Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Saint Agnes and the Recklessness of Love

The spirit of the early fourth century martyr St. Agnes of Rome has so pervaded the Christian traditions of religious and consecrated life that we risk taking her foundational witness for granted.

This heroic young girl was more than a martyr during the last great persecution of pagan antiquity. Her motive in giving her life for Christ had a special focus: she presented in a personal and also public manner a witness to the mysterious new way of loving that Jesus had made possible for the heart of a woman. "My Lord Jesus Christ has espoused me with his ring; he has crowned me like a bride" proclaims the ancient antiphon

In another liturgical text, she speaks these words while dying: "What I longed for, I now see; what I hoped for, I now possess; in heaven I am espoused to him whom on earth I loved with all my heart."

Since the days of the New Testament, women had sacrificed the possibility of marriage and motherhood in order to follow Jesus in a deeper way. But St. Agnes gave physiognomy and voice to consecrated virginity as a marriage to Jesus, a singular spousal dedication to him that engages a woman's heart completely, beyond the competition of all human interests and even life itself.

The radiant life and sacrifice of a teenage girl, and no doubt her continual intercession thereafter, have fostered an awareness in the Church of her own deepest life.

"I am espoused to him whom the angels serve; sun and moon stand in wonder at his beauty." There are various stories about St. Agnes, but what is certain above all is the singular ardor with which she embraced martyrdom when it was imposed upon her. The words she speaks in the liturgical tradition are not attributions placed on her lips by some later "theological" development. They are echoed in the fourth century homilies and writings of St. Ambrose, Pope St. Damasus, St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and others. St. Agnus was venerated from the beginning by the clergy and the people of Rome, and then throughout the Western Church and also in the Eastern Churches.

The words she speaks in these ancient liturgical texts bear witness to an extraordinary charism, to a new ideal that transcended the boundaries of every kind of human love and transfigured the openness and intensive affectivity that are at the depths of every woman. The Christian virgin was not like the pagans of Rome or other ancient cultures, when women set themselves apart only for a time, and whose service was something less that a total dedication of the interiority of their persons.

The Christian virgin consecrates herself completely. She reserves that personal secret that women possess in an especially intimate way (her "purity") for Jesus alone and exclusively, body and soul. She dedicates entirely her fruitfulness and nurturing qualities of body and soul to Jesus and the grace he gives through the Holy Spirit.

We must try to appreciate the fact that St. Agnes showed the world a kind of life, a freedom, an originality, a way of giving and loving that were new for human beings, and especially for women, in the long and tired history of the human race. She indicated that women are cherished, ultimately, in a way no one had ever imagined.

She displayed the transcendent passion, creativity, and freedom of belonging to Jesus. St. Ambrose speaks thus of her martyrdom:
As a bride she would not be hastening to join her husband with the same joy she shows as a virgin on her way to punishment, crowned not with flowers but with holiness of life, adorned not with braided hair but with Christ himself. In the midst of tears, she sheds no tears herself. The crowds marvel at her recklessness in throwing away her life untasted, as if she had already lived life to the full.
Adorned with Christ himself, she had already lived life to the full....

The witness shines brightly to the fact that for the spouse of Christ, nothing is lost. The sacrifices that are made do not express contempt for the goodness of earthly life, but rather the ecstasy of a love that seeks the Source of all goodness, and thereby finds a hundredfold of fruitfulness even for the life of this earth.

St. Agnes, a young girl, a virgin, who flew to Jesus all at once in the recklessness of love, lived so fully that her presence and solicitude continue to this day. For seventeen hundred years, women have followed her example and given their whole selves to Jesus, loving him as their Spouse in prayer and seclusion, and also by serving him in those in need.

We call them nuns and sisters. We even call them "mothers." Today, more and more, we call them our friends and colleagues too, whether in religious habit or as lay women who consecrate themselves in the context of the many new charisms that the Spirit is giving to the Church of our time.

They have sought God and followed the lamb. And in this giving of themselves, they have been the colossal protagonists, the shining stars of love and hope, the bearers of peace and compassion to this world as well.

Agnes stands as one of the pillars of the greatest "women's movement" of all time, and her witness today remains as compelling as ever. She gave up marriage on this earth and everything else even to life itself. And in Christ she became a true mother to generation after generation of daughters to this day -- of women who want to give themselves away beyond the reckoning of this age, and thus live life to the full.