Wednesday, November 25, 2009

St. Catherine of Alexandria and Sedes Sapientia

St. Catherine of Alexandria by Caravaggio,
from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Madrid, Spain

(Wednesdayof the of the Last Week in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on 25 November, 2009 at the Chapel of The American College of the Immaculate Conception in Louvain, Belgium; See Daniel 5:1-28 and Luke 21:12-19)

This morning the Church celebrates the Feast of St. Catherine of Alexandria. A fourth century virgin and martyr, St. Catherine not only had a great love for Christ and great love for the Church; she was also a brilliant philosopher, a true lover of wisdom. She is the patron saint of philosophers.

There is a remarkable story about St. Catherine who denounced the emperor (Maxentius, or perhaps his father Maximian; hagiographers are not quite sure) for persecuting Christians. Although the emperor could have killed her on the spot, instead he tried to refute her arguments but found himself unable to match her sharp intellect. Therefore he gathered fifty philosophers, intelligent minds from throughout the kingdom, thinking they would be able succeed where he had failed. He was wrong.

When the arguments were all over and the conversation complete, they all converted to the Christian faith! In retaliation the emperor had them burned alive before executing St. Catherine, as well. The words of Christ spoken in this morning’s Gospel can be applied quite directly to St. Catherine of Alexandria:

They will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name. It will lead to you giving testimony.
—Luke 21:12-13

In a real and vital way, we also see Jesus’ words on wisdom taking flesh in the person of St. Catherine:

Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute.
—Luke 21:14-15

St. Catherine was not able to testify and bear witness to Christ or convert her adversaries because she was the brightest girl in the kingdom (although she probably was). She was a powerful and effective witness for Christ because she was open to the wisdom of God which comes from above. She was docile to a divine knowledge which enabled her to speak courageously and clearly in the midst of trial and tribulation.

Is that not what we find in the first reading this morning in the prophet Daniel? He is the man who can read the writing on the wall. He knows how to unlock the secrets hidden in dreams and visions and to understand the difficulties and complexities of his time. But he did not accomplish all those things because he was the most intelligent captive in Babylon (although he probably was). In fact, it is King Belshazzar himself, who does not even believe in the God of Daniel, who tells us why Daniel has such wisdom:

I have heard that the Spirit of God is in you, that you possess brilliant knowledge and extraordinary wisdom.
—Daniel 5:14

Daniel had the Spirit of the living God in him. He was a man docile to the power of the Spirit and, like St. Catherine of Alexandria, he was able to surrender himself to a wisdom which was beyond him. Only when we can do that will we fully realize the potential of what God wants to reveal to, and in, us.

In his encyclical Fides et Ratio, our late Holy Father, John Paul the Great, spoke of the beauty and the dignity of philosophy and of holy wisdom. Philosophy is able to unlock so many of the secrets about humanity; it contributes greatly to the building up of the culture and serves to guide and order magnificently our way of life on earth.

But one of the challenges that philosophy faces is the temptation to separate itself from the ultimate truths revealed to us by God:

The Church considers philosophy an indispensible help for a deeper understanding of faith and for communicating the truth of the Gospel to those who do not yet know it…I wish to reflect upon this special activity of human reason. I judge it necessary to do so because, at the present time in particular, the search for ultimate truth seems often to be neglected.
—Fides et Ratio, #5

When philosophy and human wisdom set aside the ultimate truths revealed to us by faith and by God, then they themselves become impoverished. There is no competition between philosophy and theology, faith and reason. In the beginning of that encyclical, John Paul the Great says that faith and reason are like two wings upon which the human spirit soars to the heights to contemplate the truth. If we set aside the ultimate truths about who God is, who we are in the image of God, what the dignity of every human person is, then we are left with only one wing and as a result we remain earthbound.

At the end of the encyclical we are given a beautiful image that is near and dear to each of us in this chapel this morning: Sedes Sapientia. Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom. John Paul the Great says that is an image which helps us to understand what he is trying to communicate in Fides et Ratio.

The Blessed Virgin Mary was a woman completely docile to the Word that came to her. She did not fully understand it nor could she plumb the depths of all that God was beginning to reveal to her. Nonetheless she surrendered herself to God and, far from being less free and shackled, she became the very icon of freedom, fidelity and fruitfulness. Her “Fiat voluntas tua, Be it done to me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38), is the word surrendered in freedom which brings Christ into the world we live in.

Even so, says our late Holy Father, “when philosophy heeds the summons of the Gospel’s truth its autonomy is in no way impaired. Indeed it is then that philosophy sees all its enquiries rise to their highest expression” (Fides et Ratio, #108).

This is the goal of all philosophical thought and all theology, too: to be lifted up to the heights of all that God’s truth has in store for us here and in the world to come. Yet at times even theologians consider themselves or their own thought to be above the truths that have been revealed to us by God through the Magisterium, the teaching office of the Church. Here, too, does theology become impoverished.

Any theologian who considers himself or herself to be brighter than the teachings of the Church, above the wisdom which comes to us in a particular way through the Church’s Magisterium, is not doing theology; it would be closer akin to folly.

This morning we reflect upon our readings and ask ourselves:

Am I seeking the wisdom which comes from above?

Am I docile to the way that the Holy Spirit is leading me to enter more deeply, through philosophy and theology, into the mysteries of the Christian faith revealed to me by God?

Let us also long for and cry out for that same wisdom which came to the prophet Daniel and St. Catherine of Alexandria. May their merits and prayers, and those of Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, Sedes Sapientia, help us to soar upon the heights of God’s truth and allow us to testify to it and share it with a world that is constantly seeking and searching for God.