We mortal men and women need stories. I don’t mean “stories” in the sense of things that are untrue or simply made up. I mean that we learn and understand some things best, even perfectly true things, when we encounter them in story form. We need the arc of narrative to capture and hold our imagination. In order to really absorb concepts we need to see them embodied, literally, in people like ourselves and in the things that people do.
That is part of the purpose of the cult of the saints. Through intercessory prayer they advocate for us before the throne of God, but they are also examples for us: through the stories of their lives, they show us in a way we can’t fail to understand what it is to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
One of those things that they show us is how important each one of us is to God: “the wisdom of this world is folly with God.” (1 Corinthians 3:19) One of today’s saints, St. Agnes of Bohemia (also known as St. Agnes of Prague) provides a good example of just how foolish the “wisdom” of the world can be.
Agnes was born in the year 1211 into a high place in the society of her day: daughter of King Ottokar I of Bohemia, niece of King Andrew II of Hungary. While her place was significant, Agnes herself seems to have been significant mostly as a political commodity. She was engaged at the age of eight to the ten-year-old Henry, King of Germany, who was the son of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Her guardian Leopold VI of Babenberg wanted his own daughter to marry the young king, and contrived to cancel Henry’s engagement to Agnes. Agnes’ father Ottokar thereupon declared war on Leopold, and tried to arrange the engagement of his daughter to Henry III of England. The Emperor Frederick prevented this second engagement, however, apparently concluding that he might as well marry Agnes himself.
At this point Agnes had enough of being a token in the game of dynastic politics. Besides, she had set her sights on another husband: Jesus Christ Himself. She enlisted Pope Gregory IX to support her in her desire to live a life devoted to prayer and good works. Frederick II supposedly remarked that he would have brought the sword (much as her father had done) against any mere man who had taken Agnes from him, but that he could not object to being passed over for the King of Heaven.
Agnes spent the rest of her life using her worldly position to further the Kingdom of Heaven. She founded hospitals and convents; she helped settle the recently founded Franciscans and Poor Clares in her kingdom (and established a deep long-distance friendship with St. Clare herself); she established a male military order, the Knights of the Cross with the Red Star, whose primary mission was nursing; she joined the Poor Clares herself, and eventually became abbess.
In spite of her noble birth and high rank as abbess, she was known for preparing food and clothes for the poor with her own hands, and for personally tending to the sick and dying. Because of her life of Christian virtue and the continuing impact of her example over eight centuries she was beatified by Pope Pius IX in 1874, and canonized by Pope St. John Paul II in 1989. Just ten years ago, 800 years after her birth, St. Agnes has honored under the title of the Saint of the Overthrow of Communism in the Czech Republic (the modern successor to the Kingdom of Bohemia), and Czech Catholics dedicated a year in her honor.
It’s noteworthy that few people aside from professional historians recognize the names of Frederick II or Ottokar I, who were considered to be among the most important people of their time. If Agnes had been married to one of the kings of the day, her name would be almost completely forgotten as well. But by rejecting political influence and the trappings of power, she gained much more: not merely fame but devotion that has lasted almost a millennium. What a magnificent reminder of the words of the Psalmist:
Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no help. When his breath departs he returns to his earth; on that very day his plans perish. Happy is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God. (Psalm 146:3-5)
Of course, saints such as St. Agnes don’t seek fame for themselves, like mortal kings do. God raises his saints to prominence so that the rest of us will continue to learn from their example, and continue to ask for their prayers. And who better to plead on our behalf than a bride of the King of Heaven?
*I’ve tried to make a practice of always identifying works of art by title and artist, if known. I’ve found this beautiful painting of St. Agnes of Bohemia on numerous websites, but none of them identify it. If anyone out there has the information, please let me know.