Tag Archives: Robert Ellsberg

Saint Agnes the Virgin

Do not act the harlot!
1 Corinthians 6: 13

Last Sunday’s second reading (1 Corinthians 6: 13-20) began with a very strong statement in the Spanish translation I heard:

El cuerpo no es para fornicar, sino para server al Señor…
The body is not for fornication but for serving the Lord…

The version used in the US was a little less strong:

The body is not for immorality, but for the Lord…

Yet the verb translated as fornication or immorality comes from the Greek word for harlot and so a more pointed translation might be

The body is not for prostitution, for harlotry, but for the Lord.

This reading came to mind this morning as I read the entry on Saint Agnes in Robert Ellsberg’s All Saints: Daily Reflection on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time.

Today is the feast of the youthful virgin and martyr Agnes. According to the early accounts, she was a twelve year old who refused offers of marriage because she had consecrated her virginity to Christ.

She was accused as a Christian by her suitors. She refused to deny Christ and was at first sentenced to a house of prostitution where no one dared touch her. The infuriated magistrate then had her beheaded.

The story of Saint Agnes has been read as a call for virginity and some have seen it as a denigration of the body and sexuality. But I think Robert Ellsberg’s commentary offers an alternative and even more challenging interpretation of her life:

In the story of Agnes … the opposition is not between sex and virginity. The conflict is between a young woman’s power in Christ to define her own identity versus a patriarchal culture’s claim to identify her in terms of her sexuality. According to the view shared by her “suitors” and the state, if she would not be one man’s wife, she might as well be every man’s whore. Failing these options, she might as well be dead. Agnes did no choose death. She chose not to worship the gods of her culture. The God she worshipped sets an altogether different value on her body, her identity, and her human worth. Espoused to God, she was beyond the power of any man to “have his way with her.” “Virgin” in this case is another way of saying Free Woman.

May this example of Agnes help us all remember that, as St. Paul put it, “you are not your own” and that we are called to “glorify God in your body.”

That’s real chastity!


Fidelity to conscience

Today is the feast of Saint Joan of Arc, the French peasant girl who led the troops of France against the English. She was captured, tried for heresy, and burned at the stake – at the age of nineteen.

There is much about Jean D’Arc, the Maid of Orleans, that is troubling. The saints whose voices urged her on – Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret – may never have existed. She also led troops in battle.

But, surprisingly, she was one of Dorothy Day’s favorite saints – and Dorothy Day was a firm opponent of war.

As Jim Forest notes in All Is Grace, in response to his query about her devotion to this “military” saint, Dorothy Day told him that “Joan of Arc is a saint to the fidelity to conscience.”

Yet, there is another aspect of Saint Joan. In All Saints, Robert Ellsberg, who worked with Dorothy Day at the Catholic Worker, writes (page 238):

An illiterate peasant girl, a shepherd, a “nobody.” she heeded a religious call to save her country when all the ”somebodies” of her time proved unable or unwilling to meet the challenge. She stood up before princes of the church and state and the most learned authorities of her world and refused to compromise her conscience or deny her special vocation. She paid the ultimate price for her stand. And in doing so she won a prize far more valuable than the gratitude of the Dauphin or the keys of Orleans.

Again, God chooses the poor of this world to confound the rich and powerful

a candlelight of humanity

“There are some persons whose great gift, in a dark age, is simply to maintain a candlelight of humanity and so to guarantee that darkness should not have the final word.”

So does Robert Ellsberg begin his entry on Anne Frank in All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time, a truly amazing collection of lives of the great cloud of witnesses.

Today is the birthday of Anne Frank, 1929-1945.

Her diary details the life she, her family, and another family lived in an attic in Amsterdam, hidden by the courageous Dutch.

In one entry she notes that she will need “courage and cheerfulness” to live out her mission of working “in the world and for humanity.”

Let us pray for courage and joy, in the face of the sadness, violence, and injustice around us.

It is a wonder how, just before her arrest and eventual death in Nazi death camps,  she could write:

In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart….I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the suffering of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right….In the meantime, I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.

How can this be? Perhaps another entry in her diary sheds light on her spirituality of joy and gratitude. She ends her evening prayers thus:

I thank you, God, for all that is good and dear and beautiful….I am filled with joy….I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.

May we too be filled with joy, gratitude, and courage – to be candlelights for humanity