Photo via my friend Amanda, 2 February 2014
My parents say they called me Catherine because it’s a classic, the name of many saints and queens, the kind of name that never goes out of style. But of course in our churches a baptismal name is also a point of entry into tradition, uniting a child with the communion of saints that recalls the biblical renaming of the apostles: you have been called for a purpose, a mission, that is holiness. And with these syllables we will remind you of it every time we identify you, every time we take attendance or say hello or take communion or scold you for stealing from your sister.
Traditionally we are given a saint’s name at baptism, and that saint is then a sort of spiritual companion—an example, a patron, and an intercessor in heaven for each new member of Christ’s body on earth. Mine was, technically, ambiguous. There are a great many saints Catherine, and occasionally I would imagine them as my heavenly posse. Caterina de’ Ricci, the old prioress, trading tales of convent life with Caterina da Genoa and Caterina Volpicelli, while Kateri Tekakwitha and Katharine Drexel grinned in our American way. Catherine Labouré’s Marian poeticisms give Caterina da Bologna inspiration for painting. Katarina av Vadstena is tagging alongside her old friend, Caterina da Siena, who undoubtedly has important business to discuss. Catherine of Alexandria, for her part, is distantly regnant in that golden-mosaic way of early martyrs.
These are the things I thought about as a girl, a more overly imaginative than particularly pious grade-schooler, while I was distracted throughout twice-weekly Mass. But I remember the day I chose a patron saint for myself from among them. I was eleven years old and had finally graduated from Peter Pan collars and jumpers to the dress shirts and plaid skirts of middle school. The twenty-seven kids in our grade — seven boys and twenty girls, for the rather pertinent record — were sitting half-attentively for the weekly Q&A with the priests from the parish attached to the school. I was front row and furious.
Our diocese had been one of only two in the country to prohibit female altar servers when our bishop announced he was leaving the question up to parish-by-parish discretion. Our parish, the priests were visiting to explain to us, was among the sixty-percent majority that decided against allowing girls to serve at the altar. Picture me, the sixth-grade feminist menace, as our parochial vicar explained their discernment process. I don’t remember much of what he said, as I was likely too red in the ears to hear, but I did ask why the nuns who served as our teachers were allowed to be altar girls in their convent chapel but we weren’t allowed to be in our chapel.
I was a delight of an eleven-year-old, really.
The priest took my question seriously and answered it, I’m sure, but he told my mother when she came to pick me up that day: You definitely named her after the right woman. We knew the one he meant. Catherine of Siena, or as I called her through my adolescence, the woman who told the Pope where to go.
And in those earlier years that is how I thought of her. As a young teenager I was in love with my faith, going to Mass every day, leading a youth group, trying to take over religion class. It was my everything and I wore her name like a badge of honor: this is what women do in our church, they speak truth to power and demand unpopular holiness.
Then as now, though, there is something putrid in the mollifying of dissenters with their canonized predecessors. It started out as joking about an eleven-year-old named for Catherine of Siena but while I wasn’t paying attention it became asking a seventeen-year-old named for her not to cause scandal to the Church by testifying to her pain. Catherine of Siena had the dignity to ask Christ to make her stigmata invisible, remember.
I didn’t quite perceive then the violence done unto Catherine, not just by her Church but by history in general. It was only after my disillusionment with my faith, and a period of separation from it, that I came to uncover the darker side of my namesake’s life. I had proudly recognized her death at the age of thirty-three, Christ’s age when he died, as a passionate parallel to the God she loved more than anything. When I learned, in the darkest days of my own life, that she had starved herself to death, I began to carry her name on me like a set of chains. A set of chains that I felt a little too comfortable in.
I felt chained by our shared past. We had both vowed ourselves to Christ as young girls, entering into destructive solitude thinking it was in the service of God. Her condition was infinitely more dramatic than my own: she enclosed herself within her family home, speaking to no one for years on end, cutting her hair to dissuade suitors, whipping herself thrice daily until she bled, and subsisting on bread and raw vegetables alone through her formative years. She spoke of these years as living in a cell within her mind, rejecting her earthly family until she could join her true family in heaven. Whereas before she had seemed a lover of Christ unwilling to settle for anything less than His kingdom, she now sounded to me like a familiar tragedy. I knew what it was to retreat within myself, to isolate myself from the circumstances in which Providence had placed me in order to do what I thought He wanted. My struggles with eating, though they have never been remotely as intense as Catherine’s self-starvation, are a perpetual manifestation of that larger strategy of self-control.
Though I resented that her isolation led to canonization, and mine was driving me ever further into doubt, I resented the forces that convinced us of this course of action in the first place all the more. My own were fairly straightforward. I didn’t fully understand hers until I came across the work of Rudolph Bell in Holy Anorexia, a 1985 book on Italian woman mystics like Catherine. They shared similar practices of self-harm and starvation, as well as subsequent reputations for holiness and therefore a public voice not normally accorded to women. There is something of the fool-for-Christ in the idea, a person capable of such physical extremes that they are seen to be lowly enough, empty enough, to serve as vessel for God. In social practice, this intertwined female suffering with devotion and power: the bleeding and starving female body exemplified self-control and passionate piety, an external sign of inner holiness that justified her public presence. Her wounds were her credibility, the argument goes.
Call it pernicious misogyny, call it psychological torture, call it mass hysteria. All that mattered to me was that it was bad theology. At the heart of our faith is a man crucified, a suffering body, a dead God. Nothing is more central than suffering, transformed by love into redemption. It can expiate sin, it can substitute the willing sacrifice for the punishment of others. It is a cross to be taken up when the opportunity arises, but it is not something to be crafted and clung to. I didn’t see the difference until I lived it.
As Hilary Mantel once put it in reflecting on Catherine of Siena, her practice differed from the Christian ascetic norm in that she practiced it alone. Fasting is a regulated penance, practiced in community among traditional limits. Starvation isolates, and in striving to be exemplary it breaks from tradition. Just as diets are meant to fail, fasting is meant to end in a feast day, but starvation both medieval and modern ends in death. This is not the expiatory, redemptive suffering she thought she was modeling herself after but a drive for self-control that became self-destruction. It does not rob her of her sainthood or her good will to acknowledge this, but it robbed me of a good example and her true legacy.
For in the moment when I most needed an exemplar of the suffering woman in the service of Christ, I looked where I was meant to and saw my namesake’s image crumble to the dust she subsisted on. And for that loss I did not resent her so much as the Church that let me believe she was a credible guide. When I think back on Catherine I see tragedy, not betrayal. Imagine her, fourteen-year-old Catherine, ribs piercing, breath foul, back scarred, rejecting any and all companionship to dedicate herself to a God she thought wanted this of her. Noli me tangere, she screamed, but far too early in the plotline. For love of her Lord—her Lord who performed miracles at wedding feasts, who fed the crowds, who took the form of bread and wine—she renounced her body. And in the end, after subsisting for years on the Eucharist alone, she found herself physically incapable of eating and drinking. She lost the use of her legs first, and then slowly she wasted away. She died. And at that point she did not call her condition penance, but infermità. Sickness.
In my seventeen-year-old doubt, numbing hunger, and mental isolation, I needed any other name. Not her. Not that suffering woman scrubbed by bad theology and historical necessity into the patron saint of illness. Not that legacy attached to me by a man who saw my point and shrugged it off with an example of accepted protest. Not that soul who hated her body.
You would think I’d have gotten to this sooner, my hometown being Alexandria and all.
The priest here in Buenos Aires introduced me to his two-year-old daughter the other day. My wife and I named her Catalina, he said to me, because she should know what glory God is capable of in his saints. He knew at that moment that I needed reminding, too, and he said to me, pray to the great-martyr Catherine tonight.
Three years ago I didn’t need a reminder but discovery. Of the saints Catherine there is the only Orthodox among them, and the sister toponyms give us a shared name twice over. She loosened the chains on my name very slowly, but surely, and I started to understand the spiritual gift my name was always supposed to be. She shared a few circumstances with Catherine of Siena that helped me begin to relate to her. Both of them occupied a particular vocation that was neither marriage nor monasticism, but a vowed Christ-belonging in the world that began when they were passionate young girls. Both were brilliant theologians trained in the tradition of the Church who used their wisdom to preach an unpopular truth, whether from Siena to the pope or from Alexandria to the emperor. Both were young women who experienced a “mystical marriage” with Christ — for neither could imagine marrying any other man.
But where I most needed intercession and guidance, they split off, and that was in their suffering. In Siena, Catherine was a sacrifice unto herself, a hermit in the middle of the city. In Alexandria, Catherine likely foresaw her martyrdom (she knew the Roman emperor would not take kindly to her rejection of paganism) but did not ask for it. She looked to the icon of Christ and saw a man who took on suffering to lighten the load for others, a man who sought out expiation. Following that example, she took the weapons she had — captivating beauty and educated brilliance — and put them in the service of her suffering neighbor. She saw the horrors exacted upon Christian martyrs in her city and sought out the emperor in order to mitigate their suffering. She debated with fifty of his best philosophers and orators in her efforts to convince him and thereby turn his heart toward mercy for the Christians on trial. She won the debate, converting his wise men. He killed them, and after many attempts to win her over for paganism — torture and marriage proposals alike — he had her killed, too. Her life, like mine, was firmly in tune with Christianity in that suffering was part of its nature, and she simply had to adjust her disposition to know where and how to face it.
It was an example I could take up, for her last moments were informed by all her previous choices. Though she lived a life promised to God, she was not shut up in contemplative suffering. She was engaged with the world, immersing herself in education from a young age and putting that education to use in God’s service the moment she was able. The fervor she felt for the beauty of Christ and her mystical experiences with Him served as motivation for preaching the truth, come what may. She let her cross be crafted elsewhere, and when it came, she did not cease the work of preaching and prayer. She kept converting her neighbors even in prison, letting her suffering speak to the seriousness of the truth she stood for.
Catherine of Siena knew this ancient martyr’s model was the wiser. In a letter to a nun sick from mortification, she entreated her not to let the lesser good of penance get in the way of the greater good of the service of God. By the time she was dying from them, she talked of her mortifications as sickness, not sacrifice. She lost control. Yet all my life I have known this first namesake of mine merely as a grandiose moment of political heroism. Her mystical tragedy has remained hidden, and with it any semblance of her as a person rather than as an idea. In legacy she is no wild street preacher in a chaotic time, calling out war and corruption in the public square while inflicting it upon herself in the privacy of her own home, but a miracle-ridden contemplative whose witness touched a Pope’s heart. We don’t just lose political and historical nuance with her legend, but any opportunity to understand her. Can you imagine Christ returning from the desert only to refrain from wedding feasts and Passover suppers? Would that not matter?
I felt lied to, and I felt a keen sense of loss, as my faith slipped from me to the point that even my name felt under siege. As I turned back toward the Church, and this time the Orthodox one, I had many things to repair and reclaim. My name was among them. I’d never been interested in Catherine of Alexandria because of the appellation that follows her name in every Western prayer ever penned about her. “Glorious Saint Catherine,” they would say, “virgin and martyr…” And I would always stop listening.
I never learned about her life as a philosopher and preacher until my Orthodox friend began to make jokes about calling me Catherine of Alexandria. She’s the best, he’d say, and he’d tell me the story of her brilliance and defiance, and I wondered if he was making it up at that point. She had always been robbed of her context for me, numbered simply among litanies of holy virgins, as if her sexual rejection of the emperor’s advances — she denied his marriage proposal in faithfulness to Christ the Bridegroom before her beheading — was what she died for. As if she had not infuriated a vehemently anti-monotheistic ruler who sought the blood of all who professed the Christian God by converting his fifty strongest minds. As if she was not first condemned for her theology, and her threatening genius in arguing it, before her vulnerable body was weaponized. As if that progression of events were not the case for all virgin-martyrs, who more often than not were arrested for their Christianity and then faced sexual propositions as the finale to countless tortures that violated their bodies in an attempt to violate their souls.
And yet so often the Church lets the torturers win the battle on how to speak of them. Catherine of Alexandria’s bleeding female body is her credibility. The lifelong holiness and heroism that brought her to that death hill are mere footnotes to the bloody legend. These were the saints I was allowed to have: the effective dissent of the contemplative in Siena, the virginal purity of the preacher in Alexandria. I saw them for what they were and wanted nothing to do with it.
Such is the life of a young Christian girl. In looking for heroes we have a terrifying list to choose from. They seem categories more than people much of the time. After all, fewer than twenty percent of canonized saints are female, and few of them had much self-expression socially available to them to distinguish themselves from the great firmament. We learn early on which paths are available: the virgin-martyr, the mollified dissent, the foundress in the field, the mystic in the cloister, the charitable queen. Too often we are handed tropes, not women, as jewels in the Church’s crown.
A statue of Saint Rita, the patroness of my childhood parish, was vandalized one afternoon in the parish hall. To replace it, they swapped it out with a statue of Saint Thérèse to which was added a glob of red paint on the forehead signifying stigmata. The old statue and the new were entirely indistinguishable. I can write you a virgin-martyr using everything I’ve got in the pantry.
So when I heard the troparia for Catherine of Alexandria, which called her the bride of Christ but never virgin-martyr, I knew I was starting to come home.
I still am. Siena’s starvation will take years to become communal fasting, and Alexandria’s philosophy will take a lifetime to sink in. When I was received into the Orthodox Church this year, my friend wrote me an icon of this great saint of mine with a cross and a crown but no wheel in sight. My name does not weigh on me like chains anymore. It teaches me how to take up a cross and look toward a crown. It teaches me how to glorify God in my body, like the woman from Alexandria who dedicated her beauty to Christ but never marred it, and how to direct my intellect toward things of God while not getting caught up in the politics of earth. My name is what it was meant to be: an entry into the communion of saints.
I want to bring those thousands of young Christian girls, those hungry ones and those tired ones, to the door with me. But I’ve learned from my namesakes. I cannot go it alone.
Thanks to Ivan, Leah, and Tristyn for the inspiration on this one.