Memorial of St. Agnes
1 Corinthians 1:26-31
A couple of years ago I was visiting our beautiful retreat center in Sierra Madre, California. Situated in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, it looks out over the San Gabriel valley. It is the haunt of numerous wildlife. On this particular occasion there were warnings posted in the retreat center about being cautious in walking around its spacious grounds because a severe drought was afflicting the area, forcing the wildlife to come down out of the mountains in search of food, and especially drink. This occurred especially in the feeding times, early morning, or dusk. On this occasion, arming myself with a fairly formidable-looking walking stick, I moved around the property early in the morning, and sure enough there was a mountain lion (so I thought) lurking in the bushes by one of the outside stations of the cross. I think we saw each other simultaneously. All I saw of him was his head. I bravely brandished my club before him-some 30 feet away. He focused on it, but made no move, fortunately. My fame for bravery soon spread around the retreat center community, and I wore my red badge of courage with suitable humility. Only later did I learn that what I saw had to be a bobcat, considerably smaller than the formidable, and fearless, mountain lion or cougar.
This long introduction comes by way of celebrating the exploits of the young girl, Agnes, on this her memorial. At around 12 years of age she suffered martyrdom for her faith in Jesus Christ, leading us to ask how a defenseless young girl could muster the courage to do this. In the example above, I displayed courage in sheer ignorance of what I was facing. In her case, the readings for the day explain what was going on with Agnes, certainly not ignorance. St. Paul explains how unlikely outcomes describe Christian behavior, such as the foolish shaming the wise or the weak outshining the strong or the insignificant nobodies emerging ahead of those "who are something". So Agnes too was helped by (spiritual) elements in her marvelous stance, just as I was-although mine were considerably less admirable.
And in addition to Paul’s appreciation of what was enhancing Agnes is the parable of Jesus about the discovery of a valuable resource unknown to anyone else, and the fortunate person experiencing the tingling joy of a huge enrichment at finding a treasure in the field or a set of pearls in the marketplace. Agnes was such a person, coming upon an endowment (her relationship to God) empowering her for life, short as it was to be.
So it’s a matter of contrast between the defenseless but richly endowed young girl and my own bravado based on my ignorance of the facts of the case, though each accounts for behavior that is out of the ordinary. When we ask, how could she have done what she did, we have to move beyond her to someone or something else to explain it: her faith.
Fr. Sebastian MacDonald, C.P. is a member of the Passionist formation community at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago.