Communion Across Centuries (and 3,000 Miles)

When I was about six-years-old, I used to love reading various books about the lives of the Saints. One of my favorite books included the story of St. Agnes. I cannot say that I was particularly drawn to her story – the words “virgin and martyr” made little sense to me then. No, it was not her sexual “purity” or willingness to die for her faith that attracted me – it was her beauty. She was portrayed by the book’s artist as an adolescent girl with dark hair and blue eyes that were simply captivating. Each time I picked up the book I quickly skipped over St. Patrick and St. Maria Gorretti to gaze upon St. Agnes and each time I felt comforted that this young woman was praying for me even if she was at a distance.

I have not thought much about St. Agnes until recently when I found myself doubting whether or not I’d made a mistake in pursuing doctoral studies. I was in the midst of wrapping a birthday gift for my godchild Isabel who turned ten (“double digits” as she likes to remind me) this month and was feeling a bit down because this would be the third birthday that I would not be able to celebrate with her. My studies at Harvard Divinity School have taken me a long way from my native California and sometimes those 3,000 odd miles seem like an endless space between beloved family and friends and me. As I wrapped Isabel’s gifts, I felt the grief welling up within me and the question of “sacrifice” surfaced. What had I sacrificed in pursuing doctoral studies on the East Coast? Time with family and friends, the comforts of familiarity, the grace of the Pacific – these, among other thoughts, came to mind. And so did St. Agnes. Her young face, piercing eyes, and the white lamb in her arms, a symbol of the sacrifice that characterized her life and name, swirled around my mind.

“Sacrifice” has always been a loaded term for me. Too many times, it has been used to sanction violence against women (and men) by claiming that such unnecessary suffering is a participation in the cross of Christ when, in fact, it is really a participation in structures of domination that are created by humans. This being said, there are moments in which we suffer the pain of sacrifice because we believe that in doing so we are enabling a greater good to emerge. For me, sacrificing my time with family and friends in California, missing yet another of Isabel’s birthday parties, is only bearable because I believe in the work that I am doing. I believe that engaging in a critical feminist theology of liberation with its vision of a world characterized by peace and justice is not simply worth these years of doctoral studies, but worth a lifetime of struggle and commitment. I believe such a world of justice and peace, such a coming of the “kindom” of God, is better than any gift I could possibly give Isabel. Such a world will probably not come around in my lifetime or even in Isabel’s, but I think that it is still worth working towards for as we work towards it we place ourselves in good company, company like St. Agnes, Dorothy Day, and Mary of Magdala. We place ourselves in the Communion of Saints where centuries, not to mention miles, cannot separate us from each other.

Currently a doctoral student at Harvard Divinity School, Pearl Maria Barros earned her Master of Theological Studies degree from Harvard Divinity School and her Bachelor’s of English and Religious Studies from Santa Clara University. When not reading, writing, and researching, she enjoys visiting with friends and family, traveling, and drinking coffee.

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