I have known only two women named Agnes in my life. One of them was my grandmother who, having died two years after I was born, I could hardly be expected to remember. But since I was often told things about her—for instance, that she was beautiful and pious and went to Mass every morning—I feel as if I should know her. She raised five sons, by the way, one of them my late father, and with the exception of her oldest son whose plane crashed on a bombing mission over the Balkans, all the others survived their time in World War II and then in Korea. I like to think she managed to get a few things right. And, by all accounts, most of them kept the faith.
That leaves the other Agnes, the sainted one, whom I do not remember having met either. Of course she died at the age of twelve back in the early fourth century, following a fierce persecution carried out by a beastly emperor named Diocletian. And concerning this other Agnes, the question that immediately comes to mind is—why on earth would a great, big, self-possessed Roman emperor feel threatened by a child of twelve? I mean to the extent that he actually had her murdered? Was she angling for his job or something, which left the poor man no choice but to kill her? What’s the deal here?
While I’m not an expert on the saints, I will tell you the few things that I do know about this one, beginning with the fact that for a couple of years I and my family lived in her neighborhood. That would be Rome, along the Piazza Navona where, not more than a few feet from our apartment, she spent her last moments on earth. There is a beautiful baroque church named after her, which is called Sant’Agnese in Agone, that looks out upon the site of her martyrdom. It was begun by Pope Innocent X in 1652 (it would take years, and not a few architects, to finish), whose family occupied the entire adjoining palazzo, treating it very much as their own private chapel. It contains a number of her relics, including a small skull that obviously had been severed when the executioner finally cut off her head.
We are told that he hesitated, but then pulled himself together on being abruptly told by the little girl—“Strike, without fear, for the bride does her Spouse an injury if she makes Him wait.” Evidently, from the few details we have of her last hours, she had kept him waiting quite long enough, although it was certainly not her fault that her tormentors had other, more protracted cruelties in mind. It seems that having rebuffed the advances of a number of suitors, telling them that she’d already been promised to the Lord of the Universe, whom she insisted was “more splendid than the sun and the stars, and He has said He will never leave me,” they became incensed, denouncing her to the authorities as a Christian. Who then had her stripped and thrown into a brothel where, cruelly divested of her dignity, it was assumed that she’d quickly come round to her senses.
They failed to reckon, of course, either with her courage, or with the cleverness of God, who dispatched an angel to envelop her in a light so blinding that none could approach her. Thus thwarted, they then tied her to a stake to burn her, but the flames failed to touch her. They finally just cut off her head.
All this I know because, when you live even for a little while in the shadow of a martyr, you make it a point to find out all that you can. For example, I learned that over the ruins of that ancient brothel the Christians of Rome, in the period following the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, raised up a memorial in her honor, thus illustrating the wonderful uses of grace, which needn’t destroy nature altogether, but instead may work to complete and perfect it. That same principle, incidentally, was applied a few blocks away where, in a temple once accustomed to seeing the worship of the goddess Minerva, a wonderful church dedicated to Our Lady was later built, which is fittingly called Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. One of the few genuine examples of gothic architecture in a city awash in the baroque, it literally stands over the ruins of the pagan goddess.
I also learned that when St. Ambrose, early on in his life as a bishop, wrote his splendid treatise on the nobility of the virginal state, he began it on her birthday. “It is the birthday of St. Agnes,” he announced in De Virginibus: “let men admire, let children take courage, let the married be astounded, let the unmarried take an example.”
Nowadays, however, it seems there’s scarcely anyone left to acknowledge the nobility of the virginal state. Much less the willingness to die lest it suffer defilement at the hands of sinful men. So too perhaps among some of our bishops, who may not be quite so eager as Ambrose to extol the advantages of giving everything to God, including our virginity. An odd reticence, one would think, since they’ve presumably already made such a sacrifice for God. We have certainly come a long way since the time of little Agnes. Most people, I suspect, on hearing details about her and the extraordinary witness of her life, are far more likely to register blank stupefaction than, say, warm admiration. People find heroism of any sort baffling, but particularly when harnessed to holiness. What could possess someone to suffer in that way? I mean, really, what possible relevance has a virgin-martyr named Agnes, who died more than seventeen hundred years ago, to the changed circumstances of today?
But, in fact, circumstances haven’t changed at all, the cry of the human heart being as clear and full-throated today as it ever was back then. The human need to love, and to be loved, is not subject to fashion or ideology; like the tides of time, the ebb and flow of the human heart is unvarying in its need. It is the same yesterday, today, and always.
All of which means, of course, that the logic of love, the exactions generously felt by those who love, apply even to people who, like Agnes, appear to have transcended them; indeed, who give every appearance of having left their bodies behind, as if (for them) the virginal state were nothing more than angelism tricked out in human form. But that way lies madness because, in order to maintain the fiction, one has got ruthlessly and at every turn to deny and suppress the fact that we are beings born into and destined always to inhabit a body. Incarnate creatures, in other words, who forever stand in relation to other bodies and, most especially, to Our Lord’s own body, which both the Blessed Mother and the Holy Spirit prepared for him.
If to be means to be in relation always to another, and if that relation is defined by love, then why shouldn’t Agnes, and all the other saints whose embrace of virginity became their way of loving Jesus, be something to admire and, yes, even emulate? Otherwise you end up denigrating the world God made, which became a redeemed world the moment he entered it in order to tell the love story inscribed with his body and in his blood. Agnes understood this perfectly and did not for a moment imagine her littleness an impediment to making a gift of her virginity and, indeed, her very self to God.
Editor’s note: The image above, titled “St. Agnes,” was painted by Corrado Giaquinto (1694-1765).