Millstones and Innocents

Saint Agnes of Rome

Agnes, Martyr of Rome, 304

Think back to that year before you were officially a “teenager.”  What were you doing when you were 12 years old?  I think to when I was 12 and remember I was completing my last year of braces, worried about pre-pubescent acne, and getting irritated on a daily basis at how nosey my parents were.  I was discovering rock music on the radio and learning to play the flute in band.  I was focused on my friends and the fact that I couldn’t tame my curly hair into submission.  My life orbited around my needs, my plans, my desires.

We honor and celebrate Agnes, our martyr in Rome in the year 304.  This lovely young woman lived in an era of great Christian persecution under the Roman Emperor Diocletian.  Under this Emperor as well as others who shared his opinions, Christians were stripped of all rights as citizens, beaten, burned, tortured, and killed for their faith.

Known as one of the most heinous periods of Christian persecution and lasting for 10 years, this attempted purge of all Christians out of the life of Rome affected our little Agnes.  She was caught up in this tumultuous time.  She was imprisoned for her faith and tortured as she would not renounce her faith and turn to Rome’s pagan pantheon of gods.  Ultimately, our Agnes was killed for her faith to Christ:  some say she was burned alive and some say she was beheaded.  In the end, she chose her faith and peace in Christ despite all worldly pain and suffering it caused.  Our little Agnes was only 12.

I am struck by this child in that here I stand, caught up in my own stresses and worries and frustrations.  I am easily irritated by those situations I cannot control.  I am easily disheartened when events do not turn out as I anticipated, when people do not behave how I expected, and I am disappointed.  I then think to my life as a 12 year old and how different I was compared to Agnes!

Jesus said in our gospel that each of us should be humble like the children who were surrounding Him.  He said that we should welcome the children into our house and into our hearts.  We should welcome those innocent people who desire to be like Him, who love Him with their hearts and their smiles and their lives.  Jesus went on to warn us that if anyone acts as a stumbling block to those little innocents that we should have a stone tethered to our necks and tossed into the sea and drowned.  That is a gruesome image coming from our peaceful Christ.  But I believe those are powerful words striking to the core of how we should respond as believers in Him to those who are seeking salvation.

Those innocents could come in the form of children, much like those children who are in St. Luke’s right now.  They run and play and cry and whine.  But they are Christ’s, and I have been reminded of that fact each time I am with them and teach them.  And yet, those innocents could also be those guests and visitors who are seeking and searching for something they cannot yet name.  We must also be to them as Christ commands us to be, loving and accepting and welcoming them into our home, the church, as He welcomes us into His Kingdom.

I pray that I never forget the life of little Agnes, caught in a brutal and troubled world when she was but a child.  I pray that when I am overwhelmed by my life, that I remember hers and thank her for her sacrifice.  And, finally, I pray that I am humble as Christ has taught me and welcome all innocents into His house and allow His grace and peace to shine through me to them.

St. Teresa of Avila

St Teresa of Avila

Before the days of cell phones and texting, many children knew when it was time to go indoors in the evening by the sunset.  When that last sliver of the sun sank into the horizon, we knew we had to stop playing hide and seek or riding our bikes or fishing for crawdads at the creek.  Before that sun completely went away for the night, we had to be in the yard and on our way through our front doors.  When I was little, about 6 or 7, I wanted to play outside past dark.  Jimmy and Shawn, my next door neighbors, and Clint, the kid across the street, could all stay outside and play, but my mom was a meanie and made me go inside.  I’d hear them screaming and laughing in the street while I had to get ready for a bath and bed.  Ugh!

So, in protest one night, I got out my Big Chief Tablet and a crayon and wrote a letter to my mom saying I was going to run away.  I didn’t get to play like my friends could, so I was going to run away, and I’d be able to stay outside and play all night long if I wanted.  I decided I’d run away during the night so she wouldn’t know.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t make up my mind to take either Julie, my stuffed dog, or Rosie, my baby doll, and since I didn’t have enough room for both of them in my satchel, I crawled in bed with both of them and went to sleep.  Apparently, the thought of leaving one of my treasures behind caused me more torture than my mean mom’s rule of having to go inside at dark time.

Teresa of Avila, our saint for this day, also found herself caught between what she wanted to do and where she was placed.  A young girl born into the turmoil of the church during the Reformation, her very devout and pious father placed the rebellious and boy-crazy Teresa in a convent.  There she learned the methods of a life of prayer, yet it was years after her entrance into the convent and an illness so severe that she was left paralyzed for three years that she finally discovered what a penitent life meant and how prayer could truly change a person.  Tormented throughout much of her life, she felt caught between a carefree, uncommitted life and that of a pious, devoted relationship with God the Father.  Feeling the pull of humanity that could draw her away from her prayers and devotion, she believed she constantly walked the fine line between Christ’s grace and hell’s temptations.

It was clear that Teresa was given a unique gift:  passion.  enthusiasm to found new convents, desire to learn more of Christ, devotion to God’s mercy through the burning power of prayer.  She believed that through prayer God was able to touch the human soul and potentially transform the spirit and body.  Shunned by many of her peers as diabolical rather than divine, she often wandered the Spanish countryside establishing a church and then being forced to leave after only a short time.  Her passion was so strong and consuming that she felt a physical change after each encounter with God.  Fr. John-Julian says that it is only when one makes a relentless and unswervingly concrete commitment to prayer that it becomes possible for God even to begin to act significantly in that life.

Similar to Saint Teresa, we too can feel the pangs of the touch of God.  Additionally, we can feel conflicted between the pull and temptations of this life and the intense peace and passion of God.  For me and for us all, I hope that we desire such purity and union with our Creator that can only come from a life devoted to unceasing and transformative prayer.