The life of Saint Ekaterina of Alexandria
Holy Virgin and Great-Martyr
Commemorated on the 25th of November
Source: "The Synaxarion" by Saint Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain
Ekaterina, the glorious Great-Martyr of Christ, was from the renowned city of Alexandria in Egypt. She was martyred during the time of the irreverent kings Maximian, Maxentius and Maximinus, who reigned between 305-313 A.D.. Her Life and her Martyrdom are so wondrous and so fascinating, that every soul who carefully reads and hears about them is amazed and spiritually renewed, also harvesting many spiritual fruits.
This blessed girl was the daughter of Konstas (or Kestus), former king of Alexandria. She was exceptionally beautiful, and had received the best of Hellenic education. She had learnt all the major poets and philosophers, as well as everything written by the renowned physicians Asclepius, Hippocrates and Galen, and also had a profound knowledge of Rhetoric and Logic, as well as other languages, thus becoming admired for her wisdom by all those who had met her, and amazing even those who had only heard of her. Many very wealthy nobles of the Senate sought to marry her asking for permission from her mother, who however was secretly a Christian because of the large-scale persecution of the faithful that Maximian had launched. Ekaterina’s relatives and her mother advised her to marry so that her father’s estate would not be claimed by a foreigner husband, as that would also alienate her from her family altogether. Being a philosopher, Ekaterina greatly loved chastity and virginity, so, by giving various excuses, she would say that she did not want to marry at all. But when she saw that the suitors had become a nuisance, she purposely told them that she would choose a husband, only if he was worthier and more gifted than herself – in appearance, in education, nobility and good manners. Those who persisted, she rejected by simply telling them that they didn’t have all the qualifications that she required.
Now her mother had a very holy spiritual guide who lived in hiding, outside the city. So she took Ekaterina and went to that Elder for advice. Upon noticing her proper behaviour and hearing her knowledgeable and careful opinions, the Elder set his mind on guiding her to the knowledge of Christ, the Heavenly King, so he said to her:
“I know of a wonderful man, who incomparably surpasses you in all the charismas that you mentioned, and many more. His beauty is far brighter than the sun, His wisdom governs all created things, both visible and invisible, and his treasures are distributed to the whole world and they never diminish, but instead they increase as they are distributed. His noble character is furthermore inexpressible, incomparable and inconceivable.”
After hearing these things and more by the Elder, the blessed girl imagined that he was telling her of a terrestrial man, and she immediately felt a change in her heart, so she asked the Elder if all those praises were true. He then outlined who Christ was, and also told her that His Mother was a Most Holy Virgin, who became immortal thanks to Her exceptional sanctity. Ekaterina was intrigued, and asked the Elder if she could see that man for herself. The Elder replied that if she truly wanted to meet Him in person, she had to obey the Elder’s instructions. She sensed he was sincere and truthful, so she agreed to do what he told her. He then gave her an Icon of the Holy Mother with the child Jesus in Her embrace, and advised her to pray privately in her room, asking the Holy Mother to allow her to meet Her Son.
So Ekaterina took the Icon and did as the Elder had instructed. After praying for a long time, she became tired and fell asleep. In a vision, she saw the Holy Mother in the form depicted in the Icon, with Her Son in Her arms, except that His back was turned towards Ekaterina. She tried to walk around the Holy Mother to see His face, but He did not turn to look at her. After three such attempts, the Holy Mother asked Her Son to look upon the beautiful girl and see what she wanted, but He said “I cannot look upon her, as she appears very dark and sinister to me.” The Holy Mother persistently asked Her Son to respond to that girl’s pleas, but He said that Ekaterina should return to the Elder and do whatever he instructs her. She immediately awoke from that dream, amazed at what she had seen, so the next morning she took a group of women with her and went to the Elder. Falling to her knees, she begged him to help her meet the One that she desired, so he proceeded to introduce her to the Faith and all its details, and eventually led her to receive Holy Baptism. He then advised her to return home and pray once again very fervently to the Holy Mother, and ask Her if she could finally meet Her Son.
She followed the Elder’s instruction, and, after having fasted and prayed with tears for a long time in her room, she again fell asleep with exhaustion, and the Heavenly Mother again appeared, like She did the first time, in a vision. But this time, the Holy Child looked directly at the virgin Ekaterina, His face now radiant with joy. When the Holy Mother asked Him how Ekaterina appeared to Him now, He said that she now looked much brighter and glorious, compared to her previous appearance. He also reassured Ekaterina that she was now truly much wealthier and wiser, and gifted even more than before. His words were so imposing and magnificent, that she began to weep, insisting that she was not worthy to even look upon Him, but only asked Him to make her worthy of being one of His servants. The Holy Mother then took Ekaterina’s hand and brought it towards Her Son, saying: “Give her the ring of betrothal, so that she can be Your bride in Your Kingdom”. Christ then placed a beautiful ring on her finger, and said to her: “Behold, today I am receiving you as my incorrupt and eternal bride; for this, you will respect the agreement to not make any terrestrial man whatsoever your husband.” When Ekaterina woke up from that vision, she discovered that on her finger was indeed the ring that Christ had placed there! From that moment on, her heart was captivated by a divine love for her Lord, Jesus Christ.
However, the irreverent king – who was insanely zealous towards the unfeeling, artificial “gods” and who was even more unfeeling and unreasonable than them – issued a decree which was sent to all the cities and lands of his realm, declaring among other things: “I, the king, greet all of you who are under my authority, and I command you to gather together in your kingdoms the soonest, then come and duly honour the great gods and display your proper gratitude by offering sacrifices to them – each one according to his ability – for the gods have given us many benefits and gifts. But whoever disregards this command of mine and dares to worship any other god, will receive from me many damages and various tortures.”
After this decree had reached every corner of the land, a great multitude gathered in the city, bringing whatever each person could – the rich brought oxen or sheep, while the poor brought birds and other, smaller offerings. When the day arrived for that despicable festival, the irreverent king sacrificed 130 bulls, while the other nobles and lords sacrificed fewer, so that each and every pilgrim had shown their gratitude towards the king, as well as towards those unholy “gods”. The air soon became unbearable because of the cries of the animals being slaughtered and by the thick, heavy smoke that rose from the burning offerings, so that there was great confusion and frenzy everywhere.
On seeing the deplorable state that the people had descended into, as they rushed towards such impiety in the vain hope of temporarily escaping death by betraying their souls for all eternity, the grace-filled Ekaterina became heartbroken. She was filled with compassion for them, and was suddenly overcome with divine zeal. So she went to the temple where the mindless people were attending the sacrifices. When she arrived at the door of the temple, all eyes were attracted to her beautiful appearance. She then notified the doorman that she wanted to speak to the king about something very important, and the king said that she could enter. As soon as she approached him and bowed before him out of courtesy, she immediately began to berate him:
“You, my king, should have been the first to realize what kind of delusion you have all fallen into, by worshipping idols that are perishable and unfeeling; It is a great shame, to be so obviously blind to the truth, by foolishly worshipping such abominations! At least you should have heeded the words of your wise men, who told you that these statues are not real gods, so that you could avoid eternal damnation! The true God is only One, Who is Pre-Eternal, without a beginning, Who is Immortal, and Who eventually took on the form of a human for the salvation of all mankind! He created everything by His command, and He also preserves everything, so He has no need for such bloody sacrifices, nor is He pleased with the slaughter of so many innocent animals, which are not to blame. All He wants of mankind is to respect His commandments.”
The king was greatly angered on hearing such accusations and remained speechless for a long time. Not able to respond to her words, he replied: “Let us finish the sacrifices, and we can listen to you more carefully afterwards.” After completing that abhorrent festival, he gave orders for Ekaterina to be brought before his throne and he asked her: “Who do you think you are, and what are the reasons you said what you did?” She replied: “I am Ekaterina, I am well educated in all the sciences and languages; but I have scorned all of them, and I intend to become the bride of the Lord Jesus Christ, Who said the following words, through the mouth of His Prophet: ‘I shall destroy the wisdom of the wise and I shall violate the prudence of the prudent’.” (Isa.29:14). Admiring her wisdom and beholding such beauty, the king imagined that she was not born of earthly parents, but was possibly one of those “goddesses” that he revered, which had now appeared before him in human form.
After declaring all those thoughts to Ekaterina, she proceeded to bravely chastise him again, by repeating how he foolishly believed that the demons he worshipped were gods, and not realizing that they were only making a fool of him with all their illusions. The king tried to intimidate her, by warning her not to insult those powerful and immortal gods, but she responded very confidently, repeating once again that he was blindly following demonic entities instead of seeking the Almighty God and the power of His Cross in vanquishing demons.
The king interrupted that argument, on the pretense that a king should not converse with women; instead, he arranged to gather the wisest of his orators, who would convince her with their eloquence to understand the errors of her belief and return to the worship of the idols. That being said, he gave orders for Ekaterina to be guarded carefully, while he sent letters to all the cities under his jurisdiction, with the following content: “I, your king, send greetings to all the wise men and orators of the Hellenes, and I ask you to come to me speedily, so that we may invoke the most wise god Hermes (“Mercury”) and with your excellent knowledge, quash the boldness of a very knowledgeable female, who appeared here recently and mocked the great gods, calling their acts “myths” and “prattlings”. In doing this, you will be displaying your traditional wisdom before her, you will be greatly admired by the people, and you will be richly rewarded by me.”
A sizeable number of orators eventually responded to the king’s invitation – one hundred and fifty of the best and the most expert in speeches. The king warned them in advance to be well prepared to confront Ekaterina as a brave warrior and a strong orator, and to not feel over-confident that they would be competing against a mere woman. One orator then began to boast that no-one could possibly defeat them, not realizing that they were all going to confront a Grace-filled servant of God with their foul and offensive tongues. So the king convened them all in the amphitheater, with a multitude of civilians looking on, to see the outcome. But, just before she was taken to the amphitheater, the Archangel Michael descended from Heaven and said to her: “O hand-maiden of God, do not be afraid! Because – behold – the Lord will give you additional wisdom above your own, and you will defeat the 150 orators. Not only will they believe in the things you will say, but many others will also believe, through you, and you will all receive the crowns of Martyrdom from God.”
The envoys went and brought Ekaterina to the amphitheater, and immediately she was confronted there by that boastful orator, who questioned her in a severe tone of voice: “Are you the one who brazenly insults our gods so shamelessly?”
But she replied in a very gentle voice: “I am the one; however, I spoke thus, without shame - as you said - or brazenness, but instead, directly and in fact, truthfully.”
The orator said: “But when poets call them ‘supreme’, you – who have tested their wisdom and have savoured so much pleasure from them – now dare to wag your tongue against them with such brazenness?”
The argument continued along those lines – with the orators quoting flattering terms about their gods, while pointing out that those poets never mentioned her God anywhere. But Ekaterina counter-quoted verses of those same poets, who, although they had used various adjectives and titles for those “gods”, they had nowhere actually referred to them as gods. Furthermore, she reminded the orators of all the unsavory characteristics of those gods’ behaviors: cheating, lechery, promiscuity, revenge, coveting, murders... As for the true God not being acknowledged by their famous poets, she reminded them of the prediction of their own, wise oracle Sibylla, who had actually foretold the Incarnation of Christ, as well as the betrayal and His Crucifixion...
She spoke extensively about the one, true God, amazing them all with her God-given knowledge and wisdom, until she rendered the boastful orator lost for words. But on realizing that he was being defeated by her so easily, the king commanded the remaining wise orators to continue interrogating Ekaterina; however, they withdrew from that contest, declaring that they were unable to contradict the truth of her arguments, which had also defeated their stubborn king. Then the king gave orders for a huge fire to be lit in the center of the city, where all the unsuccessful orators were to be burnt alive as punishment for their failure. When they heard of the king’s cruel decision, they begged Ekaterina to pray to the Lord to forgive them for whatever they had unknowingly done in the past, and to make them worthy of holy Baptism. She was greatly moved by their confession and decision, and reassured them that they will undoubtedly be accepted by the true King of Heaven, and that their Baptism will be the fire that will cleanse them of all their old sins.
After comforting and blessing them and signing them all with the sign of the Cross on their foreheads, they were sent off to their martyrs’ death, on the 17th of November. When on that same evening some pious citizens went to collect the burnt remains for burial, they were amazed at the sight they saw: the bodies of all the martyrs were unaffected by the inferno and not even a single hair was burnt. This miracle immediately made them believe in God, so, on their return home to bury the martyrs properly, many others also converted to the faith after hearing about the miraculous event.
The king became increasingly worried about Ekaterina’s decision, and, after being defeated by her wisdom, tried to persuade her to return to the worship of the traditional “great gods” – especially Hermes (Mercury), who had supposedly given her the gift of wisdom and philosophical knowledge. If she obeyed, the king promised he would give her half of his regal authority, and that she would reign together with him. But she immediately saw through his intentions, and once again berated him for his hypocrisy and his persistence in worshipping demonic idols, and reminded him that she was a Christian already betrothed to become a bride of Christ, and that she had decided to remain a virgin for His namesake, even at the price of torture.
The king then resorted to threats against her, but Ekaterina replied that her martyrdom would only bring more people to the faith; however this aggravated the king even more. He gave orders for her to be stripped of her royal robes and be whipped relentlessly. For more than two hours she was beaten and whipped all over her body, with her blood painting the ground red beneath her, but she remained so unflinching, that the onlookers were amazed at her bravery. The same evening, that monster gave the command for her to be locked in prison, without food or drink for twelve days, to make her see what kind of torture she would be facing.
Faustina, the king’s wife, had a fervent desire to meet the Saint in person, because she had come to love her after learning about her virtues and her accomplishments. But she was also prompted to meet her because of a dream she had about the Saint. One day, when the king had decided to leave his city for a few days and go to the countryside, Faustina decided to visit the Saint, accompanied by a very important noble - a faithful and trusted friend of the king, by the name of Porphyrion. To him, Faustina disclosed the dream she had seen: “Last night, I saw Ekaterina in a vision, seated in the midst of many young and beautiful virgins, dressed in a white gown, and her face emanated such a brilliant light, that it was impossible to look directly at her. However, she approached me, placed a gold crown on my head and said that the Lord Jesus Christ sends me that crown. I need to see her so urgently, that I cannot rest. So, please make the necessary arrangements for me to see her.” Faithful Porphyrion reassured her that he would help her.
At nightfall, Porphyrion took 200 soldiers with him and accompanied the queen to the prison. He had also taken money with him, to bribe the jailer to open the prison doors. But when the cell door was opened, and the august queen saw the face that she desired so much, glowing with a divine light, she fell at the Saint’s feet with tears, saying: “Now I can consider myself a truly fortunate and blessed queen, because I have seen your royal and divine person, and I will not regret it, even if it costs me my life.” The Saint reassured her, saying: “You too are blessed, my queen, because I can see the Holy Angels placing a gold crown on your head, which you will receive after three days, when you will have shown patience during the punishments that await you briefly. Thereafter, you will be with the Lord, forever.”
The queen confessed that she was afraid of the tortures that await her, as well as her cruel husband, the king, but the Saint consoled her, that she would suffer some pain only briefly, because Christ would be in her heart, giving her courage. On witnessing these scenes, Porphyrion began to ask about Christ and what benefits await the faithful when they are dedicated to Him, because living as a soldier, he had never heard about Him until now; Ekaterina spoke to him so convincingly, that he immediately felt overjoyed and confessed his faith in Christ.
In the meantime, the Lord, as a caring Father, did not abandon Ekaterina in that terrible situation for so many days, but sent some food to her with a dove, every day. That same caring Father visited her Himself in all His glory and accompanied by hosts of His Angels, in order to strengthen her resolve even more, by saying to her: “Do not be fainthearted, my beloved daughter, as I am with you. No torture will affect you. Rather, because of your patience, you will bring back many souls to Me, and you will deserve many crowns and trophies.”
These were the Lord’s words to Ekaterina on her last night. The next morning, the king commanded that Ekaterina be brought before him. How great was his surprise, as well as the others present, when they saw the Saint so radiant and beautiful entering the room! The king immediately thought that one of the guards must have been giving her food secretly, which was why she had not become emaciated from hunger and thirst after so many days, nor had lost any of her beauty, so he decided to punish the guards. To prevent them from being punished unjustly, Ekaterina told the king the truth about her stay in prison – that Christ Himself, Who cares for all His faithful servants – had been miraculously sending her nourishment. But the king decided to test her once again, after seeing such perfect beauty, using flattery and treachery and promising her that a person such as she deserved to rule the kingdom. If she agreed to sacrifice to the traditional “gods”, she would become queen and live a life of luxury; furthermore, that it would be a shame for such beauty to go to waste. The Saint’s response was: “I am only earth and clay; every kind of beauty withers and disappears like a dream – either due to a sickness or old age – or eventually, with death. So, you need not concern yourself about my beauty.”
While this conversation was taking place, a certain Eparch of the kingdom, Hursasadan by name, who was a very vicious character and crafty, thought of something to gain the king’s favour. He told the king of a special instrument of torture that would either defeat the Saint, or at least cause her a very painful death. So he gave instructions for building a four-wheel structure on a common axis and a platform, and embedded on the outside rim of each wheel various metal objects such as pointed iron blades. Each pair of wheels would be turned in opposite directions, with the body of the victim laid out between them, so that the victim’s flesh would gradually be torn into pieces by the rotated wheels. The king approved of the idea and expected Ekaterina to change her mind when realizing what kind of torture she was going to undergo.
The lethal machine was ready in three days. The Saint was brought before it, and the executioners began to turn the wheels with force, hoping to scare her into changing her mind. The king now also threatened her with that horrific torture if she didn’t choose to repent, but she remained steadfast and indifferent to his threats of an excruciating death. However, the Grace of God did not abandon her. When they tied her down between the wheels, her bonds were miraculously loosened by an Angel sent down by God, and she herself was freed and untouched. As for the machine, the wheels began to spin wildly out of control and its smashed components were scattered in all directions, killing many of the irreverent bystanders who had come to “enjoy” the bloody execution.
On learning what had taken place, the queen came out of her room and berated the king in front of everyone, telling him how foolish he was, by persistently trying to fight against the living God and torturing His chosen servant so unjustly. Surprised by this unexpected attack by his wife, he turned away momentarily from Ekaterina and in total disregard of his conjugal relationship with the queen he commanded that her breasts be cut off with special instruments of torture. But she only rejoiced, being certain that she would be accepted in Heaven through her martyrdom. Onlookers pitied her terrible suffering, as they watched her blood streaming to the ground, but the king did not feel any pity for her; instead, in his crazed fury he gave the command for decapitation. In her last moments of suffering, the queen asked Ekaterina to pray for her. She consoled her, assuring her that Christ would be welcoming her in His kingdom very soon. She was decapitated on the 23rd of November. Later that night, Porphyrion went with some trusted soldiers and took her sainted body and gave it a proper burial.
The following day, the king wanted to punish those who were responsible; however, it was Porphyrion who presented himself, confessing that he and his companions were Christians. Unable to bear this additional insult and the loss of a trusted friend and his originally faithful soldiers, the king questioned the men about their betrayal, but Porphyrion spoke out on their behalf as their leader and as the one responsible for their decisions. This angered the king excessively, so he commanded the beheading of all of them, on the 24th of November. This was the fulfilment of Ekaterina’s original warning to the king that many people of his palace were also going to believe in Christ.
On the 25th, Ekaterina was brought before the king, who officially accused her as the cause of his wife’s betrayal, the loss of his trusted soldiers and close friend Porphyrion, as well as of his own grief and damages. In one last attempt to bring her back to idolatry, the king tried to persuade her with more flattery, kind words and the promise to make her a legal queen and to never grieve her again. Confronted once again by her unchanging stance, the crazed king gave the command for Ekaterina to be beheaded, outside the city limits. She was escorted by soldiers to the place of her execution, but was followed by a multitude of people grieving over the imminent loss of such a beautiful, wise, educated and noble creature. She however scolded them for their useless mourning, telling them that she was going to soon be with her beloved Lord, Jesus Christ, and that those who had not acknowledged Christ as their Saviour should be pitied, not her.
Moments before her execution, the holy Martyr offered a fervent prayer to her Lord, Jesus Christ, thanking Him for the patience He had given her, and the guidance she had received to find Him. She asked for forgiveness for herself and for those who did not know what they were doing, and finally, she asked Him to ensure that her sacrificed body would be made invisible to those who would want to abuse it, and instead, keep it intact and safe, wherever He saw fit to place it. She also prayed that the Lord will grant the wishes of all those who ask for them, in her name.
As soon as her prayer had finished, she told the executioner to proceed. Her precious head fell from the blow of his sword, on the 25th of November, in the year 305 AD. But even then, the Lord decided to honour His Saintly and venerable Martyr, with the following miracle. As her head was being cut off by the executioner’s sword, the bystanders saw a pure white liquid flowing from the open wound, instead of blood. That same moment, her venerable body was swept off by Angels, who deposited it at a mountain top of Sinai and was discovered at a much later date, still intact.
On the 25th of November, also commemorated by the Orthodox Church are the 150 repentant orators who were executed by fire, as well as the queen, who was beheaded for her faith in Christ, and the king’s friend and army commander, Porphyrion, together with his 200 soldiers, who were also beheaded for confessing their faith in Christ.