Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Three Sarcophagi for St Catherine

Inside the altar (as the Greeks call the sanctuary) of the great church of the monastery of St Catherine at the base of Mt Sinai, reposes the sacred body of St Catherine of Alexandria, Virgin and Martyr, Patroness of Philosphers. Now as her Roman collect indicates, it is piously said that her mortal remains were translated thence from the scene of her martyrdom by the agency of angels; as monks are equals-to-the-angels, leading an angelic life in this world, it would not be too skeptical to speak of her translation rather at their hands. 

(St Catherine herself has performed a surprising disappearing and reappearing act in recent years, having been dropt from the calendar only to be reinstated by the late John Paul the Great; skeptics might say that he performed not only many canonizations, but even as the pièce de resistance restored one whose very historicity has been questioned! - but the Church knows her own foremost members.)

The holy relics of this Virgin Martyr sleep out the days remaining till the General Resurrection within a Byzantine sarcophagus, strangely accompanied on either side by more recent would-be reliquaries.  A friend who while a Russian monk visited St Catherine's Monastery told me the tale of these sarcophagi.  

The cult of St Catherine being very much esteemed in Russia of old, Peter the Great donated a sarcophagus of gold to the monastery, that her mortal remains might lie in greater state.  The good monks duly accepted the priceless gift, and transferred her body to its new bed - but found, upon next returning to the church, that she had popped herself back into her former couch!  This occurred several times, and they realized by this sign that she preferred her original abode.  

Next, the years having passed, Catherine the Great, that not-so-pious Empress (or immoral usurper, in plain language), revering for reasons of policy her name-saint, and having had St Catherine's feast day in Russia moved a day early, that it - the Imperial name-day - not be overshadowed by the Leave-taking of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple, also donated a munificent sarcophagus to the monastery in Sinai, this time one most curiously wrought of silver, in Baroque style.  But no sooner did the monks approach to move their Saint's relics into this resting place, than flames roared out of it, terrifying them into desisting, and displaying the Divine anger at so hypocritical a gift from such an imperious sinner.

Thus, to this day, St Catherine sleeps in her age-old monument, betwixt two yet grander, but rejected beds.

[Sed contra: having now checked my facts, I find the above story seems to be not the whole story of her reliquary...]

The Collect of St Catherine:

Deus, qui dedisti legem Moysi in summitate montis Sinai, et in eodem loco per sanctos Angelos tuos corpus beatæ Catharinæ Virginis et Martyris tuæ mirabiliter collocasti: præsta, quæsumus; ut, ejus meritis et intercessione, ad montem, qui Christus est, pervenire valeamus: Qui tecum vivit et regnat...

(God, Who didst give the Law to Moses on the peak of Mount Sinai, and in the selfsame spot by Thy holy Angels the body of blessed Catherine Thy Virgin and Martyr didst marvelously emplace; grant, we beseech: that, through her merits and intercession, we may be able to come unto the Mount Which is Christ: Who with Thee liveth and reigneth...)

As the Old Law was given unto Moses by angels through a mediator (cf. Gal. iii, 19), so may our mediatrix with the Lord be St Catherine, that we have access, not unto Mt Sinai as of old, but unto Him, our Saviour Jesus Christ; and on this point consider what is said in St Paul to the Hebrews xii, 18-25.

Commemorating this powerful patroness, join in this her Greek troparion:

Let us praise the all-lauded and noble bride of Christ,
the godly Catherine, the guardian of Sinai and its defence,
who is also our support and succour and our help;
for with the Holy Spirit's sword
she hath silenced brilliantly the clever among the godless;
and being crowned as a martyr, 
she now doth ask great mercy for us all.

1 comment:

Joshua said...

An anonymous person having made a rude remark, his perverse comment has been deleted.