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St Catherine

Christians 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 Christians are 'saints', but with identifying some Christians from the past as special 'heroes of the faith' and using their names in prayer, having statues of them in church and that sort of thing. They have a point when devotions to saints displace our love for Jesus Christ. 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.

Basically, 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.
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I'm 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. It doesn't help that many scholars think she never existed at all!

According 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 tried to break her on a spiked wheel, but it blew apart. Finally she was beheaded - though milk flowed from her severed neck 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.
Deco St Catherine
Catherine places
As 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
St Catherine's Chapel, Abbotsbury
Catherine's Day, November 25th, itself. There are strange 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 way.
Since 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. They get cleared away now and then, but there are always more.
       I've just (July 2007) visited the Abbotsbury Chapel again, and found the niche full of prayers as usual. Unusually a majority of them were in German, which suggests there was a coach trip of school exchange visiting the site.
pilgrim badge
Abbotsbury St Catherine
Votive deposit
Silver St Catherine Abbotsbury pilgrim badge sold at Mary Buckle's gallery in the village - not sure that she makes them!
Modern St Catherine window in the parish church in Abbotsbury
The votive deposit in the chapel
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
St Catherine's Chapel Milton Abbas
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!
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. It's still a magical place to visit. One day I will take a proper photo to show you as well! There's still a holy well at the bottom of the hill, too.
Print of Guildford chapel
Keeping Catherine
As 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 reflect this.
A Prayer for St Catherine's Day

Father, breathe into me
the graces you gave your servant Catherine who, following in the steps of your Son, was faithful even unto death.

Blessed 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.
St Catherine icon
Wells Cathedral
Meermann liby St Catherine
St Catherine in a medieval window at Wells Cathedral, Somerset
Orthodox icon of St Catherine
A queenly Catherine in a medieval manuscript from the Meermann Library
Newly-found Catherines
Catherine Icon Catherine 15th century
While in a gallery - which shall remain nameless - in Florence this Eastertide (2007), I was very very VERY naughty and took surreptitious snaps of the two Catherine images you see here. No flash used, so no harm done.The Orthodox icon follows a very traditional pattern, although it's a particularly sumptuous example and I do like her armillary sphere! The 15th-century western image is the only instance I've seen
so far of the saint standing on her wheel as opposed to holding it, so that's quite fun.
St Catherine at St Mary, Oswestry
This Catherine appears way, way up at the top of a 15th-century window in the church of St Mary, Oswestry, in Shropshire. It's a tiny image and a long way away, hence a bit distorted in this photograph.
St Catherine's Chapel, Guildford, at night
St Catherine's Day 2007
I headed out to St Catherine's Chapel at Guildford this evening as the light was failing, and just managed to take a photograph.
A Catherine Commission, October 2008
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'. I think it's marvellous!
Monken Hadley poster
St Catherine 2008
Fr 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 is celebrating 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.