Monday, November 24, 2014

The ring of St. Catherine the Great Martyr

St. Catherine the Great Martyr; in the center is depicted Christ revealing Himself to her, and to either side, her martyrdom, and the Holy Angels taking up her body
The ring of St. Catherine the Great Martyr
"This ever-memorable daughter of the earthly ruler of Alexandria, Konstas (Kestou), was tall in stature, incomparably beautiful, and exceedingly kind. She was instructed in the wisdom of the Greeks, learning all the works of the poets and philosophers, including Homer, Virgil, Aristotle, and Plato. Not only was she well-versed in philosophy, but in the medical writings of Aesculapius, Hippocrates, and Galen. Indeed, the maiden was a master of all the nuances of many languages, surpassing all others in rhetoric and logic. All who saw and heard Catherine marvelled at her scholarship. Many of the wealthy and leading men of the Senate besought Catherine's mother for her hand in marriage. Now her mother was a Christian in secret, because of the great persecutions brought about by the followers of Maximian. Both the maiden's relatives and mother counseled her to marry, so that her father's estate would not fall to another, thus cutting her off altogether. Now Catherine, on account of her many philosophical studies, cherished her viriginity and protested, giving many excuses, for she had no wish whatsoever to wed. However, when she saw that they troubled her greatly over the matter, she proposed the following--actually to divert them--so as not to be further importuned. "Present unto me a young man who is like unto me in the four virtues in which you claim that I am peerless among women, and I will take him as my husband, for I will not condescend to be yoked to one who is unworthy or inferior. Therefore, search here and abroad for one who is equal to me in rank, wealth, wisdom, and beauty--if such an individual exists. Furthermore, if he is deficient in any of these areas, he is unsuitable."

Now they knew that it would be quite impossible to find such a qualified suitor. They suggested the son of the Roman emperor and other possible candidates of exalted rank and even greater wealth, but they were inferior to her in the categories of erudition and appearance. She stubbornly persisted in her refusal to contract a marriage with an unlettered man. However, her mother had a most holy spiritual confessor who was in hiding outside the city limits. She took her daughter to visit the elder to seek his counsel. The ascetic, perceiving her modesty and proper deportment, gave close attention to her judicious and well-spoken words. He resolved to bring her to the knowledge of Christ the heavenly King, and began, saying: If I am acquainted with a unique Man Who incomparably transcendeth all those attributes thou hast mentioned and countless others. His comeliness eclipseth the radiance of the sun; His wisdom governeth those things both perceptible by the sense and the intelligence; the world of His treasures is distributed to the ends of the earth, yet never diminisheth, rather increases; His nobility is indescribable, infinite, inconceivable, and incomprehensible!

St. Catherine the Great Martyr, painted by the Fathers of Vatopedi Monastery

The venerable elder expounded on this many other salutary things. Now the maiden presumed all the while that he referred to an earthly prince; whereupon, her expression changed and she questioned him in detail if all the commendations and praises were indeed true concerning this Man. He reinforced his praises further, extolling His other attributes. The maiden asked: "Whose Son is this Man whom thou dost laud?" He asserted: "He hath no father on earth, but was born of a most noble and holy grace-filled virgin in a manner surpassing our understanding and transcending the nature of generation; she was deemed worthy by her sublime sanctity to remain immortal both in soul and body, being assumed to the highest heavens, wherein our Lady is venerated by the holy angels as Queen of all creation." Further interested, Catherine continued: "Is it possible to see the Youth?" The old man responded: "If thou wilt do as I say, thou shalt be deemed worthy to behold the radiant splendor of His splendid countenance!" Catherine replied: "I perceive thee to be a faithful witness and a venerable elder. I believe all thou hast revealed to me; therefore, I am prepared to follow thine instructions implicitly." Then, the ascetic gave her an icon depicting the most holy Theotokos holding the divine Child. He then called to Catherine's attention: "This is the Ever-virgin Mother of the One Whose wonders I have extolled . Take this sacred image and close the door to thy bedchamber; pray all night with profound reverence to her whose name is Mary. Implore her to condescend to reveal her Son and, I believe, if thou wilt pray with faith, she will hearken and show to thee Him Whom thy soul desireth."

The maiden then took the holy icon and returned to the palace. She closed herself in her inner room as the elder directed. From the tremendous effort exerted in her supplications, she fell asleep and beheld in a vision the Queen of the angels, as portrayed in the icon, holding the holy Child, Whose Person emitted rays more radiant than the sun; yet His face was turned towards His Mother. Thus, Catherine saw His back only. She yearned to behold His countenance, and so went to the other side; but once again He turned His face away. This happened thrice. She then heard the most holy Mother say: "My Child, look upon Thine handmaiden Catherine! How beautiful and comely she is!" But He answered: "Nay, rather she is somber and so repugnant that it is not possible for Me to look upon her!" The most holy Theotokos continued: "Is she not more wise than all the orators, wealthy, and the most elegant in all the cities?" But Christ replied: "My Mother, I tell thee that she is ignorant, poor, and contemptible! Whosoever is in like condition, I do not wish to look upon!" Again, the Theotokos spoke: "I beg Thee, my sweet Child, despise not the work of Thy Hands! But, advise and guide her as to what she should do, so as to have a share of Thy glory and behold Thy face resplendent with light, which the angels long to gaze upon!" Christ then said: "She should go to the elder who gave her the icon. Whatever instructions he giveth, she should do. Then, when she desireth to see, she will receive joy and benefit."

Having beheld this vision, she awoke and pondered deeply on the matter. In the morning, she hastened with a few other women to the elder's cell. Falling at his feet in tears, she related the vision and implored him to advise her how to proceed, that she might attain her heart's desire. The blessed one explained in detail the sacraments and mysteries of our true Faith, commencing with the the creation of the universe and the making of man. He catechized her thoroughly as to the Second Coming of our Lord Christ and the ineffable glory of paradise in contrast to the all-grievous and neverending torments. Intelligent and quick of mind, Catherine grasped, within a short period of time, all the fine points of the Faith. She believed with all her heart and was received into the Faith through holy baptism at his hands. Afterwards, he instructed her to entreat the most Holy Theotokos to appear once again.

The holy maiden, having thus put off the "old man" and put on a garment woven by God, went to the palace and kept vigil all night, fasting and praying with tears. Finally sleep overcame her, and she beheld the heavenly Queen with the divine Child, Who looked upon Catherine with a gracious eye. This time the Mother of God inquired of the Master Christ if the virgin pleased Him. Our Lord answered: "She who was formerly unillumined and unsightly is now resplendent and glorious to behold! The poor and ignorant one hath become wealthy and enlightened; the contemptible and undistinguished hath become noble and eminent, possessed now of so many good blessings and graces that I am well-disposed and desire to betrothe her to Myself as Mine undefiled bride!" At that moment, catherine fell prostrate weeping: "0 exceeding glorious Lord, I am unworthy to look upon Thee! Make me worthy to be numbered among Thy servants! " The Theotokos then took the right hand of the maiden and said: "My Child, give her a ring as a token of Thy betrothal to her, so as to deem her worthy of Thy Kingdom." The Master Christ then gave her a beautiful ring, saying: "Behold, this day I take thee as Mine unsullied bride forever. Diligently preserve this troth inviolate, taking no man to thyself!" And with these words the vision came to an end. Catherine arose and, verily, a ring was on her right finger! At that moment, her heart was enraptured with the divine love of our Lord Christ."

"The marble chest containing the relics of Saint Catherine is located at the south side of the sanctuary in the catholicon of the holy monastery. It is the construction of Procopius the stonecutter, who took nine years to complete the shrine in honor of Saint Catherine. This shrine replaced the earlier marble chest, which is preserved today in the monastery’s treasury. Inside are to be found two precious reliquaries given by the Russian Empire for this purpose, the one enshrining the precious head of the martyr, and the other her left hand. The relics of Saint Catherine are brought out for the veneration of the faithful on special occasions, at which time each pilgrim is given a silver ring bearing the monogram of the saint, in honor of the ring that Saint Catherine received from Christ. These are preserved by pilgrims as a blessing from the saint."

A picture of the ring given as a blessing to pilgrims to the Holy Monastery of St. Catherine, in memory of the ring that she received from Christ

Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us! Amen!