Hunger's Brides
Reader's Page: Novel Excerpt
Novel Excerpts | Sor Juana's Poetry

"On Saint Catherine..."

St. Catherine

About this chapter

beginning on page 784 of Hunger's Brides

Rain fell each day that month - the waters gaining on the streets, puddles joining to form ponds. Painful for as many years as I was willing to recall, Novembers reached their lowest ebb at my birthday on November 12th, their high point near the end. November 25th. It seemed heartless in a time of such hardship and distress to wish for even an hour of happiness. But once one gave in, gave oneself over to it, the thing might prove irresistible. Not for a day, just for an hour. This was all I hoped for the celebrants that day in a city thirty leagues to the east. After I had long since given up hope, it seemed my carols were to be sung after all.

       I had never seen Puebla but knew its cathedral was thought beautiful, up a short flight of steep steps from a shady central plaza much smaller and more intimate than our own. The cathedral choir was considered excellent; I had met the choir master. And so I could not help myself - the joy I felt to close my eyes and imagine the people filing in, to hear the music Ribera and I had written rising through the vault, the voices in the choir ... to see the girls from the schools coming to hear verses on the learning of a girl, reading them afterwards in the libretto on the way home, reciting her story in the convent schools all across Puebla.

       Three centuries after the Crucifixion, when the Acts of Pilate were drawn up to promote hatred of Christians, a girl of eighteen went before a Roman emperor, to denounce him, and to refute his paganism with arguments. In Catherine of Alexandria there was much to love, and to fascinate. Her courage, her audacity - a Christian, a young girl, no matter how well-born, going before Maximinus, persecutor and mutilator of Christians; then, her victory over the forty pagan sages the emperor sent to refute her.... Or some said fifty. With a saint so well loved the story ever ramifies - finally to a second emperor whose cruelties were instead attempts to seduce her and force a marriage. Since then she had been reverenced for her patience, her fortitude, and above all for the restraint of her passions. Many believed she had achieved as her reward a mystical marriage with Christ, some said first consummated on Mount Sinai.

       Burnings and marytrdom, a serpent and a sacred ring, a bladed wheel, a beheading, a headless trunk flowing milk... Catherine had proved irresistible. Among the girls of the valley of Anahuac, the first saint we love is most often Teresa, for her strength and humour, for the palace of her soul, for her writings in a language and from a time so close to our own. Teresa was my second love. Among all the saints my first was Catherine...

       We went in to church from Panoayan scarcely six times a year, and one extra time at Pentecost when Father was there. Each of us had a favourite occasion. In the spring came the feast of the Annunciation - this, for Grandfather, Good Friday for our mother, and Easter for my sisters. In December came Christmas and Gaudete. And in November, the feast of Saint Catherine, for me. First the slow torture of the ride in to Amecameca, then taking a turn around the manzana before Mass ... the special gaiety of the girls that day, and in the church itself, for Catherine was the patroness of cloisters for maidens and female scholars, and of young women at risk in the world. She was known to be one of the fourteen most helpful saints, and that a girl's learning could be thought useful struck a blow against a certain faction at the hacienda. Always, then, this day of the learned saint opened with excitement - vindication, too, should I happen to catch the eye of the lay sisters and of one in particular. A Sister Paula.

       But by the time the homily was delivered - and to give a poor one on this day was an embarrassment priests worked long hours to avoid - a sadness would have tempered our elation. Martyrdom, of course, was sad, with a drop of gall, for martyrdom was mixed with a special draught of injustice; just so with Catherine's beheading, a vindictive insult, an outrage of her mind. The scourging had been hard too, but the sweetest of balms then came in the vision of the angels lofting her up to Sinai. The turning point in the homily was ever the shattering of the wheel - as wondrous a triumph over barbarism as its engine was terrible. Yet a mystery lay within the marvel, and a cruel one - that the miracle had not saved her at all, and that there should follow upon it such insult and desecration.

       In the Church afterward, there was more time to spend before her altar, a little statue of white marble not much bigger than a doll, quite overhung by the bushels of roses hemming her in - roses of Alexandria, or so they were for me. During the cart ride home it was not Catherine's martyrdom I worried over, but the fate of those she had persuaded by her learned arguments. True, those scholars who had admitted their defeat to the emperor had been burned, but it was even worse somehow with the empress and the general Porphyry, who had gone to her terrible dungeon, to convince her to renounce her faith and save herself by embracing the worship of idols. But by Catherine's great learning, the empress and Porphyry had been saved from idolatry, to live as Christians for barely an hour, before they too were martyred by the idolators.

       In those years it had been difficult to keep separate in my mind the idols of Egypt from the little statue in Amecameca and the dolls of Panoayan. For many years afterwards I thought the path of learning the more dangerous, the path of mysticism the more burdensome. Until the years came when I wondered if it might not be the other way around. It was Teresa, the other great love of the girls of our valley, who reminded us - through her acts, her books and her trials - that the paths were not separate at all, nor were these incompatible with friendship. I was twenty before I understood that the intellective vision was not an operation of reason but an inner lecture, a reading of the Presence within, and so the highest form of mystical vision. In the pages of our great mystics I had been offered a vision not of the senses but beyond them, a glimpse behind the mask. I had never lost trust in vision but in myself as a vessel for these and for that Presence. These were the doubts of a girl, who had taken too long to resolve them. I had left the Palace, only to grasp, with such a scalding of irony, that I had been on the illuminative path for some time: active in learning, passive in love. But by then I was in a convent. San José of Discalced Carmelites, the order Teresa had suffered so much to found. What had happened, what had gone wrong? Where had the spirit of her humour gone? - of a woman who spoke to God in loving friendship, who, complaining of her trials, heard Him answer, 'But Teresa, this is how I treat my friends.'

       'Yes, my dear Lord, and it is why you have so few.'

       The great gift of the saints is not sanctity but to take from us even the humblest instruments of our everyday humanity - a bowl, a scrap of cloth, a gesture, a doll - and return it to us immensely enriched. Teresa was one who could immeasurably enrich even the most precious of gifts. Illumination, friendship. The paths did not separate unless we let them. I had tried to make it a matter of faith since then.

About Us | © 2013 Newspecs Inc.