Saturday, November 15, 2014

St. Catherine

St. Catherine's feast day is coming up. Earlier in the fall I sorta-promised a post about her, and I made a lot of attempts to deliver. I even started writing a short story, a new hagiography, so to speak. I had been reading Fear and Trembling and tried to get too fancy in imitating the Exordium. (That's where Kierkegaard tells the story of Abraham many different ways, changing essential details each time to meditate on the story.) It was getting corny (let's just say I spent way too much time reading about the library in Alexandria) so I put it away. I've had a couple of conversations about the St. Catherine problem and I think I might have exhausted what I had to say in those conversations, but I think I'd better just hack it out right here, right now.

Here's how I came upon the St. Catherine problem. I chose her for my patron saint when I was just a child of nineteen, stumbling into chrismation and baptism in a little Russian parish. I found her in a book of women saints, distinguished to my mind from all the other virgin martyrs because she seemed to be an intellectual woman. I happened to style myself an intellectual at the time, studying philosophy and all the "wisdom of the Greeks," and I was also a Single Lady, so her story appealed to me. I cringe a little now when I think of it, not at all because of anything shameful in St. Catherine (God forbid,) but because the choosing itself was so hubristic. Did I think I was going to be a Philosopher Warrior Princess? Did I think that I would be worthy to "defeat the pagan orators" and convert multitudes by my arguments? It's pretty embarassing, but I think that's how I felt at the time. Let's just leave it this way: She is the patron saint of philosophers, and my study of philosophy was one of the main things that led me to grope awkwardly towards Orthodoxy.

But I never felt very close to her. I don't know why. Maybe the problem is that I didn't ultimately see myself as a philosopher, and the virgin martyr thing wasn't really that inspiring to me either. Selfish, subjective reasons. I tried painting an icon of her, and it helped a little. During the time that I was finishing up painting my icon of St. Catherine, I read an account of her life which contained the episode, new to me, in which she sees the Theotokos and the Christ child in a dream. In my story, she saw the holy mother and child from behind, but even so, she fell in love with Christ, seeing him as a bridegroom to embrace, a king to reverence, and a child to carry, give birth to, and nurse all at once. (Remember that she had refused all her suitors, on the grounds that none of them were noble, wise, rich, or beautiful enough for her.) In her dream the Mother of God was discussing with Christ his
choice of a bride, and asked if he had considered Catherine. I imagine that her heart stopped with dread, as he turned his little face to her, and addressed his mother. "I have considered Catherine, and she is ugly and unbelieving, a foolish pauper, and I cannot bear to look on her until she forsakes her impiety." Catherine awakes full of longing and shame, and hastens to her baptism. In another dream, the Theotokos gives Catherine as a bride to Christ, and he gives her a betrothal ring, with which she awakes.

I found this story very compelling, but still did not feel very close to St. Catherine. Having married a nice Orthodox guy (who actually is a philosopher deep in his bones) a few years after baptism, I got pregnant a few years after that, so virgin martyrdom was no longer open to me. In my pregnancy I remember feeling that my mind was so ... soft and fuzzy, and that I felt overwhelmingly embodied, so that abstract thought seemed miles too high for me. I contrasted the warm fertile principle that I felt ruled me with the cool rationality with which my husband so naturally makes his way. And I still didn't feel that I could call to St. Catherine for help, because I identified her with the abstract male way of thinking. What did she know about pregnancy? About nourishing a child? About creating something with the involuntary secret power of your body and blessing it every second with your heart? Her distinctions were in the realm of the mind, contemplating the cosmos. My body was pulling me down to earth, where I had to think about things like stuffing my face to feed my baby. I did find myself praying to the Mother of God more often than before, almost more reflexively than to Christ himself.

But Catherine, in all her wisdom, knowledge, rhetorical skill, and general put-togetheredness was still distant, until after my child was born. I was chatting with the other Youngish Wyves and Moms of my church, and someone mentioned that she and her husband liked the name Catherine for a girl, and someone else said "Isn't she your saint, Mallory?" and I said oh yes, she was a wonderful saint, although I had recently almost been wishing that I had a different one (forgive me, St. Catherine!) because she was the patron saint of philosophers and... "crap! That's not all! She's also the patroness of... nursing mothers?"

Yes! It's true! But it is very weird. The reason for her patronage of nursing mothers is that when she was beheaded, not blood but milk flowed from her neck! Ah, well, that explains it...

So what's the deal? Why on earth does milk flow from her neck? And what is a nursing mother supposed to learn from St. Catherine's life, given that her method of secreting milk is so very, shall I say, unorthodox?

I've been pondering this for a while, and here's what I think. First let's review why it's weird. Of course the miracle is strange in itself, because it is outside of the natural order of things. It's also weird because Catherine is a virgin, and has no experience with nursing babies. Moreover, she is a philosopher, and one common criticism of philosophy is that in a way, it's barren. It can critique and examine things, but doesn't produce anything new, or really "do" anything at all. It's associated with abstract, universal, big ideas, but not so much with particulars, the material world, and immediacy. It's pretty usual to identify the transcendent realm of philosophy with the male, and the immanent world of practical crap with the female. So it's weird that Catherine, a philosopher and a virgin, produces milk, which is the way that a female body nourishes the body of a child. Very weird. But usually, in holy stories, if something weird happens, it is in order to instruct us in The Way Things Really Are. 

Another weird thing about the miracle is that the milk flows when Catherine's head is taken off. Now, this might be a stretch because I know that the ancients did not locate the mind in the head, but rather in the chest. But nonetheless, Catherine was a renowned orator, and that happens by means of the mouth, which is on the head, which she lost. So the nourishing milk appears when the organ of her fame is removed. That could mean two things about The Way Things Really Are.

The first possibility is that we have to kill rhetoric and philosophy in order to be a fountain of life. I reject this possibility because first of all, it can't be universal. Check out St. John Chrysostom et al. It also implies that St. Catherine was somehow wrong to be a philosopher, or that she practiced it in the wrong way. But her wisdom and powerful speech brought many of the governor's scholars and attendants to Christ, and it is the reason that she was sent to her martyrdom. So I don't think "Kill philosophy" is the message about The Way Things Really Are.

The second possibility, which my husband saw before I did, is that the removal of the head did not give way to the nourishing flow of milk, as if the presence of her powerful mind had been obstructing the flow, but that the milk was there all along. What if this maiden were not so cold and rational, but rather teeming with kindness and life? What if her chastity was not barren, but fruitful beyond mere biology? She is not Athena, virgin goddess of wisdom, armed like a soldier, with flashing grey eyes. Her philosophy was not cruel and proud, but "shows us the heights of humility."

I had it all wrong. How could I have forgotten that Christ is the child of, and so has special love for virgins, and that God always brings fruit from patient, barren branches? Catherine is like the rock struck by Moses which quenched the thirst of the Israelites. She is a fig tree which offers fruit to Christ even though it is not the season. Of course, she is like the Theotokos, who is both a Virgin and a Mother. The milk that flows from Catherine's neck teaches us that in truth, this is The Way Things Really Are. Philosophy, far from being barren and removed from "real life," is rather the love of God and all his creation, surging through us like sap from a tree, which drips out sweetly when we are pierced, revealing this life-giving virtue to the world. Virginity is fruitful.

That is something that this philosopher-turned-mommy needed to hear. Holy Saint Catherine, pray to God for us.

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