We are all in debt to Gareth for his introduction to the letters of St Clare to St Agnes – and I have found, and am finding them, a treasure for my Lenten practice.
In them we hear something we rarely get in the history of our Faith – the voice of women. It is a quiet but persistent voice – quiet because women were not expected to assert themselves in such matters, and persistent because both women knew they were speaking wit the voice of Christ. Unlike later, male figures, who found the opulence of the Church a scandal and wanted to assert the authentic note of Scriptural teaching, and who resorted to banging theses onto the doors of a Cathedral and trying to bang heads together, SS Clare and Agnes chose another way – one that reconciled obedience with reform. For them both ‘marriage’ was not simply a metaphor – it was a spiritual reality they lived every day; so they were obedient to their spouse – as a good wife should be. In so being, they took the courage to argue with men who, though they were part of the bride of Christ, seemed not to want to follow where those footsteps led. Clare and Agnes knew where they led – to a personal Calvary. How moving are these words:
Look upon Him who became contemptible for you, and follow Him, making yourself contemptible in the world for him. Your Spouse, though more beautiful than the children of men (Ps 44:3), became, for your salvation, the lowest of men, despised, struck, scourged untold times throughout His whole body, and then died amid the sufferings of the cross. O most noble Queen, gaze upon Him, consider Him, contemplate Him, as you desire to imitate Him.
Remember, these were high born women who could have enjoyed a life of personal luxury, they had connections with the most powerful men in Europe – but they used them not to further their own wishes, but those of their spouse- and in being joined with him they were following the way of the Cross. But their faith told them, truly, that if they died with him, they would rise with him. This they did not simply say with their lips, but believed in their hearts.
One of the many wonderful things about Gareth’s introductions is that he understands this – he sees how their minds work. There is, in all they write, a lightness and joy – it is indeed the spiritual life as a dance, one in which we do not labour our footsteps because we are burdened with the Cross, but one in which we move lightly because we know he has ben this way before us.
I am deliberately not reading ahead, because I want to savour these letters, to drown in their ethos. So often, as a woman, I read learned treatises by men which tell me much I wish to know, but in these letters, as in the music of Hildegard von Bingen and the writings of Mother Julian of Norwich, I simply encounter the note of an authentically female vision of what it means to be wedded to the Lord Jesus.