“The pagan, or rational, virtues are such things as justice and temperance, and Christianity has adopted them. The three mystical virtues which Christianity has not adopted, but invented, are faith, hope and charity. Now… the first evident fact, I say, is that the pagan virtues, such as justice and temperance, are the sad virtues, and that the mystical virtues of faith, hope, and charity are the gay and exuberant virtues. And the second evident fact, which is even more evident, is the fact that the pagan virtues are the reasonable virtues, and that the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity are in their essence as unreasonable as they can be…charity means pardoning what is unpardonable, or it is no virtue at all. Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all. And faith means believing the incredible, or it is no virtue at all.” ― G. K. Chesterton
Today, the Roman Catholic Church commemorates the girl-martyr saint, St. Agnes. St. Agnes was martyred in the year 304 A.D., and has been a favorite saint of the people of Rome in the years since her death. Her possession of the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity, coupled with her courage, and her love of Christ, are astounding. I just finished reading the account of her martyrdom from the pen of Dom Prosper Gueranger (b. 1805- d. 1875), which I am posting today, and it is, to say the least, shocking. It is hard to comprehend the Christian virtue of this thirteen year old maiden who refused to acquiesce to the demands of pagan rulers. Where did such courageous virtue come from? What sustained her in her sufferings, and martyrdom? Dom Gueranger answers these questions:
How rich is the constellation of martyrs which shines in this portion of the sacred cycle. Yesterday we had Saint Sebastian. Tomorrow we will be singing the name which means Victory, for it is the feast of Vincent. And now, today, between these two rich palm branches we are rejoiced with the lovely rose and lily-wreath of Agnes. It is to a girl of thirteen that our Emmanuel gave this stern courage of martyrdom which made her meet the enemy with as bold a front as either the valiant Captain of the Praetorian band or the dauntless Deacon of Saragossa. If they are the soldiers of Jesus, she is His tender and devoted Spouse. These are the triumphs of the Son of Mary! Scarcely has He shown Himself to the world, and lo! every noble heart flies towards Him according to that word of His: “Wherever the body will be, there will the eagles also be gathered together” (Matthew xxiv. 28).
It is the admirable result of the virginity of His Blessed Mother who has brought honour to the fecundity of the soul and set it far above that of the body. It was Mary that first opened the way by which certain chosen souls mount up even to the Divine Son and fix their gaze, in a cloudless vision, on His beauty, for He Himself said: “Blessed are the clean of heart for they will see God” (Matthew v. 8).
What a glory is it not for the Catholic Church that she alone has the gift of this holy state of virginity which is the source of every other sacrifice, because nothing but the love of God could inspire a human heart to vow virginity! And what a grand honour for Christian Rome that she should have produced a Saint Agnes, that angel of Earth, in comparison with whom the Vestals of paganism are mere pretences of devotedness, for their virginity was never punished by fire and sword, nay, rather, was flattered by the recompense of earthly honours and riches!
Not that our Saint is without her recompense — only, her recompense is not marred with the flaw of all human rewards. The name of this child who lived but thirteen short years will be echoed to the end of time in the sacred Canon of the universal Sacrifice. The path trod by the innocent maiden on the way to her trial is still marked out in the Holy City. In the Circus Agonalis (Piazza Navona) there rises the beautiful Church of Saint Agnes with its rich cupola. And beneath are the vaults which were once the haunts of infamy but now are a holy sanctuary where everything reminds us of her who here won her glorious victory. Further on, on the Nomentana Road, outside the ramparts, is the beautiful Basilica built by Constantine. And here, under an altar covered with precious stones, lies the body of the young Saint. Round this Basilica there are immense crypts and in these did Agnes’ relics repose until the epoch of peace surrounded by thousands of martyrs, whose holy remains were also deposited here.
Nor must we pass over in silence the gracious tribute of honour paid by Rome each year on this Feast to her beloved Martyr. Two lambs are placed on the altar of the Basilica Nomentana. They are emblems of the meekness of Jesus and the innocence of the gentle Agnes. After they have been blessed by the Abbot of the religious community which serves this Church, they are taken to a monastery of nuns where they are carefully reared. Their wool is used for making the Palliums which the Pope sends to all Patriarchs and Metropolitans of the Catholic world as the essential emblem of their jurisdiction. Thus, this simple woollen ornament, which these prelates have to wear on their shoulders as a symbol of the sheep carried on the shoulders of the good Shepherd and which the Sovereign Pontiff takes from off the Altar of Saint Peter in order to send it to its destination, carries to the very ends of the world the sublime union of these two sentiments — the vigour and power of the Prince of the Apostles and the gentleness of Agnes the Virgin.
We will now quote the beautiful eulogium on Saint Agnes written by Saint Ambrose in his Book, On Virgins. The Church gives almost the entire passage in her Office of today’s Feast and, assuredly, the Virgin of Christ could not have had a finer panegyrist than the great Bishop of Milan who is the most eloquent and persuasive of all the Fathers on the subject of holy Virginity. We read that in the cities where Ambrose preached mothers were afraid of their daughters being present at his sermons, lest he should persuade them to such love of Christ as to choose the better part. “Having resolved,” says the holy Bishop, “to write a Book on Virginity, I think myself happy in being able to begin it on the Feast we are keeping of the Virgin Agnes. It is the Feast of a Virgin: let us walk in the path of purity. It is the Feast of a Martyr: let us offer up our Sacrifice. It is the Feast of Saint Agnes: let men admire and children not despair, let the married wonder and the unmarried imitate. But what can we speak worthy of this Saint whose very name is not void of praise? As her devotedness is beyond her years and her virtue superhuman, so, as it seems to me, her name is not an appellation but a prophecy, presaging that she was to be a Martyr.” The holy Doctor is here alluding to the word Agnus, from which some have derived the name Agnes. And he says that the young Saint had immolation in her very name, for it called her victim. He goes on to consider the other etymology of Agnes, from the Greek word agnos, which means pure. And he thus continues his discourse:
“The maiden’s name is an expression of purity. Martyr, then, and Virgin! Is not that praise enough? There is no praise so eloquent, as merit that is too great to need seeking. No one is so praiseworthy as he who may be praised by all. Now, all men are the praisers of Agnes, for when they pronounce her name they say her praise, for they say ‘A Martyr.‘ There is a tradition that she suffered martyrdom at the age of thirteen. Detestable, indeed, the cruelty that spared not even so tender an age! But oh! the power of faith that could find even children to be its witnesses! Here was a victim scarce big enough for a wound, for, where could the sword fall? And yet she had courage enough to conquer the sword. At such an age as this, a girl trembles if she but see her mother angry, and cries, as though it were a grievous thing, if but pricked with a needle‘s point. And Agnes, who stands amid blood-stained murderers is fearless! She is stunned with the rattle of the heavy chains, and yet not a flutter in that heart! She offers her whole body to the sword of the furious soldier, for though she knows not what death is, yet is she quite ready to endure it. Perchance, they will take her by force to the altars of their gods! If they do, she will stretch out her hands to Jesus and, amid those sacrilegious fires, she will sign herself with that blessed sign, the trophy of our divine conqueror. And then, if they will, and they can find shackles small enough to fit such tender limbs, they may fasten her hands and neck in their iron fetters!
How strange a martyrdom! She is too young to be punished, yet she is old enough to win a victory. She cannot fight, yet she easily gains a crown. She has but the age of a scholar, yet has she mastered every virtue. Bride never went to nuptials with so glad a heart, or so light a step, as this young virgin marches to the place of execution. She is decked not with the gay show of plaited tresses, but with Christ. She is wreathed not with flowers, but with purity. All stood weeping. Agnes shed not a tear. Some wondered how it could be that she, who had but just begun her life, should be as ready to sacrifice it as though she had lived it out. And every one was amazed that she who was too young to give evidence even in her own affairs should be so bold a witness of the divinity. Her oath would be invalid in a human cause, yet she is believed when she bears testimony for her God. Their surprise was just: for a power thus above nature could only come from Him who is the author of all nature. Her executioner does all he can to frighten her. He speaks fair words to coax her. He tells her of all the suitors who have sought her as their bride. But she replies: ‘The Spouse insults her Beloved if she hesitates. I belong to Him who first betrothed me. Why, executioner, do you not strike? Kill this body which might be loved by eyes I would not wish to please.’ She stood, she prayed, she bowed down her head. The executioner trembles as though himself were going to be beheaded. His hand shakes and his cheek grows pale, to strike this girl who loves the danger and the blow. Here, then, have we a twofold martyrdom in a single victim — one for her chastity, the other for her faith. She was a Virgin before and now she is a Martyr.”
How sweet and yet how strong, Agnes, is the love of Jesus, your Spouse! It enters an innocent heart, and that heart becomes full of dauntless courage! Thus was it with you. The world and its pleasures, persecution and its tortures — all were alike contemptible to you. The pagan judge condemned you to an insult worse than a thousand deaths — and you did not know that the Angel of the Lord would defend you! How is it that you had no fear? It was because the love of Jesus tilled your heart. Fire was nothing. The sword was nothing. The very hell of men’s making, even that was nothing to you, for your love told you that no human power could ever rob you of your Jesus. You had His word for it and you knew He would keep it. Dear Child, innocent even in the capital of pagan corruption and free of heart even amid a slavish race, we read the image of our Emmanuel in you. He is the Lamb and you are simple, like Jesus: He is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah and, like Him, you are invincible. Truly, these Christians, as the pagans said, are a race of beings come from Heaven to people this Earth! A family that has Martyrs and heroes and heroines, like you, brave Saint! — that has young virgins filled like its venerable Pontiffs and veteran soldiers, with the fire of Heaven and burning with ambition to leave a world they have edified with their virtues — is God’s own people and it never can be extinct. Its Martyrs are to us the representation of the divine virtues of our Lord Jesus Christ. By nature they were as weak as we. They had a disadvantage which we have not — they had to live in the very thick of paganism, and paganism had corrupted the whole Earth. And notwithstanding all this, they were courageous and chaste.
Have pity on us and help us, O you, one of the brightest of these great Saints! The love of Jesus is weak in our hearts. We are affected and shed tears at the recital of your heroic conduct, but we are cowards in the battle we ourselves have to fight against the world and our passions. The habitual seeking after ease and comfort has fastened upon us a certain effeminacy. We are ever throwing away our interest upon trifles. How can we have earnestness and courage for our duties? Sanctity! We cannot understand it and when we hear or read of it, we gravely say that the Saints did very strange things and were indiscreet, and were carried away by exaggerated notions! What must we think on this your Feast, of your contempt for the world and all its pleasures, of your heavenly enthusiasm, of your eagerness to go to your Jesus by suffering? You were a Christian, Agnes! Are we, too, Christians? Oh pray for us that we may love like Christians, that is, with a generous and active love, with a love which can feel indignant when asked to have less detachment from all that is not our God. Pray for us that our piety may be that of the Gospel, and not the fashionable piety which pleases the world and makes us pleased with ourselves. There are some brave hearts who follow your example but they are few. Increase their number by their prayers, that so the Divine Lamb may be followed wherever He goes in Heaven, by a countless number of Virgins and Martyrs.
Innocent Saint, we meet you each year at the crib of the Divine Babe and we delight on your Feast to think of the wonderful love there is between Jesus and His brave little Martyr. This Lamb is come to die for us too, and invites us to Bethlehem. Speak to Him for us. The intercession of a Saint who loved Him as you did can work wonders even for such sinners as we. Lead us to His sweet Virgin-Mother. You imitated her virginal purity. Ask her to give us one of those powerful prayers which can cleanse even worse hearts than ours. Pray also, O Agnes, for the holy Church which is the Spouse of Jesus. It was she that gave you to be His, and it is from her that we also have received our life and our light. Pray that she may be blessed with an ever-increasing number of faithful virgins. Protect Rome, the city which guards your relics and loves you so tenderly. Bless the Prelates of the Church and obtain for them the meekness of the lamb, the firmness of the Rock, the zeal of the good Shepherd for His lost sheep. And lastly, O Spouse of Jesus, hear the prayers of all who invoke you and let your charity for us, your exiled brethren, learn from the Heart of Jesus the secret of growing more ardent as our world grows older.
Yes, Innocent Saint, pray for the us, pray for the Church.
May you have a good day.
Image: St. Agnes, painted in 1620 by Domenichino, source.