St. Catherine Crowned

On St. Catherine’s Wheel

I waited patiently for the Lord;
who inclined to me and heard my cry.
Who drew me up from the desolate pit,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure…
— Psalm 40:1-2

As for me, I am poor and needy,
but the Lord takes thought for me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
Do not delay, O my God.
— Psalm 40:17

In A.D. 310, a beautiful and learned virgin, Catherine of Alexandria, known for her extraordinary oratorical abilities to convert people to Christianity, was martyred by the emperor Maximus. Maximus ordered her broken upon the wheel, a torture device strewn with glass shards to impale her as she was spun around and around.

But a miracle happened! Catherine touched the wheel, and it was destroyed.

So the emperor beheaded her instead.

Has your life felt as though you were spinning on St. Catherine’s wheel? If so, you’re not alone. Catherine is the patron saint of wheelwrights and also of teachers, secretaries, theologians and librarians – lots of folks who regularly feel frazzled or beset.

The image of St. Catherine’s wheel has been used to depict the vagaries and vicissitudes of life: the spinning round and round from good to bad times, from plenty to want, from happiness to heartache. Who hasn’t felt a spiritual nausea from spinning on St. Catherine’s wheel?

Life goes round and round, but thanksgiving goes on – a deep, gutsy gratitude rather than a pious, easy one.

Psalm 40 speaks to our dizziness. When every fiber of our being wants to cry, STOP! the psalmist offers a different refrain: Sing.

Sing? When life is a topsy-turvy, inside-out, upside-down triple death spiral? Yes.

A closer look at the text shows that the psalmist is quite familiar with that dizzying pattern. I’ve begun with its beginning and end. Read the entire psalm and trace the ups and downs for yourself.

The psalm is all discombobulated: a complaint shouldn’t follow the joy of the new song – but it does. Or as Walter Brueggemann has written, “In our daily life the joy of deliverance is immediately beset and assaulted by the despair and fear of the Pit” (The Message of the Psalms, 131).

In spite of that, the message of the psalm is this: Life goes round and round, but thanksgiving goes on – a deep, gutsy gratitude rather than a pious, easy one.

The psalmist has suffered as we suffer. But the center holds. The psalmist encourages us to turn to God in deep need as in deep joy. Because God has been present in the deep need, we respond with deep joy, which helps us hold on for dear life when life spins out of control – again.

Dawn Boelkins teaches biblical languages at Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan, and is co-editor of Perspectives.

Image: Bartolomeo Veneto,  public domain, via Wikimedia Commons