Today is the day people celebrate throughout the world as the Saints Day of St Catherine of Alexandria. Since she is recognised as the patron saint of scholars and philosophers, a few words in her commemoration seem in order. St Catherine was brutally tortured to death by being stretched on a wheel, for the simple reason that she refused to recant her Christian faith. So the first thing she stands for is as a living memorial and testament against all those who would hurt, torture or imprison people simply for their beliefs. Scholarship, where it is not free, is not true scholarship. Choices made under duress are not really ethical choices at all, as Kant pointed out long ago. We can only be really good when we have freedom of will. Of course, some may choose to exercise their freedom to do evil, as did those who tortured St Catherine to death. And perhaps they genuinely believed that paganism was under threat from this strange new faith that spoke against sexuality, against forced marriage, and believed that a crucified Rabbi had risen from the dead and now reigned in heaven, and would come again to judge the world… These strange ideas must have seemed decidedly odd to the pagan thinkers of Alexandria, who had apparently tried to convince her of her error. According to tradition however, she discussed philosophical ideas with 50 famous pagan thinkers in Alexandria, and defeated them all in the argument. One wonders what ideas lay at the root of these debates, and what historical facts can be deduced from them ? So the second thing we can say of St Catherine is that she stands as a symbol for all those who would use arguments to put forward their views, rather than force, violence, ridicule, thuggery or ignore-ance. She was willing to actually talk things through with her enemies where their ideas seemed to be at loggerheads to her own. Too often in discussions, even in some interfaith discussions, parties refuse to listen to one another; or they set out the ground rules in a way which subtly tilts the balance in favour of one position or another. In large parts of the world totally free intellectual discussion about ideas is still just not possible. Can a Tibetan monk discuss rationally in a tea shop in Lhasa that maybe, just maybe, it would be better for the Tibetan people if the Dalai Lama returned to the Potala palace and resumed a purely ceremonial and religious role as head of the Gelugpa order, and gave his metaphysical teachings and instructions to his students from the Potala henceforth ? Such an idea would probably land one in serious trouble. Can a pagan philosopher teach honestly about the benefits of Socratic doubt and the importance of having one’s own persona Daimon to guide one in complex ethical choices, in say the coffee houses of Riyadh, or elsewhere in the Saudi Kingdom ? I doubt it; I was told at the World Congress of Philosophy in Athens that teaching philosophy is banned from schools in Saudi Arabia.. Or can one point out rationally that in his personal life Muhammad did not seem to conform to modern day ethical norms, and that therefore his life cannot be taken as an absolutely gold standard basis for all legal and constitutional affairs henceforth till the end of time ? (If you doubt this, read the publications of the Centre for the Study of Political Islam at http://www.cspipublishing.com). St Catherine however would have not feared to speak out for truth with the hope that love will come to reign in all things, and therefore she stands for all those among us who are prepared to speak truth to power, and to protest, catholically, against injustice, ignorance, suppression, hatred and moral blindness, wherever and whenever it rears its head.
St Catherine’s life has been commemorated in many churches and monasteries worldwide, the most famous being St Catherine’s monastery in Sinai, where her body was eventually laid to rest. Several of my friends have been to visit this marvellous monastery, but I have not myself yet had that pleasure. Many priceless treasures exist in its library, and it has long been a haven for scholars and all those intent on uncovering the deepest layers of Christian mysteries. Built between 548 and 565, the monastery is one of the oldest working Christian monasteries in the world, and its library preserves the second largest collection of early codices and manuscripts in the world, outnumbered only by the Vatican Library. It contains Greek, Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, Hebrew, Georgian, and Aramaic texts. In May 1844, Konstantin von Tischendorf visited the monastery for research and discovered the Codex Sinaiticus, dating from the 4th Century, at the time the oldest almost completely preserved manuscript of the Bible. It left the monastery in the 19th century for Russia, in circumstances that are now disputed. It was later bought by the British Government from Russia and is now in the British Library, which for many years was housed in the British Museum. I remember often going to the round reading room for study purposes in the 1980’s and passing this venerable text on display in the library. I distinctly remember the smell of the polished wooden floors where the Codex was kept in a glass case, and the slightly creaking floorboards that you had to cross to peer at the beautiful codex under glass. I spent some thousands of hours in the British Museum round reading room (and the London Library) back in the 1980’s and that was even before doing my degree in modern history at the University of London, at Senate House, when I spent countless further hours studying through the University of London system, at Senate House library, Kings College, SOAS, SSEES, etc. I’ve still kept the skips of paper that one used to get at the old British Museum library, in the hope that one day I could catalogue and list al those obscure books i used to read and research, in philosophy, history, psychology, politics, peace, religious studies, theology, metaphysics, science, cosmology, esotericism, literature.. Of recourse, one never has time, so the handfuls of slips just sit there, getting slowly discoloured as the years pass, and as one’s scholarly interests move on, in an ever restless stream of consciousness… So this is the third thing that St Catherine stands for – the patient, unspectacular, determined and rigorous work of scholars everywhere, in whatever discipline they are working within, and the hours and hours of study, writing, reading and reflecting that any serious contribution to scholarship actually takes. And I am not talking about the flashy so-called scholars, who like flocks of birds swoop and dive on fashionable ideas like so many crumbs scattered on a wintry field, but rather the quiet, unfamous, patient and persevering scholars and students, from all over the world, for whom merely to read a book, to turn its pages and to learn from it, is still a wonder, and well worth the effort, since the effort is itself part of the pleasure (or explore a good website, an ebook or a blog.. same thing – who can doubt that the internet is a fabulous new tool for scholars that St Catherine would have heartily approved of). St Catherine then is the patron of all those who turn to scholarship when disputes arise in the collective mind of mankind, when this faith says one thing and another faith seems to contradict it – and who instead of turning to the gun or the bomb at this point, rather turn to research, study and reflection, in short to true scholarship, in a never ending and ceaseless quest to get to the actual truth of things..
So for all these reasons, it is worth remembering this ancient saint on this day, 25 November, to which her memory has long been sacred. Not surprisingly, she has some 62 churches dedicated to her memory in Britain. Her life was written up by Capgrave, Bokenham and Archbishop Langham. The very earliest extant miracle play was one in her honour performed at Dunstable in 1110. Gorran, so the tale goes, who directed it, borrowed some copes from St Albans which were accidentally burnt during the production, so he became a monk at St Albans to make up for it, and remained a devotee of St Catherine all his life. Mural paintings of St Catherine were also often made and one is in Winchester Cathedral in the chapel of the Holy Sepulchre; another famous one giving her whole life cycle is at Great Missenden in Bucks. Others can be found in Northants, Norfolk, Pickering (Yorkshire) and Great Chalfield (Wiltshire). There are also murals of St Catherine in Eton college chapel, which is a fitting place, given the high esteem in which scholarship has always been held in that place of learning. My own daughter Shanti, now at Cambridge studying literature, was fortunate enough to go to a Summer school there for brought young state school children a couple of years back. There are also ancient stained glass representations of St Catherine in many churches in Britain, including at York Minster and Balliol College, University of Oxford (ah, Balliol…).
A further thought – St Catherine’s day comes exactly one month before Christmas day. There is usually some kind of hidden wisdom in the church’s liturgical year, and perhaps what is being said here is that before the Messiah can be born (or reborn, depending on your theology) we need to cultivate, through long hard graft and the patient pursuit of truth, the principles, values and preconditions, which make possible the birth of that level of messianic consciousness in all of us. After all, Christ himself had a high degree of education, as witnessed by the fact that he was someone deeply versed in the scriptures, was always quoting from them to make a point with his fellow Rabbis, and was undoubtedly literate. In other words, he himself had bothered to spend time in quiet study and reading. Also, it is a fact that his method of scriptural exegesis, which was always to emphasise the moral and spiritual point of scripture, rather than the literal, was a special mark of Egyptian Judiasm (vide Philo). And given that his parents probably had links to and relatives in Egypt, it is very possible that he spent part of this education in Egypt and even in Alexandria. It would account for much that seems strange at first glance about Jesus, and explain why his rival Rabbis always accused him of “learning magic in Egypt”. Perhaps St Catherine of Alexandria herself knew something of this, and this is why she was able to better the purely pagan and anti Christian philosophers of Alexandria in arguments. It also explains why the great late scholar Giles Quispel spent so many years searching out the mysteries of the Coptic Museum library in Cairo, and indeed died on his way back from an afternoon’s happy reading in the Coptic library in Cairo. It was he who had discovered the manuscript of the Gospel of Thomas; found at Nag Hammadi it had for a while ended up in the Coptic Museum in Cairo and there the original manuscript found at Nag Hammadi is still located (in 2013, fortunately so far the rioting and fighting in Cairo hasn’t damaged the Coptic Museum, although a number of Coptic churches have been attacked and destroyed and many Copts killed throughout Egypt) It was also Quispel who lent the Jung Codex to Carl Jung in Switzerland to assist his researches into Gnosticism. The Jung Codex contained: The Prayer of the Apostle Paul, The Apocryphon of James (also known as the Secret Book of James), The Gospel of Truth, The Treatise on the Resurrection and The Tripartite Tractate. Quispel was supported in his studies on the Gospel of Thomas in Cairo by no less a person than his compatriot, Queen Margaret of the Netherlands (the one who has just retired). The Jung Codex is now also back in Cairo. I think St Catherine, were she reborn among us, would have loved to attend the Eranos Lectures founded by Olga Froebe-Kapteyn in 1933, and which have been held annually on the grounds of her estate (on the shores of Lake Maggiore near Ascona in Switzerland) ever since where Jung and Quispel and many other great scholars (Eliade, Scholem, James Hillman, Joseph Campbell et al) often spoke. On a happy note, I should add that when visiting the Vatican Library myself a while back, (obtaining my ticket after presenting my own scholarly credentials), I was delighted to see that they have a complete edition of the marvellous volumes now being published in the series entitled Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies, edited by Johannes van Oort & Einar Thomassen. Formerly called the Nag Hammadi Studies Series, which included the now complete Coptic Gnostic Library, this series – a world leader in its field – now includes study tools and monographs on a broad range of topics in the fields of Gnostic and Manichaean studies. Titles so far include The Spiritual Seed (Einar Thomassen), The Gospel of Judas in Context (M. Scopello), Nag Hammadi Bibliography 1995-2006 (D.M. Scholer), and New Light on Manichaeism (J. D. BeDuhn). Also included was a volume commemorating the contribution of Quispel to scholarship which told the sad story of his death while returning from the library in Cairo ! What is obvious from a deep acquaintance with this literature, is that there is a seamless web of spiritual continuity stretching from ancient Paganism, Pythagoreanism, Orphism and Platonism, prophetic Judaism, early Qabalistic ideas, Gnostic Christianity, Logos based Alexandrian Christianity, through esoteric Manichean thought, apocalyptic Zoroastrianism and on through to early Gnostic Meccan Islam. In other words, all their current followers and disciples just ought to make peace, and get back to their scholarship instead of fighting !
So St Catherine stands for reverence for learning, and delight in wisdom, for its own sake, which is the source of all true scholarship. The same reverence for learning is shown in the lives of all the other truly great sages and seers of world spiritual history. Although Moses may not have actually written the Torah, he was certainly someone “learned in all the arts of the Egyptians”. Muhammad likewise reverenced learning, and told his students to seek knowledge “even as far afield as China”. He also said that “the ink of the scholar is worth more than the blood of the martyr”. King Alfred, the greatest warrior Sage of Anglo Saxon England likewise reverenced scholarship and translated Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy into Anglo Saxon, as Queen Elizabeth 1st later did some into Elizabethan English. She was herself one of the most learned monarchs ever to have reigned.
It was King Alfred, who loved scholarship so much yet found that his duties as King gave him insufficient time for it, who once asked his Welsh Bishop (and biographer), Asser if in his opinion, there would be libraries in heaven where he, once unburdened of his life as a busy King, could continue his quiet reading and study in peace. Asser replied, memorably “I am sure, O King, that once you reach heaven, if there are not yet such libraries in existence, they will have to build one at your behest”. Something of the same is reported by Dannon Brinkley, in his Saved by the light, when he reports being shown a kind of heavenly library during his long and complex near death experience. So it would seem then, that scholarship is not something which only exists at the level of human lives, but has the sanction of the spiritual worlds as well. So there is yet another reason to give thanks for St Catherine’s day. Here at the Castle of the Muses, of course, we are a sort of in-between house – you don’t have to actually die to get here, although out of body spirits are welcome, and judging by the funny banging noises going on some nights, quite a few are indeed turning up – and depending on the weather, it is often easier to get here out-of-body than by normal modes of transport! But instead, the Castle holds a huge library covering all manners of esoteric and philosophical mysteries, which perhaps gives one a little glimpse of what might indeed be in the heavenly library system !
Happy St Catherine’s day ! Happy Studying everyone !