
There are those who cannot understand the elaborate ceremony, the vestments, the candles, the incense; and those who stumble in the silence, who cannot find a toehold when confronted with the Latin Mass. Some cannot comprehend the Eucharist, the papacy, Marian devotion, or how the Divine Office can be so complicated. For me, there is the shimmering veil of fantasy that seems to envelope the Communion of Saints.
Perhaps, like the vestments and candles and processions, these embellishments and legends are meant to inspire, in the same way we use fairy tales to introduce children to the nature of good and evil, to see Hansel and Gretel succeed in escaping from the witch. And are we not all children of God?
I have spent a considerable amount of time reading fiction. I know the stories are not true when I start to read them, but that does nothing to prevent the characters from lodging in my imagination, from being people I “know” in the sense that I have spent time in their worlds, in their circumstances, and in their mind. Before becoming Catholic, I was able to commune with Saint Augustine through his Confessions, able to know him, and to be influenced by him, all these centuries later.
I would argue that I know Anna Karenina as well, that I have connected with her and a whole host of characters that are fictional, or loosely based on real people; and whether only partly real or totally imagined, each character reveals some truth about human nature and our existential condition, which is not only possible in fiction, but is the purpose of all good literature.
Perhaps the story of Saint Catherine’s life as it has come down to us is simply inspiration for confronting the pagan emperors of today, yet another example in a long list of those who have stood for what is right and true—even if the details are a bit fuzzy. After all, Saint Joan of Arc claimed that Saint Catherine was among the saints who counseled her on her own blazing course through history.
And yet, somehow it remains easier to accept a purely fictional character’s nod to the truth than to fight my knee-jerk resistance to legends of the early saints. I want the Barque of Peter to take on no water, to be neat and tidy. To examine one life, one legend, and find holes leads to questions about what Joan of Arc truly saw, said, or heard and whether this divine and holy communion can be trusted. Tolstoy never suggests that we commune with Anna Karenina, and we have no expectation that her role will transcend that of a good story. But if we believe in Christ’s Church, which can neither deceive nor be deceived, then Saint Catherine is not merely a historical figure, and not merely good fiction, but a sister, a counselor, a confidant, and a companion of God.
We do not live in the same culture as the early saints. Indeed, we now have “proven” saints, whose lives, deaths, and miracles are sanctioned by experts within the Church. Saint Catherine did not leave an ecclesiastical paper trail as proof of her holiness: we only have the tradition.
But if we trust the wisdom Mother Church has amassed, then we must be able to call on Saint Catherine of Alexandria, ora pro nobis, with the joy of the children who delight in the death of the witch and run to the open arms of their father. In truth, these legends provide abundant evidence—not of the saints, but of their foe, for he is one we share, and about whom there is ample proof: the pagan, the evil emperor, the Devil.
I had not given Saint Catherine much thought when I placed her in the kitchen. I would have chosen Mary Magdalene, as a reminder of my sins. But instead I have this ancient martyr and her wheel of torture beside me, accompanied by the soft sound of angel wings carrying her body away. She bothers me because I cannot “know” her, because I have no proof. But in just this way Saint Catherine, and all the saints, point beyond themselves to that unsurpassed mystery of the faith presented to us in the Mass. In truth, no saint, relic, miracle or intercession is as astounding and incomprehensible as that which occurs every day, all around the world—when the silence of the sanctuary is broken by the ringing of the bells and the priest raises the host and declares: “The Body of Christ.”
Denise is a wife, mother and convert who makes her home in the Pacific Northwest.