Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Feast of Agnes ~ Virgin-Martyr

TODAY IS THE FEAST OF SAINT AGNES. This image is titled: Saint Agnes in Prison Receiving From Heaven the Shining White Garment. It was painted by Frank Cadogan Cowper in 1905.  Agnes is one of dozens of third and fourth century girl-saints collectively called the Virgin Martyrs. Some of their names are listed in the Roman Canon of the Catholic Mass: Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia. There are others too, like Dorothy, Catherine, Barbara, Eulalia, Euthalia.

As celibate men largely manage the saints, the Virgin Martyrs have lost their spiritual power, reducing them to defenders of purity-chastity. It isn't really about that. As a Church we have allowed them to become something like mascots: defenders of military branches, sources of specialty foods, fabulous tales that are supposed to reveal God's favor, and patrons of virtually everything. None of it has anything to do with Christ. That's the problem.

The long and short of it is: in their ancient world all marriages were arranged. Like it or not, you were told often at a very young age who you'd marry. And so Christian girls, who were frequently converts, were told they would have to marry pagan men. They refused knowing that to bear children would mean having to dedicate them to an emperor who considered himself to be a god.

A young girl can display a tremendous resolve and so the court trials reveal the girl standing in her Christ-conviction: her family, spurned lover and government enforcers on the other side increasingly furious at being undone by a girl who would save herself if she only did what she was told to do.

The girl, often just pubescent, was sent to a brothel or jail. Eventually, those with the power to punish would shut her up by attacking her mouth, teeth and tongue so they wouldn't have to listen to her Christ-testimony anymore. She'd first be made into damaged goods and un-marriageable in every respect  removing her breasts, raping and decapitating her. Often the betrayer was the fiance in a sick alliance with the girl's family.

The point isn't the chaste protection of virginal purity. The point is: "Jesus Christ is my God and there'll be no other." One poem or hymn speaks of a girl-martyr as possessing a manly strength. Not at all. She had her own strength, a strength very many men,  including men among the clergy, could learn from.

You cover your senses
with the presence of God,
holy martyr ~
the robe-bearing angel
to dress you in brightness.

A dove flew from
your severed head,
the yielding of your
which we can only
think to snare and tame.

O Agnes,
ferocious in your girl-truth,
as in your open hands,
open stubborn hearts.


  1. Reading this gives one a disconcerted feeling. But the unpleasantness is necessary to the understanding. Thank you for bringing the strength of these young girl martyrs to our attention. That we may remember them for their steadfast beliefs even through the horrors inflicted on them.

  2. As I am swayed by temptations and the pursuit of earthly pleasures, I think of the virgin martyrs and your words, Jesus Christ is my God and they'll be no other. This give me strength. Thank you for all your words of wisdom. They are appreciated.