Saint Agnes, Virgin and Martyr
How rich is the constellation of Martyrs, which shines in this portion of the sacred Cycle. Yesterday, we had St. Sebastian; tomorrow, we shall 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 Pretorian 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: Wheresoever the body shall be, there shall the eagles also be gathered together (St. Matth. 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, whereby 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 shall see God.
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 Nomentan 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 St. Agnes, written by St. Ambrose in his Book, On Virgins (Book I. post initium). 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 St. 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 praise”worthy, 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 amidst 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, amidst 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 hesitate. I belong to Him who first betrothed me:–why, executioner, dost thou 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, O Agnes! is the love of Jesus, thy Spouse! It enters an innocent heart, and that heart becomes full of dauntless courage! Thus was it with thee. The world and its pleasures, persecution and its tortures–all were alike contemptible to thee. The pagan judge condemned thee to an insult, worse than a thousand deaths–and thou didst not know that the Angel of the Lord would defend thee!–how is it, that thou hadst no fear? It was because the love of Jesus filled thy heart. Fire was nothing; the sword was nothing; the very hell of men’s making, even that was nothing to thee! for thy love told thee that no human power could ever rob thee of thy Jesus; thou hadst His word for it, and thou knewest He would keep it.
Dear Child! innocent even in the capital of pagan corruption, and free of heart even amidst a slavish race, we read the image of our Emmanuel in thee. He is the Lamb; and thou art simple, like Jesus: He is the Lion of the Tribe of Juda; and, like Him, thou art 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 thee, 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 thou, 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 thy 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 exagerated notions! What must we think on this thy feast, of thy contempt for the world and all its pleasures, of thy heavenly enthusiasm, of thy eagerness to go to thy Jesus by suffering? Thou wast 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 thy example; but they are few; increase their number by their prayers, that so the Divine Lamb may be followed, whithersoever He goeth in heaven, by a countless number of Virgins and Martyrs.
Innocent Saint! we meet thee, each year, at the Crib of the Divine Babe, and we delight, on thy 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 thou didst, can work wonders even for such sinners as we. Lead us to His sweet Virgin Mother. Thou didst imitate 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 thee 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 thy Relics, and loves thee 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 thee, and let thy charity for us, thy exiled brethren, learn from the Heart of Jesus the secret of growing more ardent as our world grows older.
The Liturgical Year. 1904. Abbot Dom Gueranger, O.S.B. Translated from the French by Dom Laurence Shepherd, O.S.B. Imprimatur, 1910.