Some people – of whom I am one – begin their Lent observances on Ash Wednesday, others on the first Sunday in Lent. The advantage of the first method is that you get to celebrate Sundays as a feast day in Lent, which allows of a relaxation of any Lenten sacrifices, should one want. But it is always a good idea to take up something new, as well as offer a sacrifice. Here, I have been helped by Gareth Thomas, who has introduced me to the letters of St Clare of Assisi to the Blessed Agnes of Prague. I had, of course, heard of St Clare, but knew nothing about this correspondence before the marvellous Gareth brought it to our attention yesterday- and with such a helpful introduction.
I am going to add it to my other Lenten task, which is to read the Book of Esther, and by one of those marvellous coincidences which mean it wasn’t one at all, the two go well together and give me much to think on. King Ahasuerus, who may have been Xerxes I, or Artaxerxes I, is a proud man, ruler, as he sees it, of all, and all were expected to bow to the whim of the King of Kings One of the ways in which he wanted to demonstrate his power and his enviable position was to show off his Queen, Vashti, to his nobles; when she refuses this order, she is punished and dismissed, and the King orders a search to be made for a new bride. The message was clear – women should keep their place and do as they are told.
The Blessed Agnes of Prague was offered a great and prestigious role as the wife of the emperor Frederick II, who, one hopes, would not have behaved as the Persian King did to his wife. But she declined the honour, preferring to devote her life to Christ. St Clare saw in her a kindred spirit – they had both spurned the riches and privileges on offer to them through the circumstances of their birth, to become Brides of Christ – as St Clare put it:
You took a spouse of a more noble lineage, Who will keep Your virginity ever unspotted and unsullied, the Lord Jesus Christ
Our society does not, I think, either understand or value such things, but those of us who have felt a similar call know what Clare and Agnes mean. To place oneself entirely at the disposal of Christ is a great calling, and the two women set an example to be admired – but how many of us can imitate it?
If the modern West fails to grasp the dimensions of the devotion shown by St Clare and the Blessed Agnes, still less, alas, does it grasp Esther, who is seen by some feminists as a bit of a wimp for not just standing up to Ahasuerus. But such a reading is, like so much of that sort of feminism, reductionist. To my way of thinking, St Clare and the Agnes are feminist heroines because they truly take a radical option, unencumbered by any thought that they have to imitate men and what men want and do. Their obedience to their spouse – Jesus – is absolute in a way that the male Franciscans clearly found hard. In submitting to their spouse, they were obedient to God in a way the men struggled with. There may be a lesson there if we can come to it.
It is always dangerous in our society to link the words ‘obedience’ and ‘women’ because of the way in which the former can be used to abuse the latter, but it should not blind us to the fact that God’s laws are not optional. As we shall see when we move on to Esther tomorrow, this was something she instinctively understood – where the men around her, power-brokers all – failed to grasp it.