Friday, January 25, 2019

St Agnes, the Virgin-Martyr of Rome

Holy Agnes, as you keep watch o’er Rome,
Pray also for us sinners here at the South,
Who likewise are citizens of Romulus’s home!

A hymn of praise for St Agnes (+304, commemorated 21 January), written by the Orthodox Spanish ascetic and man of letters Prudentius (348-c. 413):


The Passion of Agnes 

The grave of Agnes is in the home of Romulus; 
a brave lass she, and a glorious martyr. Laid within
sight of their palaces, this maiden watches over the
well-being of Rome's citizens, and she protects
strangers too when they pray with pure and faithful
heart. A double crown of martyrdom was vouch-
safed to her, the keeping of her virginity untouched
by any sin, and then the glory of her dying by her
own will.

They say it happened that as a young girl in her
earliest years, scarce yet marriageable, but warm
with the love of Christ, she bravely withstood godless
commands, refusing to make herself over to idols
and desert her holy faith. For though she was first
assailed with many arts, now with seductive words
from a smooth-tongued judge, and again with
threats of cruel torture, she stood firm with strength
indomitable, and even offered her body for the sore
torment, not refusing to die. Then said the savage
persecutor: " If it is easy for her to overcome the
pains and bear the suffering and she scorns life as of
little worth, still the purity of her dedicated maiden-
hood is dear to her. I am resolved to thrust her into
a public brothel unless she lays her head on the altar
and now asks pardon of Minerva, the virgin whom
she, a virgin too, persists in slighting. All the young
men will rush in to seek the new slave of their sport."
" Nay," says Agnes, " Christ is not so forgetful of his
own as to let our precious chastity be lost and
abandon us. He stands by the chaste and does not
suffer the gift of holy purity to be defiled. You may
stain your sword with my blood if you will, but you
will not pollute my body with lust." When she had
thus spoken he gave order to place the maid publicly
at a corner of the square; " but while she stood
there the crowd avoided her in sorrow, turning their
faces away lest any look too rudely on her modesty.
One, as it chanced, did aim an impudent gaze at the
girl, not fearing to look on her sacred figure with a
lustful eye; when behold, a fire came flying like a
thunderbolt and with its quivering blaze struck his
eyes, and he fell blinded by the gleaming flash and
lay convulsed in the dust of the square. His com-
panions lifted him from the ground between life and
death and bewailed him with words of lamentation
for the departed. But the maiden passed in triumph,
singing of God the Father and Christ in holy song
because, when an unholy peril fell on her, her vir-
ginity won the day, finding the brothel chaste and
pure. Some have told that being asked she poured
forth prayers to Christ that He would restore sight
to the prostrate sinner, and that then the breath of
life was renewed in the young man and his vision
made perfect.

But this was only the first step that Agnes took
towards the court of heaven; then she was granted a
second ascent. For frenzy was working up her
blood-thirsty enemy's wrath. " I am losing the
battle," he complained. " Go draw the sword,
soldier, and give effect to our lord the emperor's
sovereign commands." When Agnes saw the grim
figure standing there with his naked sword her glad-
ness increased and she said: " I rejoice that there
comes a man like this, a savage, cruel, wild man-at-
arms, rather than a listless, soft, womanish youth
bathed in perfume, coming to destroy me with the
death of my honour. This lover, this one at last, I
confess it, pleases me. I shall meet his eager steps
half-way and not put off his hot desires. I shall
welcome the whole length of his blade into my bosom,
drawing the sword-blow to the depths of my breast;
and so as Christ's bride I shall o'erleap all the dark-
ness of the sky and rise higher than the ether. O
eternal ruler, open the gates of heaven which
formerly were barred against the children of earth,
and call, O Christ, a soul that follows Thee, a virgin's
soul and a sacrifice to the Father." So saying she
bowed her head and humbly worshipped Christ,
so that her bending neck should be readier to suffer
the impending blow; and the executioner's hand
fulfilled her great hope, for at one stroke he cut off
her head and swift death forestalled the sense of
pain. Now the disembodied spirit springs forth and
leaps in freedom into the air, and angels are round her
as she passes along the shining path. She marvels
at the world that lies beneath her feet; as she
mounts on high she looks at the darkness below and
laughs at the circling of the sun's orb, the turning
and intertwining of all the universe, the life that is
lived in the black whirlwind of circumstance, the
vanities that the inconstant world seizes on, kings,
despots, power and rank, the pomp, of dignitaries
swollen with foolish pride, the masses of silver and
gold which all seek after with a furious thirst by
every wicked means, the gorgeously built dwellings,
the empty vanities of fancily embroidered garments,
anger, fear, desires, hazards, the alternations of long
sadness and short-lived joy, the smoking brands of
black spite that darken men's hopes and honour,
and the foulest of all their ills, the filthy clouds of
paganism. All this Agnes tramples on and treads
under foot as she stands and with her heel bears
down on the head of the fierce serpent which be-
spatters all earthly things in the world with his venom
and plunges them in hell; but now that he is sub-
dued by a virgin's foot he lowers the crests on his
fiery head and in defeat dares not to lift it up.
Meanwhile with two crowns God encircles the
unwedded martyr's brow; recompense issuing sixty-
fold from eternal light makes the one, profit an
hundredfold is in the other.

O happy virgin, glory unknown before, noble
dweller in the height of heaven, on our gathered
impurities turn thy face with thy twin diadems,
thou to whom alone the Father of all has granted the
power to make a very brothel pure! I shall be
cleansed by the brightness of thy gracious face if
thou wilt fill my heart. Nothing is impure which
thou dost deign to visit in love or to touch with thy
restoring foot.


Holy Ælfred the Great, King of England, South Patron, pray for us sinners at the Souð, unworthy though we are!

Anathema to the Union!

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