Tuesday, March 2, 2010

St. Agnes of Bohemia (1205-1282)

Agnes had no children of her own but was certainly life-giving for all who knew her. Agnes was the daughter of Queen Constance and King Ottokar I of Bohemia. At the age of three, she was betrothed to the Duke of Silesia, who died three years later. As she grew up, she decided she wanted to enter the religious life. After declining marriages to King Henry VII of Germany and Henry III of England, Agnes was faced with a proposal from Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor. She appealed to Pope Gregory IX for help. The pope was persuasive; Frederick magnanimously said that he could not be offended if Agnes preferred the King of Heaven to him. After Agnes built a hospital for the poor and a residence for the friars, she financed the construction of a Poor Clare monastery in Prague. In 1236, she and seven other noblewomen entered this monastery. Saint Clare sent five sisters from San Damiano to join them, and wrote Agnes four letters advising her on the beauty of her vocation and her duties as abbess. Agnes became known for prayer, obedience and mortification. Papal pressure forced her to accept her election as abbess; nevertheless, the title she preferred was "senior sister." Her position did not prevent her from cooking for the other sisters and mending the clothes of lepers. The sisters found her kind but very strict regarding the observance of poverty; she declined her royal brother’s offer to set up an endowment for the monastery. Devotion to Agnes arose soon after her death on March 6, 1282. She was canonized in 1989.

The Holy Gospel according to Saint Matthew (23.1~12 )

Jesus said to the crowds and to His disciples: "The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practise what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honour at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the market-places and to have men call them 'Rabbi'. But you are not to be called 'Rabbi', for you have only one teacher and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth your 'father', for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called 'master', for you have one Master, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted."

(Homily by Fr. E. J. Tyler)

Years ago a prominent politician in Australia made the remark during an interview on television that “life was not meant to be easy.” His observation was derided by the press and it haunted him for the rest of his political career. But one minute’s thought ought make it obvious that this brief statement is true. No matter how one lives, life will not be “easy.” There will be difficulties no matter what path one takes, whether it is the path of virtue or the path of vice. Its more obvious application is in respect to virtue. To be good will not be easy, even though it will bring happiness. The same is to be said of religion. As the Old Testament book of Sirach states, “My son, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trials” (2:1). One of the trials of authentic religion is the struggle for humility. It has been revealed that at the beginning of mankind, man was tempted to put himself in God’s place: “you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad,” the Serpent insinuated (Genesis 3:5). Man fell into this temptation and lost his condition of friendship with God and full integration of his powers. He became profoundly inclined to assuming the place of God. That is to say, he became strongly inclined to be proud, and it was a great struggle to be humble. If he is not awake to this fallen condition and does not resist it with vigilance and the help of God, he will inevitably be a proud person. He will live in the unreality of thinking that he is a much better man than what he is. While he may not admit it to himself, in effect he will think he is somewhat on a par with God himself and will arrogantly ignore the commands of God. He will attempt to construct his own Tower of Babel in life, tending to think he can attain full influence and security. He will gradually decide for himself what is right and what is wrong, calling right what is in fact wrong, and vice versa. All will be vitiated by the persistence in his own life of the original temptation, which is pride. It is a capital sin and leads to death.

It is this pride which our Lord unmasks in many of the religious leaders of the people. They were leaders of religion, and yet in their spirit they were not religious. The reason for this was their pride and their seeking of personal glory precisely in their religion. In their lives they were not giving honour and glory to God but seeking it for themselves. “Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honour at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the market-places and to have men call them 'Rabbi'” (Matt 23: 1-12). Our Lord does not condemn all “the teachers of the law and the Pharisees” who “sit in Moses' seat.” Further, he confirms their office, telling his hearers to “obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practise what they preach.” Our Lord warned his hearers not to make of the practice of revealed religion a means of self-glorification and adulation. Fundamentally, the danger consists in a violation of the very first of the Ten Commandments, which is that we acknowledge God to be God, and not to allow anything or anyone to occupy his place. The danger is, as it was in the beginning, that we ourselves secretly and almost without realizing the temptation, seek to occupy the place of God. It is profoundly demonic. It was the sin of those angels who rebelled against God in heaven. They would not serve because they wished to be like God. It was the temptation the demon presented to our first parents, and it was manifested in Satan’s temptation to Christ himself. “All this power will I give to you and the glory of them. If you worship me, all will be yours” (Luke 4: 6-7). Satan was attempting to entice Christ with the prospect of glory from the entire world, so that he himself would be worshipped. Every time we take a step along the path of pride and self-glorification, we are heading along the path of Satan. We may not traverse that road to its end, but that is the path he trod and treads.

By contrast, the path of Christ is that of humility. As St Paul writes, Christ had the very form and nature of God and yet he divested himself of this glory and became as we are, in the likeness of man. Indeed, he took a path that was even humbler, becoming obedient to death on a cross (Philippians 2: 6-7). How different from the path and the temptation presented by Satan, who wants man to aspire to be a god! Let us study the humility of Jesus Christ who invited us to learn from him, “for I am meek and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28). Humility is the key to religion and to life.

A Second reflection (The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Matthew

(Homily by Fr. E. J. Tyler)

In his book A Grammar of Assent Cardinal Newman marvels at the awareness possessed by animals and remarks that it is a great mystery. I remember seeing one dog who for a brief time had to live with a visiting dog which friends of the family brought with them. Just to prove it was the 'top dog' it dug up all the bones which over a period of time it had hidden. It then displayed them before the other dog, keeping guard over them. The other dog barked at it from a distance in frustration. The dog with the bones was secure in being 'the top dog.' I remember another dog who could not bear to see its companion dog being petted and given attention by the masters of the house. It grew savage every time it saw this favour being accorded the other dog. It wanted to be 'the top dog'.

The example just given should show that it is not notably human to desire status and the esteem of others, to aim to be exalted in their sight. It is part of human longing, but animals do this too in their fashion. The temptation is to spend most of one’s life trying to be 'the top dog.' To achieve this status clearly cannot in itself give intrinsic greatness to a human being. If man’s measure is God, then to be seeking status and exaltation in the eyes of men is actually unlike God, because Christ humbled himself and became as men are, and lowlier still — even to death on a cross (Philippians 2:8). Further, our Lord said, he who sees me sees the Father. So the Father is humble. Our Lord asked that we learn from him who is meek and humble of heart. Today's Gospel is very relevant to this point. "The greatest among you must be your servant. Anyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and anyone who humbles himself will be exalted" (Matthew 23: 1-12)

Let us understand that the humble person is the one who is like God. God our Father is meek, compassionate and humble, and was revealed in the humility of his Son, our Lord. If we wish to be exalted, the path is through being like God, which is to say by humbling ourselves. Let us ask the grace of the Holy Spirit, who in Christ is the Spirit of humility.

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