St. Botolph’s Parish, St. Catherine of Alexandria, 27 November 2010
“What is impossible with men is possible with God.” (Luke 18.27)
Portrait of a teenage drop-out. Rather pretty: long, silky dark auburn hair; fine oval face, sparkling brown eyes. Slender hands, fabulous figure. A real beauty. Too bad, she is so vain. She would ‘rather die’ than marry a man who is not ‘twice’ as good-looking as she.
Rich enough: daughter of a provincial governor, brought up on swimming pools, stables, statues carved from ivory and ostrich feathers – ostrich feathers! – decorating the chairs in each room in her house. Filthy rich. Too bad, she is so spoiled. She would ‘rather die’ than marry a man unless he is twice as well-off as she. But worst of all: she is so clever. Clever? Cheeky. Smart mouth, sharp tongue. No matter what you say, a smart answer. She makes learned professors look like fools. Certainly, it explains why she dropped out of her college after – a year? a few months? And, yes, she would ‘rather die’ than marry a man who is not twice as intelligent. To think, her father worked so hard to give her the best chances in life. Now he sits in the café and complains: ‘All I want is to see her fit in.
I want to see her get on in life. I don’t care how “brilliant” she is, she has to learn how to fit in with other people. How will she get a career, or a man? She’s so full of herself’. Ah, yes. Her name is Catherine. It means ‘pure’. Well, she certainly thinks that she is purer, that is, better than the rest of us. Too good for anyone in her hometown: Alexandria.
Catherine is a teenage drop-out in every way. First, she drops out of school – she’s so clever, she thinks. Then, out of society. She takes up with some weird cult of cannibals, who worship a dead criminal. They claim to eat his flesh and drink his blood. As if that is not bad enough, she claims to talk with this dead guy. She turns down the most eligible bachelors, all for a penniless felon that the state put to death. She boasts that this felon, this long-haired deviant who died is more beautiful than the rays of the sun; wiser, more brilliant than the cosmos; and wealthier than all the total wealth of every country around the globe. Totally deranged, this girl. What do you do with a mad teen drop-out who falls in love with a ghost? Cut her off. Disown her. Better yet: send her to a rehab centre, or a boot-camp, or at least a boarding school until she learns to ‘fit in’. If you do not catch the madness in time, what does she do? She goes to the government. A girl from a decent, respectable, hard-working, well-to-do home – the daughter of a senior politician – starts campaigning for the ‘rights’ of some weirdo types. She accuses the state, which is only upholding the law, of ‘discriminating’ against those incense-burning cannibals. When the state figures what she is up to, they send the best minds from the top universities in the land to debate with her. Guess what? She flattens them so firmly, they come to believe what she does. Later on, in prison for ‘seditious protest’, she converts every person that comes to see her. What is left but to break her on the wheel? Smash her limbs. Spin her round and round. But, to her dying breath, she is convinced that she is right.
Is this the portrait of a teenage drop out? It is the portrait of a saint. A ‘Great-Martyr’ of the Church, as her world saw her. Of course, she dropped out … of the world.
The Great-Martyr, Saint Catherine, is all that I have described. Privileged. Beautiful. And brilliant. Above all, brilliant. Too brilliant ever to ‘fit in’. She had it all, it seems. All, except what it takes to get on in life. She is, of all things, a misfit.
A rich young man who meets Jesus today has what it takes. Rich, handsome, educated: a fine catch for, say, Catherine of Alexandria. Besides, he is conservative and above all, moral. He lives by the law. He has never slept with another man’s wife, or killed anyone, or stolen a sandwich from a convenience store, or given false testimony in court. And he is so respectful to his parents, who would not be proud to have him for a son-in-law? So he asks Jesus: ‘Good teacher, what do I do to get to heaven? It is all about being good. Am I good enough?’ The answer surprises him. ‘Don’t call me “good”,’ says Jesus. ‘It’s not about being good. One thing you lack: go, defy the world. Defy the norms. Defy the rat race. Sell everything, give to those in need. “Drop out”! Then come, follow me’. What is a young man from a decent, respectable, well-to-do home to make of it? Not quite the answer that he expected. He goes away, crestfallen. Jesus looks at him and says: ‘The Kingdom of God does not “fit” into this world; and those who “fit” best, cannot fit into the Kingdom. It would easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle’. The people who are standing nearby say: ‘We have spent our lives trying to “get on”. We have tried hard to obey the rules, to tow the line. Who can be saved, then?’
‘The rules of the Kingdom are different’, Jesus replies. “What is impossible for humans, is possible with God. But anyone who gives all for me, will never fit in with this world’.
Beloved in Christ: we spend too much time ‘fitting in’. We spend even more time hoping and worrying whether we ‘fit in’. One question always remains: ‘Fit in – with what?’ What makes the ‘norms’ so normal? Why must a pretty girl get married to be a woman? Why must a university professor necessarily be right? Why must a swimming pool, a stable, or ‘the best of everything’ be the only measure of success? Any more than … an ostrich feather. We, the weird cult of cannibals that worships a crucified God – how shall the Church of Christ ever ‘fit in’ with the world that crucified him?
Saint Catherine never fit in. When they delivered her up to the synagogues and prisons, brought her before kings and governors; when her parents, kinsmen, and friends turned her over to the state; and none of her adversaries could contradict her words – it was all for one reason only: she would not “fit in”. Why, then, should a Christian hope to? When at last they broke her body on the wheel, her dying prayer was for all those who call on her name. Those who, for the sake of the Gospel, drop out of the world as she did. The angels who carried her body to Mount Sinai proved beyond all doubt: Saint Catherine was only the beginning. Until the close of time, every monk and every nun – whether of St. Catherine’s Monastery, or another – is living proof that Christianity will never “fit” into the world. We are a faith of misfits. We are fools for Christ’s sake. Mad drop-outs, who fall in love with … a ghost? The Son of the Living God. We are misfits, who would rather die than settle for anything less.
Holy Great-Martyr Catherine, pray to God for us!