Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Remembering Agatha and Other Holy Women: A Commentary on the Kalendar of Saints

St. Agatha
It's on days like this that I cringe and groan when praying the Daily Office.  I use both the BCP Daily Office Book and the Anglican Breviary, alternating between them depending on my mood and the offering of feasts, and sometimes incorporate elements from both in my recitation.  In the Breviary's Kalendar, today is listed as the feast of St. Agatha, virgin and martyr.  As I begin the collect, I'm immediately reminded, "oh yeah, this is one of those horrible collects I have to rewrite on the fly."  The collect goes:

"O GOD, who among the manifold works of thine almighty power has bestowed even upon the weakness of women strength to win the victory of martyrdom: grant, we beseech thee; that we, who on this day recall the heavenly birth of Saint Agatha thy Virgin and Martyr, may so follow in her footsteps, that we may likewise attain unto thee.  Through . . ."

This demeaning language always upsets me.  Do I say the words printed on the page or not?  I do not.  I remember standing at the altar to say Mass, bristling, and firmly amending the language in the Missal:  "O GOD, who among the manifold works of thine almighty power has bestowed EQUALLY UPON WOMEN strength to win the victory of martyrdom."  I feel like both the Missal and the Breviary force me into a difficult ethical and theological position on which I must take a stand, so I do.  In the Episcopal Church, we often celebrate the progress made on the full inclusion of women in the Church, and yet we can forget how much work remains to be done to reform our widely varying liturgical materials and to stand in solidarity with our sisters in other churches and faith communities.  This week, Angela Bonavoglia wrote an incisive and challenging letter in the Huffington Post, "For Pope Francis: A To-Do List on Women," that I encourage everyone to read.  It's a good reality check.

Now, some folks may quite sensibly say, "well, don't use the Missal or Breviary, then, if the language is so oppressive."  I don't use the Missal anymore now that I'm in more mainstream Episcopal parishes--and despite its overall beauty, this is a great relief on days like today--but I do find the Breviary a rich supplement to the Prayer Book for proper antiphons, collects, and office hymns for both feasts and the liturgical seasons.  I hate to give it up, and I salute Dr. Derek Olsen's ongoing work to convert the Anglican Breviary to an electronic format, but I am mindful that the only way we can preserve our great liturgical heritage is to purge it of oppressive language and outmoded theology.  That's one of the major challenges that progressive Anglo-Catholics in the twenty-first century must face head on.

Renee Jeanne Falconetti as Joan of Arc, 1928
I use today's feast of St. Agatha merely as an illustration of a critical issue as the Episcopal Church seeks to come to consensus on the commemoration of saints.  The Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music has distributed a proposal on the revision of the sanctoral Kalendar that responds to much of the feedback on the trial use of Holy Women, Holy Men.  In general, I am favorable to the proposal for a two-fold resource: a core Kalendar of saints, such as apostles, martyrs, and evangelists, generally accepted by the whole Episcopal Church, and a secondary compendium of  "A Great Cloud of Witnesses," that supports regional and contextual commemorations of individuals that have inspired Christians in different places and times.  This latter focus is certainly in keeping with the traditions of the early Church.  Cults of individual saints emerged organically in local communities, where they were celebrated sometimes for centuries until they spread to the entire Church.  Joan of Arc was regarded as the Patron Saint of France for centuries before the Roman Catholic Church finally canonized her in 1920.  She only made it into the Episcopal Church's calendar in the 2006 edition of Lesser Feasts and Fasts.

With these considerations in mind, I propose a few suggestions moving forward:
A rather European-looking
St. Augustine of Hippo
  • If we really want people to embrace a relationship with the Great Cloud of Witnesses, then there needs to be more comprehensive exposure to the lives of the saints in our regular pattern of worship.  Since most Episcopal congregations do not offer a daily Eucharist, Morning Prayer, or Evening Prayer, we should encourage the restoration of the minor propers and other relevant materials to the Sunday Eucharist, so that the saints make more than just an occasional appearance in a congregation's consciousness.  The intent is not to overshadow the Sunday propers, but to integrate the saints into the ongoing narrative of salvation articulated through our weekly Feast of the Resurrection.  We and the saints are part of that narrative.
  • Not only must we encourage diversity through the inclusion of new saints in the revised sanctoral calendar, but we must strive to represent authentically those who are already included.  To venerate a saint is to acknowledge her or his full humanity.  This means addressing issues of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and other attributes.  One of my womanist seminary professors rightly pointed out that St. Augustine was most likely African, not Caucasian, despite many Western depictions.  And women saints cannot be reduced to passive virgins and conjugally dutiful matrons.  And there were same-sex loving saints, too.  
  • Saints are supposed to be both patrons and companions, models of exemplary holiness, and yet sinners in need of God's mercy, just like us.  Hagiography can often be a glowing list of non-threatening virtues, without acknowledgment of moral ambiguity, failings, or--in a more wonderfully prophetic strain--subversiveness.  If we are to draw strength and inspiration from the saints, then we need more than just sanitized and domesticated narratives; we need nuanced stories of faith that preserve the tension between human frailty and the human striving for perfection.
  • Finally, I would caution all of us to apply a critical eye to the received narratives of the saints.  It is important for us as a community to lift up problematic issues, such as institutionalized abuse, humiliation, and inequities of power that the saints' lives raise: to point out who has agency and who has none; who has a voice and who is silent; who enjoys the dignity of a name and who is unnamed.
To return to St. Agatha, I was deeply troubled to read the Breviary's story of her martyrdom, for the violence is not of a generic sort, but is focused on the erasure of her womanhood, which should raise questions for us about not only who we include in the calendar, but how we include them, and how we tell and interpret their stories.  If Agatha's courage as a martyr is commendable, her mutilation and the depiction of violence against women is not.  If we are to be responsible storytellers, then we must challenge the Church's telling of her story as a weak, passive, and vulnerable handmaiden that bravely endured violence.  It must serve as a warning to all of us that violence, under the euphemistic guise of "martyrdom," is never to be framed as a victory won--not if we believe our God is a God of peace, justice, and love.

On this feast of St. Agatha, let us therefore pray for an end to violence against women, and against all people, and for a fulfillment of our baptismal vows to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being.  If we can use this framework for a commemoration of the saints, then we will be making a very positive contribution to the life of the Church.

Ethan +

1 comment:

  1. Great post Fr. Ethan. It reminded me of an exchange in one of my favorite movies, Agnes of God. When Dr. Livingston (Jane Fonda) was asking Mother Miriam Ruth (Anne Bancroft) if one could become a saint by trying to be good. To which Mother replied, "Become? One is born a saint and not all of the saints were good, in fact some of them were a little crazy. But they were all touched by God, and had been since birth".