The Carmelite Review – A Roman Lily

detail of the Saint Agnes of Rome stained glass window, Saint Joseph's Cathedral, Macon, Georgia, USA; artist unknown; photographed by the author, summer 2003On the twenty-first of January, one year after Diocletian issued his first edict against the Christians, fanatical hatred crushed out of existence a flower, the perfume of whose wounded petals has been wafted down to us throughout the ages. Time and nations powerless to diminish the pristine sweetness of its being, today, in every part of the globe, loving hearts confidently seek her aid, and the tender voices of little children joyously sing the praises of the little Roman maiden, Saint Agnes – the Lily of Jesus.

Although only thirteen years of age, when she bent her head to receive the executioner’s cruel stroke, Agnes had lived no uneventful life. Rich and belonging to an ancient, noble family, she had passed her days surrounded by all the pomp, splendor, and comforts of extravagant Rome.

Her parents were Christians, but did not dare proclaim their faith, and no pagan suspected it. Like other Romans of wealth, they entertained largely, and so it was an easy matter for Christian friends to assemble at their house to assist at the most consoling sacrifice of the mass, there daily offered, and to fortify their souls with the Body and Blood of their Crucified Leader. Her biographers tell us that Agnes was especially devout at these secret gatherings, and that after her first Holy Communion she begged to be allowed to receive our Lord every day.

No wonder, lingering in such an atmosphere, feeding upon such priceless food, that her heart turned from earthly pleasures and companions. The radiance of a pure soul shone from her eyes and perfected a singularly beautiful fare. Jesus was constantly in her thoughts, and this entire forgetfulness of self combined with her personal charms to produce an ideally graceful girl. Her beauty was the theme of every tongue, and no entertainment seemed complete without her.

Agnes was her parents’ only child, and as in those days a girl assumed social duties at an earlier age than is usual with us, she was frequently seen at banquets and other assemblies. A characteristic simplicity of dress made her a striking contrast to the richly adorned Romans, and many wondered why her robes were always of the purest white. But Christian friends knew that this style of dress was chosen as the most appropriate for the child-spouse of Jesus; and with many a prayerful sigh and anxious fluttering of the heart did they witness the surprise and chagrin expressed on every side as Agnes persistently refused all offers of marriage. Her rejected suitors determined to discover her reasons for pursuing a course at that time so unusual. They studied her face and conversation, watched her actions, followed her stealthily wherever she went, and finally discovered the truth—Agnes was a Christian. She was confronted with the charge and entreated to abandon the practice of her religion. They urged her to marry and become a leader in the gay Roman society she was so well fitted to grace. The child firmly refused, was reported to the governor, rudely torn from her happy home, and thrust into a filthy prison filled with hardened criminals.

The governor anticipated no difficulty in making the child offer incense to the gods, and being irritated at the fruitlessness of his persuasions, delivered her into the hands of rude soldiers and an infuriated rabble – loathsome temptations, cruel blows, bitter words, and the most subtle flattery were all powerless to alter her purpose.

The little Agnes unceasingly called upon Jesus to protect her body and soul from their relentless fury, and her cries met a loving response. Exasperated at her courage, the soldiers redoubled their torments and then threw her again into prison.

Another night in dismal confinement, and again, calmly beautiful, Agnes appeared before the judge. A murmur of disapproval could be heard in the crowded room as she entered, attended by a strong guard. Pagan mothers shuddered as they looked upon their dear ones companioned in such a place, and upon such a charge. Christian men and women silently wept and prayed God to grant the dear child continued courage and confidence in His love. The tribunal was determined to break the strong will that upheld her, but Agnes resisted everything, and died for Jesus. As Saint Jerome expresses it – she overcame the cruelty of the tyrant and the tenderness of her age, and crowned the glory of chastity with that of martyrdom. When the baptismal waters were being poured upon her head, was it a prophetic vision of her sad but glorious death that suggested to her parents the name of Agnes, whose Greek significance is caste, and its Latin meaning lamb? truthfulness, and we have a woman whose very presence is a continual blessing.”

What a flood of serious thoughts fill the mind as the memory fondly dwells upon the great faith and heroic virtues of this child-martyr. Her great courage reminds one of those words of Cardinal Gibbons: “The Lord would have a woman gentle and good; but He loves a woman to be valiant as well. To those qualities add purity and truthfulness, and we have a woman whose very presence is a continual blessing.”

To see those qualities so fully developed in a child of thirteen, shows of what a soul is capable who puts her trust in God. And in Saint Agnes, Catholics, especially Catholic girls, have an example which is perfectly possible to imitate. Her temptations and many of her trials were the same as their temptations and trials. She overcame them – do they intend to? In attending any religious exercise outside of her own home, Saint Agnes ran great risks. Living in a pagan city, and in a time of savage persecution, she nevertheless kept her soul pure, and firmly guarded her faith. Surely we, who live in peaceful countries, enjoying freedom of worship, can do as much. For two days and nights shocking torments and cruel death stared her in the face, but she looked on them unflinchingly. No one heard her call piteously for a priest to absolve her from her sins. She was always prepared for death, and when God called her, Saint Agnes went to Him with confidence and love.

After her execution, friends of Saint Agnes reverently buried her sacred remains near the Nomentan Road, a short distance from Rome. During the time of Constantine the Great, a church was built over the spot, and in it her relics repose in a rich silver shrine, the gift of Pope Paul V.

This church and the memory of its lovely namesake are especially honored by the Holy Father, who, accompanied by many ecclesiastical dignitaries, and the students of the Propaganda, pays a solemn visit to this celebrated shrine every year. It is here, too, on the Feast of Saint Agnes, January 21, that two white lambs are blessed at high mass by the Abbot of Saint Peter’s Chains. These lambs are then carried to the Pope, who also blesses them. The Capuchin nuns of Saint Lawrence then receive them, and with the wool the nuns make the Palliums worn by all archbishops. Inside the walls of Rome is another church, dedicated to Saint Agnes. This church is superbly decorated, and is rich in rare marbles and ancient mosaics. Here the feast is joyfully celebrated. One pleasant feature of the ceremony is the custom of sprinkling the entire floor of the church with evergreen box.

Eliza Allen Starr tells us that next to the representations of the Apostles and Evangelists, no saint appears so early in pictures as Saint Agnes – that her effigy, with her name inscribed below it, was found on the glass and earthen wear used by the Christians in the fourth century. In early pictures Saint Agnes is always represented carrying a palm in one hand, and sometimes she is crowned with olive. Later artists, however, appropriately represent her accompanied by a lamb, either lying in her arms or standing beside her.

Not only have the great artists of the church vied with one another in honoring this lovely girl, but the greatest doctors and saints of the church have resounded her praises and imitated her virtues. The great Saint Ambrose and Saint Austin were noted for their devotion to her, and Thomas à Kempis chose her for his especial patron. When the author of “The Imitation” that most profound and consoling book, petitioned for the favor of Saint Agnes, surely we could do no better than follow his example. None of us will likely die for our faith. Our privilege is to live for it. Faith will shine with added lustre, boys and girls become better men and women, if we persevere in trying to reproduce in ourselves the heroic virtues of our Lily of Jesus.

– text taken from the article “A Roman Lily” in the January 1893 edition of The Carmelite Review magazine, authored by Martha Murray