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St. Agnes Eve
& St. Agnes Day

 

 
When she was 12 or 13, the beautiful Agnes of Rome became the object of a rich young man's devotions. His parents -- his father being the prefect of Rome -- offered her riches if she would make a match with their son, but Agnes had already decided to consecrate herself to Jesus. The Golden Legend, written in A.D. 1275 by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, attributes to her these beautiful words:

Go from me thou fardel of sin, nourishing of evils and morsel of death, and depart, and know thou that I am prevented and am loved of another Lover, Which hath given to me many better jewels, Which hath fianced me by His faith, and is much more noble of lineage than thou art, and of estate. He hath clad me with precious stones and with jewels of gold, He hath set in my visage a sign that I receive none other espouse but Him, and hath showed me over-great treasures which He must give me if I abide with Him.

I will have none other spouse but Him, I will seek none other. In no manner may I leave Him, with Him am I firm and fastened in love, which is more noble, more puissant and fairer than any other, Whose love is much sweet and gracious, of Whom the chamber is now for to receive me where the virgins sing merrily. I am now embraced of Him of Whom the mother is a virgin, and His father knew never woman, to Whom the angels serve. The sun and the moon marvel them of His beauty, Whose works never fail, Whose riches never minish, by Whose odour dead men rise again to life, by Whose touching the sick men be comforted, Whose love is chastity.

To Him I have given my faith, to Him I have commanded my heart; when I love Him then am I chaste, and when I touch Him then am I pure and clean, and when I take Him then am I a virgin. This is the love of my God.

She was threatened to be exposed as a Christian, but still refused, whereupon she was, indeed exposed and ordered to choose between sacrificing to pagan gods or being thrown into a brothel. She refused to be taken to a Roman temple to Minerva (Athena), so was stripped naked and thrown into the brothel, where the men who visited were stricken in their hearts and couldn't bear to look upon her. All, it is said, but one man -- the prefect's son. He mocked the more sensitive men, pushed his way into the brothel, and was struck blind when he tried to look at her. In any case, her modesty was kept intact by her long hair (legendary accounts have it that an angel came to bring her a white robe to cover herself).

The Golden Legend says that the prefect heard what happened to his son and ran to the brothel, accusing Agnes of cruelty and enchantment, whereupon she raised the young man from the dead. He The head of St. Agnes, kept at Sant' Agnese fuori le mura (St Agnes Outside the Walls) in Romethen wanted to let Agnes go, but fearing being banished, put a lieutenant in his place who first tried to kill Agnes by a fire which didn't harm her, and then ended up killing her with a sword.

No matter the exact circumstances of her death, her remains were laid in a tomb on the Via Nomentana, and Constantine built a basilica there at the insistence of his daughter, Constantina, who was buried next to her in a separate mausoleum in A.D. 354 (Pope Honorius -- A.D. 625-638 -- later remodelled the shrine). It is said in the Golden Legend that when her parents and friends were visiting her tomb one night,

they saw a great multitude of virgins clad in vestments of gold and silver, and a great light shone tofore them, and on the right side was a lamb more white than snow, and saw also St. Agnes among the virgins which said to her parents: Take heed and see that ye bewail me no more as dead, but be ye joyful with me, for with all these virgins Jesu Christ hath given me most brightest habitation and dwelling, and am with him joined in heaven whom in earth I loved with all my thought. And this was the eighth day after her passion.

The lamb, as a symbol of purity, is one of the symbols of St. Agnes. In Rome on this day, the Holy Father will bless two crowned lambs, brought to the Church of St. Agnes in two baskets, decorated in red (martyrdom) and white (purity), by Trappists of the Tre Fontane Monastery. The lambs are blessed and then taken to the Convent of St. Cecilia, where the Sisters care for them and use their wool to weave the palliums worn by the Pope and his Archbishops. The palliums are conferred on new archbishops -- those appointed as archbishops during the preceding year -- on the Feast of SS. Peter and Paul on 29 June. Because of St. Agnes's association with lambs, a lamb-shaped cake would be nice today. Think of using coconut for the wool...

St. Agnes, like St. Valentine, St. Catherine of Alexandria, and St. Anthony of Padua, is invoked by single women in search of a husband -- and today is a good day to pray such a prayer. In fact, Medieval folklore says that on St. Agnes Eve, girls are often granted visions of their future husbands. Scottish girls would meet in a crop field at midnight, throw grain onto the soil, and pray:

Agnes sweet and Agnes fair,
Hither, hither, now repair;
Bonny Agnes, let me see
The lad who is to marry me.

In some places, it was said that those who fast, keep silence, and conduct certain rituals will have a vision of their future husband. The rituals vary from place to place, but included among them are walking backwards to bed while not looking behind you; pulling out a row of pins, saying a Pater for each one; eating a yolkless boiled egg with salt filling the cavity where the yolk had been, thereby prompting the future husband to bring the girl water in a dream; making a special cake called a "dumb cake," walking backward with it to bed, and eating it; and sprinkling sprigs of thyme and rosemary with holy water, placing them on each side of the bed, and invoking St. Agnes. An old book called "Mother Brunch's Closet Newly Broke Open" speaks of this St. Agnes Eve custom:

There is, in January, a day called Saint Agnes's Day. It is always the one and twentieth of that month. This Saint Agnes had a great favour for young men and maids, and will bring unto their bedside, at night, their sweethearts, if they follow this rule as I shall declare unto thee. Upon this day thou must be sure to keep a true fast, for thou must not eat or drink all that day, nor at night; neither let any man, woman, or child kiss thee that day; and thou must be sure, at night, when thou goest to bed, to put on a clean shift, and the best thou hast the better thou mayst speed; and thou must have clean cloaths on thy head, for St. Agnes does love to see clean cloaths when she comes; and when thou liest down on thy back as straight as thou canst, and both thy hands are laid underneath thy head, then say

     Now good St. Agnes, play thy part,
     And sent to me my own sweetheart,
     And shew me such a happy bliss,
     This night of him to have a kiss.

And then be sure to fall asleep as soon as thou canst, and before thou awakest out of thy first sleep thou shalt see him come and stand before thee, and thou shalt perceive by his habit what trademan he is; but be sure thou declarest not thy dream to anybody in ten days, and by that time thou mayst come to see thy dream come to pass.

See John Keats's "Romeo and Juliette-esque" poem, "Eve of St. Agnes," published in 1820, in which the maiden, Madeleine, goes to bed on St. Agnes' Eve, as her horrible family has a huge party in another part of the house. The "Beadsman" refers to a pauper who is paid to pray for his employer. (Warning: the poem is a rather sensual one!).

For more spiritually enrichening reading see this much briefer poem on St. Agnes' Eve by Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892), which concerns a nun's looking forward to Heaven.

But most especially, see this excerpt below from "Concerning Virginity," written by St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (A.D. 340 - 4 April 397):

 
Reading

"Concerning Virginity"
Book I, Chapter II
By St. Ambrose

This treatise has a favourable beginning, since it is the birthday of the holy Virgin Agnes, of whose name, modesty, and martyrdom St. Ambrose speaks in commendation, but more especially of her age, seeing that she, being but twelve years old, was superior to terrors, promises, tortures, and death itself, with a courage wholly worthy of a man.

And my task begins favourably, that since to-day is the birthday of a virgin, I have to speak of virgins, and the treatise has its beginning from this discourse. It is the birthday of a martyr, let us offer the victim. It is the birthday of St. Agnes, let men admire, let children take courage, let the married be astounded, let the unmarried take an example. But what can I say worthy of her whose very name was not devoid of bright praise? In devotion beyond her age, in virtue above nature, she seems to me to have borne not so much a human name, as a token of martyrdom, whereby she showed what she was to be.

But I have that which may assist me. The name of virgin is a title of modesty. I will call upon the martyr, I will proclaim the virgin. That panegyric is long enough which needs no elaboration, but is within our grasp. Let then labour cease, eloquence be silent. One word is praise enough. This word old men and young and boys chant. No one is more praiseworthy than he who can be praised by all There are as many heralds as there are men, who when they speak proclaim the martyr.

She is said to have suffered martyrdom when twelve years old. The more hateful was the cruelty, which spared not so tender an age, the greater in truth was the power of faith which found evidence even in that age. Was there room for a wound in that small body? And she who had no room for the blow of the steel had that wherewith to conquer the steel. But maidens of that age are unable to bear even the angry looks of parents, and are wont to cry at the pricks of a needle as though they were wounds. She was fearless under the cruel hands of the executioners, she was unmoved by the heavy weight of the creaking chains, offering her whole body to the sword of the raging soldier, as yet ignorant of death, but ready for it. Or if she were unwillingly hurried to the altars, she was ready to stretch forth her hands to Christ at the sacrificial fires, and at the sacrilegious altars themselves, to make the sign of the Lord the Conqueror, or again to place her neck and both her hands in the iron bands, but no band could enclose such slender limbs.

A new kind of martyrdom! Not yet of fit age for punishment but already ripe for victory, difficult to contend with but easy to be crowned, she filled the office of teaching valour while having the disadvantage of youth. She would not as a bride so hasten to the couch, as being a virgin she joyfully went to the place of punishment with hurrying step, her head not adorned with plaited hair, but with Christ. All wept, she alone was without a tear. All wondered that she was so readily prodigal of her life, which she had not yet enjoyed, and now gave up as though she had gone through it. Every one was astounded that there was now one to bear witness to the Godhead, who as yet could not, because of her age, dispose of herself. And she brought it to pass that she should be believed concerning God, whose evidence concerning man would not be accepted. For that which is beyond nature is from the Author of nature.

What threats the executioner used to make her fear him, what allurements to persuade her, how many desired that she would come to them in marriage! But she answered: "It would be an injury to my spouse to look on any one. as likely to please me. He who chose me first for Himself shall receive me. Why are you delaying, executioner? Let this body perish which can be loved by eyes which I would not." She stood, she prayed, she bent down her neck. You could see the executioner tremble, as though he himself. had been condemned, and his right hand shake, his face grow pale, as he feared the peril of another, while the maiden feared not for her own. You have then in one victim a twofold martyrdom, of modesty and of religion. She both remained a virgin and she obtained martyrdom.

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