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  THE GREAT MARTYR OF ALEXANDRIA St. Catherine is one of the early Church most beloved Saints, honored and esteemed for over 1,600 years. She lived in Alexandria during the time of the Emperor Maxentius at the beginning of the fourth century. She was not only a lady of stunning beauty and considerable wealth, but had also been blest to be the recipient of a first-rate education, the best education that money could buy in that age. She was thoroughly tutored in all of the philosophy, history, science, and poetry of the ancients: Homer, Virgil, Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides, Hippocrates, Galen, and so forthand she excelled at logic, rhetoric, and languages. All who knew her were astonished at her brilliance.

  As one would expect, many of the rich and famous sought her hand in marriage, for in addition to all that we have just mentioned, she was an heiress to a throne. However, Catherine was not particularly interested in all of these proposals of marriage. She let it be known that the man she would marry would have to be young, and would have to be her equal in wealth, wisdom, beauty, and compassion. Any petitioner for her hand less than her equal in all these things rendered him automatically unworthy. So it was that all potential suitors were decisively stopped in their tracks. Even the son of the emperor himself, though certainly wealthy and apparently compassionate, lacked wisdom and beauty.

  Since this meant that her daughter would likely not in the circumstances find a spouse at all, St. Catherine mother sought the counsel of a wise and saintly ascetic, who lived on the outskirts of Alexandria. The holy man listened to the story of the girl life and of her resolve not to marry an inferior, which actually denoted her determination not to marry at all. Since this man was a Christian, he decided to tell the young lady of Christ Jesus and His teachings. I can direct you to a magnificent man, a man who is lordly and majestic in his bearing, who is wise and wealthy beyond your greatest dreams, who is compassionate beyond compare, and whose beauty causes the very sun itself to fade. Catherine was, needless to say, astonished, believing that the hermit was speaking of some extraordinary but still wholly earthly man. When she asked whose son this wondrous person might be, he replied that this man had no earthly father. He was, said the ascetic, born of a holy Virgin, who is the very Queen of Heaven and Earth and who is honored and served by the angels.

  Catherine asked how she might see and meet the young man of whom the hermit spoke, to which the old man replied that he was prepared to instruct her so that she might someday look upon the eternal and excellent man. Young Catherine was not sure why it was so, but she nevertheless was moved by the warm expression on the old man face to place her trust in him. Giving her an icon of the Holy Virgin Mother holding the Child Christ, the hermit told her to pray before it and ask the Holy Virgin to grant her the privilege of seeing Him whom she was seeking.Catherine returned home and that night prayed, as she had been instructed. Soon, she fell deeply asleep and dreamt of the Holy Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child, as they appeared in the icon she had been given. In her dream, the Child kept his gaze on His mother, but away from young Catherine.

   The Holy Virgin spoke to Him, saying, Look, my Son, at Your beautiful and pious servant, Catherine.

   The Child answered, No, she is not beautiful but ugly and unbelieving, and I will not look at her.

   The Holy Mother implored Him again, saying, But she is among the wisest, wealthiest, and most beautiful of people in the world.

   No, he responded, she is silly and ignorant and I will not let her see me.

   However, he added, if she will return to the man who gave her the icon and follow his instructions rigorously, then she will someday see me and be consoled.

  Upon arising from sleep, Catherine immediately went with her entourage to see the hermit again, and upon reaching his cave, bowed deeply before him. She told him of the dream and begged him to instruct her fully in the Christian faith.

  She, being very gifted, soon absorbed all of the ascetic teaching about God glory, of His creation of the world, of the mission of Christ God here on Earth, of the wonders of Heaven, and of the terrors of hell. Soon, she consented to be baptized.

  The night after her baptism, she dreamt again of the Mother and Child, but this time Christ said, Before she was poor, and now she is rich; before she was ignorant, and now she is truly wise; before she was proud, and now she is humble. She is now worthy and I accept her as my bride.

  Christ then placed a ring on her hand, saying, Today, I take thee as my bride, for all eternity.

  It happens that at this time the Emperor demanded that the people of Alexandria show their loyalty to the state through their devotion to the old gods, and so they were instructed to offer animal sacrifices to the idols; Catherine refused. Instead she publicly proclaimed her devotion to the one God who had given Himself over to be crucified for the sake of humanity. I am the bride of the Lord Jesus Christ, she insisted.

  She, a prominent person, was arrested for outraging the pagan gods, and detained. Thereafter, she was examined by various scholars and philosophers, who attempted to win her away from the Christian Faith she had adopted. Instead, she convinced them.The Emperor was furious and ordered that they be burned, but God intervened and none were harmed. Maxentius then used promises of great fortune alternating with threats of terrible calamity to try himself to win Catherine away from her newfound religion. It was to no avail. She was then flogged and tortured. She was, among other things, attached to a huge wheel edged with sharp blades, but it fell apart before it could do harm. Finally, his patience exhausted, the Emperor ordered her executed by beheading. Before her repose, she spoke these words, Do not grieve, but rather bejoyous, for I go now to meet my Savior, my Creator, and my Bridegroom, Jesus Christ. In His Heavenly Kingdom I shall reign with him for ever more. Do not cry therefore for me, but for yourselves who will soon suffer greatly. She then was executed. Immediately, her body was taken by angels to Mount Sinai, where later it was discovered by pious monks who built a monastery at the site. That monastery, named for St. Catherine, still stands and there, to this day, the relics of the Great Martyr are still honored.


  “The blood of the Martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

  Indeed that has proven true, time and again, for 2,000 years. Early Christians noted that the more the pagan state tried to obliterate them by mowing them down, the more of them that sprang up afterwards, until Christianity came to be the religion of the whole of the civilized world. The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno once commented that faith does not make Martyrs, Martyrs make faith, and what he meant by this is that Martyrs, by their blood, energize and vivify a faith that may otherwise be a mere intellectual exercise, and demonstrate by their towering and incomparable example its true worth. We sometimes think that Martyrs and Saints were phenomena that abounded in the early centuries of the Faith, but that they are scarce today. That is not so. It is true that the first three centuries of Christianity produced tremendous numbers of Martyrs, but it is correctly noted by scholars & historians that there have been more Christian Martyrs in our own twentieth century than in any other era of history, and just as the martyrdoms of the early era presaged a flowering of Christianity after the opening of the fourth century, so the tens of millions of Martyrs of our time are harbingers of world-shaking events yet to come, events that will proceed from the outpouring of God Grace that accompanies so great a shedding of Christian blood, events that will surely confound those who foolishly believe that Christianity is now a spent force. Martyrs are examples, they are witnesses to truth; the very word martyr means witness in the Greek. They glorify God, and God in turn glorifies them. They stand as brightly-shining beacons that do not dim as the years pass, but that illuminate ever more radiantly with the passage of time. In addition, their supreme act of sacrificing all that is beloved in this world–comfort, beauty, prestige, popularity, material goods, and earthly life itself–places the things of this world in their true context vis-a-vis the eternal things of heaven.

  May all of us learn from the splendid model offered us in the life of the Great Martyr St Catherine of Alexandria, that our pride and love of the treasures of this earth must give way to humility before God, and to love of the treasures of the spirit.

  (article by Fr. James Thornton) 

The Monastery of St. Katherine from Sinai 


  Located at the bottom of Mount Sinai, where Moses once received the Tables of the Law, the Monastery of Saint Catherine is almost a millennium and a half old and  one of the most famous pilgrimage centers of Orthodoxy,  a citadel of spirituality,a  patristic and a Research Center.

  The monastery dating back  1400 years in the desert of Sinai, has retained the original features from the time  of the reign of Emperor Justinian (257-565 AD). From Muhammad, the founder of Islam, to Muslims and  Turkish sultans, passing through the era of Napoleon, all took the monastery under their protection. In its long history, the Monastery of Saint Catherine has never been conquered, damage or destroyed. Across all ages, it kept intact the image of the sacred place of the Bible and placed a light on the events of the Old Testament and the continuity of praising God through  our Lord  Jesus Christ. and the Blessed Virgin Mary.

  The Monastery of Saint Catherine had crossed history as an oasis of Christianity and it is  an independent, autocephalous monastry. It is practically the smallest Orthodox patriarchate in the world, its leader being also its Abbot.

  The tradition tells us that, in the year 337, holy Empress Helena (the finder of the Cross of our Lord Jesus) built a shrine around the site, following the tradition that this was the place of the burning bush and the  unconsumed fire, where God first spoke to Moses. The chapel has attracted thousands of pilgrims and eremites  which seeked safety in the wilderness of Sinai, during the Christians persecution.

  However, continuous attacks of neighboring nomadic tribes have made the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century,  to transform the sanctuary in a monastery-fortress.

  Holy Great Martyr Catherine of Alexandria, pray for us!

Fresco from Huretzi Monastery, Romania

  This fresco depicting “the life of the genuine monk” is especially found in older Orthodox monasteries. Although this fresco depicts “the steadfast monk – the Christ’ follower,” we should also affirm that it represents “the one true Christian” who regardless of his social status, is a follower of Christ through his actions.

  The genuine monastic is he who dies for the world to take on a permanent battle with his passions and his thoughts until his last breath. Ordinary Christian, married or not, has the same duty, to die to the world and start the same battle towards passions until the end.

  Since the path to Christ’ Kingdom is narrow and rough, it is clear that the Christian whether be a monk or a layman, faces similar difficulties. St. John Chrysostom referring to the great labor toward salvation of both monastics and laymen alike, said: “The only difference between a layman and a monk is that the first is married and the other is not.”

  The fresco representing the true monastic is usually depicted in the entrance of the church near other icons such as “the Ladder of Divine ascent” and “the Dreadful Judgment.”

 In the center of the icon, the monk is showed as been crucified, dressed in his black cassock, barefooted, with his feet nailed to the bottom of the cross; his face is peaceful and his eyes and his mouth closed. To his right it is written: “Place a watch oh Lord upon my mouth.”

  In his hands, he holds two burning torches, and an inscription near this says: “Thus, let your light shine before men that they may see your good deeds.” On his chest, he lays a parchment baring the words: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

  On his womb, another writing will say: “Oh man, do not be deceived by gluttony.” Bellow his womb, another inscription writes: “Kill the members of thy earthly man!” Then, bellow his knees: “Prepare your feet for the Gospel of peace.”

  At the top of the cross, a paper chiseled in stone depicts the following: “As for me, I will boast only in the cross of my Lord. 

  Both arms of the cross bare a seal at the end. The seal on the right bares the word: “And ye shall be hated by all for my name’ sake, but he who endures to the end shall be saved.” The seal at the left says: “Anyone of you, who does not renounce all that he has, cannot be my disciple.” And the seal at the bottom of the cross, placed under his feet, writes: “Narrow is the gate and rough is the path that leads to salvation and few are those that find it.”

  A dark cave with a dragon coiled inside is represented at the right side of the cross, near which it is written: “the consuming/eternal hades.” Above the mouth of the dragon, a naked young man with his eyes tied by a knot, holds a bow with its arrow pointing at the monk asking: “Commit fornication!” A name is written over the young man as: “the lover of fornication.” Many snakes are depicted above the cave, which suggest: “our thoughts.”  A demon is portrayed near this scene with a rope pulling away the cross and saying: “You cannot bare it!”  And on the right side of the cross, another small cross is placed with a flag upon which is written: “I can do all through Christ, Who has clothed me with power.”

  A tower and a gate are seen at the left side of the cross.  A man clothed in gold and fur, riding a white horse passes through this gate holding a glass of wine in his right hand and a spear in his left hand.  Above his spear it is written: “Take pleasure in the riches of this world, the vain world!”

  A hole is drawn behind this rider and death coming out, wearing a big coat over its shoulders and a clock upon its head, upon which it is writing: “Death and the grave.”

  Two angels are depicted near the monk arms on both sides, each holding a paper in his hands; the angel from the right bares: “God sent me to your strength ” and the angel from the left: “Do good and do not be afraid.”

  At the top of the cross lies the open sky, where Christ stands with the open Gospel upon His chest that reads: “If any man wants to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. ” In His right hand He holds a crown, and in His left a wreath of flowers. Immediately below our Savior, two angels are looking at the monk holding a long parchment where it is written: “Fight the good fight so you may receive the crown of righteousness.”

Some Thoughts On Fasting

Source: Conciliar Press

(From an Orthodox Pastor, From the Fall 2008 issue of The Handmaiden Journal – Vol. 12)

Fr. Seraphim serves a moleben to St. Panteleimon in the monastery church.


   Fasting is not optional for Christians. Neither are prayer and almsgiving. Our Lord did not say “if you fast,” but rather “when you fast.” He Himself fasted. Those to whom He personally directed His words and teachings maintained a tradition of fasting. Perfecting that tradition by coupling it with prayer and almsgiving, our Lord revealed that the very heart of our lives as Christians is rooted in these ascetic traditions.

  However, our Lord was also clear in chastising those who observed the fast, who prayed, and who gave alms for the purpose of being observed and applauded by others or as a means to fulfill the law. Indeed, the Pharisees received their reward: “My,” they delighted in hearing, “aren’t they spiritual, aren’t they righteous, aren’t they generous, and aren’t they worthy of emulation?” But their actions were to no avail, and brought with them no heavenly blessing. Hence, we are taught to fast “in secret,” to pray “in secret,” to give alms “in secret,” not allowing our left hand to know what our right hand is doing, so that our heavenly Father will reward us openly.

Fasting as Preparation for True Celebration

  Our Lord fasted for forty days before beginning His public ministry. This indicates that one aspect of fasting is preparation. The Church’s fasting seasons prepare us to celebrate, to feast, and to focus our attention on that which we anticipate celebrating, rather than on the mundane things that all too often compete for, or dominate, our attention.

  While food is an essential element of any celebration—as we are reminded on Pascha, as our festal food is blessed, or as we bless fruit on the Great Feast of Transfiguration—it can also be a preoccupation, something that can dominate our time and attention to the detriment of more important aspects of our earthly existence. Sadly, before major celebrations we tend to spend inordinate amounts of time planning menus, testing new recipes, and the like, all with the hope that our celebration will be memorable, enjoyable, and tasty. In the process, the very thing we gather to celebrate is often obscured, misplaced, and lost.

  This is especially so in the days—or, to be more specific, the months—leading to the celebration of Christmas, during which we are tempted to focus our preparations on foods, decorations, gifts, and the like, rather than on the glorious mystery of the Incarnation, which is at the very heart of our faith as Christians. The Nativity Fast (like all the fasting seasons) is meant to remind us to prepare ourselves spiritually, to bring under control those things, including food, that are well within our control, but that we have allowed to control us, and to apply the self-control that fasting teaches us to other areas of our lives.

Fasting from Passions, not from “Prohibited Foods”

  During the first week of Great Lent we are reminded that, while fasting from food, we must fast from our passions—anger, gossip, jealousy—while intensifying our vigilance, our prayer lives, and our ministry to others, especially the least among us. Hence, fasting as a preparation is quite the opposite of the worldly preparations that all too often focus our celebration on ourselves, rather than on our Lord and the joyous mysteries He so lovingly shares with us and engages us in celebrating.

  Of course, fasting from food is at the very heart of the ascetic life. Food can be a passion, a preoccupation that can easily dominate our lives. We fret over what to eat and what not to eat. We agonize over trans fats, cholesterol, carbs, and calories. We drink Ensure to gain weight, and then sign up at a weight loss clinic to lose it. In fact, we have an entire TV network devoted to food! All too often, we have ceased “eating to live” and instead “live to eat.”

  If fasting is ever to become a real solution to this preoccupation with food, we need to recognize that fasting does not mean merely avoiding certain “prohibited” foods while partaking of others that are “approved.” Years ago, I was given a Lenten cookbook that, in the preface, offered an extremely detailed explanation of the Church’s fasting tradition. As was to be expected, it noted that one should refrain from eating meat and meat products, dairy products, fish, wine, and oil. And also, as was to be expected, it noted that eating shellfish—lobster tail, crab legs, scallops, prawns and shrimp, clams, and the like—does not violate the fast. But, curiously, this preface offered a warning, in bold underlined letters, that when eating shellfish, one should not use drawn butter, but melted margarine, since butter is a dairy product! How ridiculous, I thought. Emptying ourselves of our passion for food involves reducing not only how much and what we eat, but also how much time we spend thinking about food, preparing food, reading about food, discussing food, and manipulating food to fit the fasting tradition of the Church.

  The same cookbook offered a recipe for a Lenten chocolate cake, at the end of which was written, “Your family will enjoy this delicious cake so much that you’ll want to serve it all year ’round!” Consider this: One could devise a Lenten weekly menu that, while fully avoiding meat and meat products, dairy products, fish, wine, and oil, would be anything but ascetic—lobster tail on Monday, grilled prawns on Tuesday, Alaskan king crab legs on Wednesday, lemon-drenched shrimp on Thursday, and scallops on Friday, all with melted margarine so as to avoid butter, of course! Legally, this indeed fulfills the fasting laws, but it completely misses the spirit of fasting, as does the yummy Lenten chocolate cake or the tofu Italian “sausage” or “chicken wings” guaranteed to “taste like the real thing.”

  It’s only my opinion, but approaching fasting in this manner—”this is permitted, but that isn’t”—not only misses the mark of fasting, but can become a spiritually dangerous temptation, the same temptation to which the Pharisees succumbed by adhering meticulously to the externals of the law while remaining clueless as to its internal spirit. This approach can easily lead to spiritual pride and delusion and the self-satisfaction that comes in assuring oneself that “while I’m delighting in this tasty cake, I’m relieved to know that it meets all Lenten requirements since there’s not a drop of half-and-half in it.” This, it seems to me, is neither fasting, nor ascetical, nor a desire to free oneself from a preoccupation with food. In fact, it reflects the opposite, as more time is spent figuring out how to make tofu taste like sausage than it would take to simply and mindlessly fry a link of real sausage.

Putting the Time Saved and Money Saved to Work

  Taking things one step further, this legalistic approach to fasting is utterly detached from prayer and almsgiving. The time saved by not worrying about what we’ll eat or how we’ll prepare it, much less adapting recipes to fit Lenten rules, could be more wisely spent in prayer, in worship, in meditation and the reading of Scripture or the Holy Fathers. To the degree we rely on very simple and basic foods and spend little time in food preparation during the fast, we’ll have time to reflect on the countless other things (our anger, our jealousy, our self-centeredness, our sloth, our despair, our lust for power, our idle talk) that are surely within our control, but that we so often have allowed to control us.

  And, to take all of this one step further, might not the money saved by purchasing simple food be stewarded more wisely by giving it to those who have less, or nothing? By quietly and anonymously giving it to an agency that assists those who are out of work or homeless or abused? Might we not devote a portion of our time to volunteering at one of those agencies, feeding those in need with the loving and personal human contact that reveals God’s presence in this world?

Preparation for the Heavenly Banquet 

  Fasting is not optional. Neither are repentance, prayer, almsgiving, preparation, asceticism, ministering to the least among us, wisely managing our time and talents and treasures, struggling to overcome our passions, and so on. They’re all related, interconnected, essential. So fast we must—to the extent that we can—without comparing ourselves to others. Still less should we engage in endless and spiritually dangerous public discussions on what we’ve given up this Lent or how weary we’ve become by fasting from those things (including but hardly limited to food) that we’ve allowed to control us even though we have the ability, with God’s help, to control them.

  Fast we must, in the Holy Spirit rather than in the spirit of the Pharisees, and in secret, without fanfare or discussion. And fast we must, delighting not in our ability to transform chocolate cake into a Lenten delight, but in allowing our Lord to transform us as we delight in tasting and seeing how good He, the “Bread which came down from heaven,” truly is. Such fasting not only prepares us for the celebration of His Incarnation or Resurrection, but prepares us for the eternal heavenly banquet, to which He invites us, in His Kingdom.

(The author, a priest of thirty-four years, is rector of a parish of the Diocese of the Midwest of the Orthodox Church in America). 



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November 2011