The third of Gareth Thomas’ introductions to the letters of St Clare and Agnes of Prague takes us close to the heart of one of the most remarkable things about their Christian lives – and that is their love for each other, founded in a deep love for Jesus and for his mother; we can see love begetting love – it reminds me of the mystery of the Trinity itself – God is love – with Father, Son and Holy Ghost united in a trinity of love which overflows to save all who will humble themselves to receive it. St Clare’s love pours through, and she rejoices in the way Agnes’ humility and obedience has put to flight the great enemy – perfect love casts out evil, and love is perfected only in Christ.
We live, alas, in a world where one woman writing to another and calling her ‘dearly beloved’ is liable to be misread; we seem to imagine that if there is no sexual component to a relationship it can’t be a proper one. That is to ignore the sort of deep love, the spiritual affection and intimacy which pervades these letters; they are both sisters in Christ, and as they love, and are loved by him, so too do they love each other. St Clare invokes the sacrifice they have both made of the things which this world values, and we can be sure in that there is a reference to carnality, which, far from completing love, distracts from the total commitment to Christ which they have both made – it matters to them both that their bodies are ‘chaste and virginal’: a society which fails to understand chastity and does not value virginity will fail to see why these are pearls of great price which both women have given up for that one pearl of greater price – their heavenly spouse.
As Gareth says, we have only one side here of the correspondence, but we see with what sisterly love St Clare reaches out to help Agnes. During Lent we can all be tempted beyond our strength, and in committing to self-denial, place, unwittingly, a road block in our way. Lovingly, St Clare guides Agnes through the words of St Francis towards a mortification of the flesh which she will be able to bear. There is, in the delicacy of her expression, a sign of the care which love takes. It would have been easy for St Clare to have spoken of the virtues of self-denial and to have encouraged greater mortification, but that was not the word love spoke to her. It told her that her dearest sister was taking on too much, that she was trying herself beyond what her spirit could bear, and it found a way of guiding her to a better way, one more pleasing to God, who loves us and does not require that we go beyond what our poor mortal flesh and blood can bear.
I find myself touched almost to tears by such a love story – the tenderness the letters breathe come from the two women’s love for each other, which, in turn is rooted in their love of Christ, and, as Gareth comments, of his mother. Love feeds itself, and in loving Jesus, St Clare and Agnes love his mother who loved him, and whom he loved. It reminds me of this saying of St Isaac:
“In love did God bring the world into existence; in love is God going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of the One who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised.”