Saturday, March 12, 2011
Agnes was the daughter of a Roman noble. She was very beautiful. Many men lusted after her. But she was pure. Though her parents were not Christians, her nurse, a family slave, was, and it was through this slave--through this shimmering sliver of a Providential design plotted through the motions of an uncaring empire that bought and traded in human lives, through this more-than-mother who loved her dearly despite being the daughter of her masters--that Agnes learned of Jesus and the Gospel and became a Christian. She dedicated her life, her blood, her virginity to Christ. But Phocus, the son of the Roman prefect Sempronius, fell in love with her. He offered her riches; he tried to seduce her. She refused them, refused him. She told him that she already have a Lover, and that this Lover was a better, more powerful, and more rich Lover than he could ever be. Rejected, and enraged, Phocus left. Lust consumed him. He could think of nothing else. But when he discovered that she was a Christian, he was elated and thought he'd found a way to possess her. Diocletian was emperor at the time, and he had ordered the persecution and execution of Christians. Christian blood flowed through the empire, choking the ground, crying out to Heaven. Phocus, assuming she would much rather give herself to him than face an empire's wrath, denounced Agnes as a Christian to his father, and she was brought before him to answer the charge. She freely professed her faith. Sempronius then gave her the ultimatum: make sacrifices in a Roman temple or be executed. She was steady; she did not hesitate. She chose execution. She would rather bow her head to an executioner's sword than to a pagan god. She was condemned. But a Roman law stood in the way, apparently. Virgins could not be executed. It was considered inhumane. Sempronius therefore, in deference to the law, ordered her stripped naked and dragged through the streets to a brothel, where she could be raped in preparation for her execution. It would not be right, after all, to execute an innocent, and so such would be this empire's tender observations of decency. This happened. This is a thing that happens in this world. But it did not happen as Sempronius imagined. As she was being dragged naked through the street, her hair miraculously grew and provided a natural covering and protection for the virgin from the eyes of all those who watched. And there were many who watched. She was thrown into the brothel. An angel appeared and gave Agnes a garment to cover herself. God does not abandon His beloved; the shape of His comforts and tokens of His love, however, are not often recognized in this world. Because this world means something else to Him than it does to us. And so though He may not spare us the trials we must face, His grace is the sort that allows us to face those trials with dignity, knowing that a loving bridegroom stands ready to embrace us at their end. Grateful, she wrapped herself tight, terrified but steadfast in her faith. Men lined up to rape her. Word spreads quickly, especially when youth and beauty are being offered up, and there is never a shortage of people willing to do this, not then and not now. But when they were admitted into the brothel and saw her... well, accounts vary. Some say that any man who looked at her was immediately struck blind; others say that they simply looked at her and did not dare to touch her, so beautiful, so pure, and so young as she was.
She was very young, after all. She was only twelve years old. Entire empires die for things like this. Worlds will burn for things like this.
The men began to flee the brothel. Phocus, who was outside, mocked them, ridiculed them for their weakness, for not being able to rape a small, defenseless child of twelve. See, it was not enough for him that she be violated before being executed; he did not simply want to find a way to overcome a bothersome law; he desired that all the filth of a dying empire penetrate every part of her and erase her intolerable purity. Having once loved her--loved her, that is, in the vulgar, contracted, animal way which was all a mind like his was capable of--and having been once rejected by her, that love turned, and he now desired that no such thing as her exist. So he himself entered the brothel. He would rape away that purity; he himself would smear his stain onto her innocence. He pushed through the crowds of fleeing men and entered the chamber where she was kept and when he saw her he was struck immediately dead. Just like that. But Agnes, though she had no worldly reason to, prayed for him and he revived. I imagine he must have been terrified. I imagine he could not look at her. Sempronius could, however, and he immediately accused her of witchcraft and decided they should dispense with the prohibition on executing virgins. Though Phocus now pleaded with his father to spare her life (perhaps because he, like Pilate's wife, now knew that something awful was happening), she was nevertheless tied to a stake to be burned alive. And here again accounts vary. Some say the wood would not burn no matter how hard they tried to light it; others that it did burn but that the flames refused to touch her, that they actually bent away from her as if the very elements of this world recognized and reverenced her purity, so that she stood--inviolate and inconsumable--within a crown of flames. Sempronius was enraged; Phocus, again I imagine at least, must have fled and spent the rest of his life contemplating the meaning of what he had witnessed. But maybe he did not do this. Maybe he remained insensible, the terror of his encounter with the Divinity through the intercessions of that Divinity's beloved bride gradually fading until it was only an uncomfortable memory, a shining possibility of redemption now reduced to a cancer in his soul. But I do not know what happened to him; I can only imagine. But at the scene of the burning, the living Agnes, the young girl, the betrothed of a Great Lover, would not die; her flesh that man could not touch was not touched either by flame. Eventually, as Sempronius's rage, and probably his terror, increased, and as the mobs that had gathered to cheer on and witness the utter destruction of a young girl gradually began to understand that something terrible, something awful, something holy and beyond their comprehension was happening, and as their long-dead and now too-late pity finally turned towards the innocent girl, the Roman officer in charge, probably fearing that Sempronius's rage would fall on him, drew his sword and cut off her head. And so Agnes died. A child of twelve was martyred for her faith--a faith that could not be staggered, could not be humiliated, could not be unsteadied, and above all could not be touched. And from this dark world and into the arms of her Great Lover she soared.
At her trial Agnes said "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."