brought up in the Protestant tradition tend to have a bit of a problem
with saints - not with the word, because, as St Paul says, all
are 'saints', but with identifying some Christians from the past as
special 'heroes of the faith' and using their names in prayer, having
of them in church and that sort of thing. They have a point when
devotions to saints displace our love for Jesus himself. The trouble
really is that in the Middle Ages many people came to
imagine Heaven as rather like a royal court with God as King in the
middle. Just as on earth, to get the ear of the king you
enlisted the help of a courtier or two, so in Heaven you could ask a
couple of saints to put in a good word with the Father on
your behalf. Obviously that's not the way we think anymore, and it did
tend to make conversation with God a remote matter rather than an
intimate one, which is what it should be. So put all that aside.
because the bond of Christian love survives death, and because we are
certainly not perfect when we die and there is work still to be done,
that statement we make in the Creed about believing in 'the Communion
of Saints' includes those who are on the far side of earthly death as well
as on this side. If we pray for those we love here, and ask their
prayers for us in turn, it's perfectly sensible to ask those who have
gone beyond death to pray for us too. They're part of
God's community of love just as we are. They are our friends in Heaven.
Not forgetting that they have set us a good example which
is to be celebrated and emulated - even the Reformers went along with
that. The saints reflect Jesus, and no devotion to any
saint is without reverence for Jesus and thankfulness to him. Whatever
virtues they had in life came from him in the first place.
not sure how St Catherine of Alexandria attracted my imagination in the
first place; I suspect it's something to do with her dramatic and
gruesome manner of death contrasted with her scholarly virtue - plus
the fact that her feast day (25th November) is close to my birthday.
Certainly by the time I was at college around 1991 I was copying down
fragments of liturgy and medieval poetry about her. |
to the legend, Catherine was a noble Roman woman from the Egyptian city
of Alexandria of unusual beauty and intelligence who converted to
Christianity. She protested against the worship of idols to the Emperor
Maxentius, who called in 50 pagan philosophers to convince her of the
error of her ways, but she ended up converting them instead. Maxentius
offered to marry her but on her refusal had her beaten and imprisoned.
Her torturers constructed a pair of wheels fitted with razors intending
to flay her, or at least scare her into recanting, but it blew apart.
Finally Catherine was beheaded - though milk flowed from her severed
instead of blood. Her body was carried by angels to Mount Sinai, where
the monastery which bears her name still exists. During the Middle Ages
she became an enormously popular saint and is often depicted in icons,
paintings, statues and manuscripts. In art she often carries a book, a
sword, or a martyr's palm, as well as the wheel which is her symbol,
and she's the patron saint of those who work with wheels, scholars,
unmarried women, and many other professions and conditions of people.
In 1969, however, the Vatican decided to suppress her cult on the
grounds of the historical unreliability of her legend, which seems a
bit stingy to me.
well as the college I went to at Oxford, which claims Catherine as its
patron saint, one of the most numinous and powerful sites
associated with Catherine is close to where I grew up. I've been going
to the Chapel of St Catherine at Abbotsbury in Dorset
since I was small. It sits on a hilltop outside the village, and
although the current building is 14th-century, its history and the
reason why it was built is unknown. The church is not a regular place
of worship, but there are about four services held there a year, plus
one on the Sunday closest to St Catherine's Day itself. There are legends of young girls coming to the chapel to pray for a husband, and in 1998 the musician PJ Harvey, who lives nearby, wrote a song for her album Is This Desire?
- 'The Wind' - which weaves these stories together and evokes the
mysterious power of the place in a deeply affecting, though unexpected
the Abbotsbury Millennium Festival in 2000, people have been coming to
the chapel more often. On one visit I was very surprised to see a
'votive deposit' in a niche inside - candles, feathers, coins, an icon
of the saint, and prayers written on scraps of paper, to God, to Jesus,
to St Catherine, to nobody in particular, just utter expressions of
human need and feeling. On one visit in July 2007 I found a majority of the prayers were in German, which suggests there was a coach trip of school exchange students
visiting the site. The tradition has disappeared over the last few years, although I doggedly keep it up.
|Modern St Catherine window in the parish church in Abbotsbury||The votive deposit in the chapel||
Silver St Catherine Abbotsbury pilgrim badge which used to be sold at Mary Buckle's
gallery in the village
|St Catherine's Chapel, Milton Abbas
is another Dorset site. This chapel is Norman in origin and was
attached to the Abbey here. It sits in a hillside wood overlooking the
Abbey Church which can be seen from just outside. There are no particular legends associated with it, although there was a holy well dedicated
to St Catherine somewhere in the village. Unlike the Abbotsbury chapel,
which can be seen from miles around, this one emerges from the woods
rather secretively, and inside has a feel of neglect - even though it's
full of pews and has a little altar table while its cousin at
Abbotsbury is completely empty. I always feel less likely to be
disturbed here if I come to pray, but it's more likely to be locked, whereas Abbotsbury's is always open. |
| ||Finally there's St Catherine's Chapel near Guildford,
which yet again is a 14th-century church on a hilltop - though this
time completely ruined and filled with weeds in between the times when
the Council comes to clear it out. It's still a magical
place to visit. Although it was simpler than the chapel at Abbotsbury,
the layout was almost exactly the same, even down to the stair-turret
in the northwest corner leading to a tiny chamber up near the roof. The
local church holds a mid-day service in the ruins on St Catherine's Day
each year, and there's still a holy well at the bottom of the hill,
well as visiting Catherine sites and places, I try to have a party,
dinner, or do something special on St Catherine's Day itself or as
close to it as I can manage, and treat it as my birthday event. I keep the octave,
the day of the feast and the seven following, as a special time of
prayer and self-examination
to see how far I do or can reflect the qualities Jesus inspired in
Catherine's life (assuming she existed, of course!), and have some
prayers of my own to encourage this, as the Church of England so far
declines to provide me with any.
|A Prayer for St Catherine's Day|
breathe into me a measure of the graces you gave your servant Catherine
who, following in the steps of your Son, was faithful even unto death.
Holy Catherine, my friend in Heaven,
pray for me before the throne of grace.
Blessed be Jesus,
in whom the saints have their victory:
my Redeemer, my Commander,
and my Love. Amen.
|Orthodox icon of St Catherine||St Catherine in a medieval window at Wells Cathedral, |
|A queenly Catherine in a medieval manuscript from the Meermann Library|
|Two Catherine Commissions|
Anglican though I am, I occasionally drop in on the blog of The New Liturgical Movement,
which examines and promotes the resurgence in traditional liturgical
forms within the Roman Catholic observance. One of the contributors is
US illustrator and architect Mr Matthew Alderman, whose images of saints have a wonderfully
retro look reminiscent of 1920s devotional art. I liked them enough to
commission him to produce a drawing of St Catherine for me, and this is
the result - 'St Catherine disputing with the Doctors'.
friend and Goth artist Zoe Monday also painted an image of St Catherine
for me. Although she's an atheist, Mrs Monday took the commission very
seriously and researched the saint's story and iconography thoroughly.
'Be as lurid as you want', I said to her, but she found that 'all I
kept thinking of was strength and grace'.|
|St Catherine 2008|
Timothy l'Estrange was kind enough to contact me to tell me about the
restoration of the Chapel of St Catherine at his own church, St Mary's, Monken Hadley
in Middlesex. As the poster right shows, the church celebrated with
a Eucharist (probably the first in the chapel since the Reformation) on
the saint's feast day.
|For some choice pieces of Catherine tat, go here.|
And here you can find pictures of St Catherine from various churches, and other places.