November 25, 2013

Saint Katherine of Alexandria as a Model for our Lives

St. Katherine the Great-Martyr of Alexandria (Feast Day - November 25)

By Protopresbyter Fr. George Papavarnavas

A daily Athenian newspaper, as well as a major private television station, on the occasion of the National Holiday of October 28th, interviewed young people on the streets, among whom were students, and asked them: "What are we celebrating today, and why are there doxologies and parades?" Most pleaded ignorance, others said the most incredible things like "we are celebrating the Turks" or "we are celebrating the Germans", and other such comical tragedies. This situation is not so surprising, as painful as it is to open up the secret that education in our country is in a deep crisis and the responsibility lies more with us and less with the children. Certainly this is not the only piece of our history that we are ignorant of. For the Greeks of Ionia, who were rooted in that sanctified land for four thousand years where they blossomed and flourished, suddenly found themselves without a home, uprooted and hunted (for those who survived, of course), and very few young children know about this and learn it in schools. But education in our country is not so much an issue of the absence of knowledge, as much as what orientation it has and what sort of citizens we want to form. 

In Romiosini, or so-called Byzantium, education addressed the entire person and its purpose was to make them a complete person, namely to direct them from the petty and vile to higher things, since this is what it means to be human (άνθρωπος=anthropos), to look high (άνω θρώσκω=ano throsko). As Basil the Great very succinctly says: "What is the form of quadrupeds? Their head is bent towards the earth and looks towards their belly, and only pursues their belly's good. Your head, O man, is turned towards heaven; your eyes look up. When therefore you degrade yourself by the passions of the flesh, being a slave of your belly and your lowest parts, you approach animals without reason and become like one of them. You are called to more noble cares; seek those things which are above where Christ sits. Raise your soul above the earth; draw from its natural conformation the rule of your conduct; fix your conversation in heaven. Your true country is the heavenly Jerusalem; your fellow citizens and your compatriots are 'the first-born which are written in heaven'" (Hexaemeron 11). Education then addressed not only the brain but especially the heart. And when we speak of the heart we are not talking about the physical organ, but the spiritual heart, the center of the spiritual activity of man. An education that does not care about the whole person, their way of life, their character and their personality, but merely transmits dry knowledge, cannot be and is not a complete education. The life and state of being of Saint Katherine allows us to clearly see the purpose and orientation of a correct and true education.

In the synaxaria and liturgical texts, Saint Katherine is called "All-Wise", not just "Wise", but "All-Wise". She studied and knew almost all the sciences of her time, which was very rare even for those days. "She was highly trained in all the knowledge of the Greeks and Romans, such as Homer and Virgil the great Roman Poet; Asclepius, Hippocrates and Galen the Physicians; Aristotle, Plato, Philistionos and Eusebius the Philosophers; and all the Rhetoricians found throughout the world, and not only, but even every word of every language did she learn, that brought amazement not only to those who saw her, but also to those who heard of her fame and wisdom and education." But that which, par excellence, reveals the fullness of her education is not only the things mentioned above, but rather the wealth of her heart. She was a bearer of "wisdom from above", which does not inflate the mind, but it widens the heart to contain the whole world. Good and humble that she was she had simplicity in her manners, but firmness in her decisions, and this is shown clearly in her martyrdom. With true wisdom she humiliated the pagan orators and allowed it to be transparent that their faith was false and their words pure babble. "And the impious words of the orators you stopped, Great-Champion." In another hymn it says: "She offered Christ thanks night and day, she destroyed their idols and all their mindless worship, and she trampled on the knowledge of orators."

Knowledge about human achievements in all areas is helpful, as well as the study and engagement with books because this sharpens the mind and opens up new horizons. Especially it is necessary to know History and primarily the history of our country since, as it has been rightly said, "a nation that does not know its history is doomed to die". But man's so-called existential problems, such as the questions: Why were we born? What is the purpose of our life? Why do we die? What happens after death? Is there a Heaven and Hell? and so on, are not able to be solved by human knowledge, but only by Theology, namely the Truth revealed by the Triune God Himself and experienced in the Orthodox Church. Orthodox Theology offers solutions to all the problems of man. It provides substantial assistance, teaching us the way to treat them and eventually to exceed them.

Saint Katherine as a carrier of human wisdom and education, but first and foremost the wisdom according to God, clearly reveals with her brilliant life, that true education is not that which merely provides dry knowledge, but rather it forms souls, creating an ethos and ultimately transforming existence.

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "Ο ΑΓΙΑ ΑΙΚΑΤΕΡΙΝΗ Η ΠΑΝΣΟΦΟΣ", November 1997. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.