Saints Agnes and Cecilia of Rome, Martyrs
In the calendar of the church we remember today two early Christian martyrs: Saint Cecilia and Saint Agnes. Saint Cecilia, as a young woman, was married. She converted to Christianity members of her own household; however in the face of the demand from the Roman government to offer sacrifice to pagan idols, a demand she refused, Cecilia was martyred year 280. Saint Agnes, a 12-year old child, was brought to a civil magistrate, before whom she refused to renounce her Christian faith, and she, too, was martyred, this in year 304. Saint Ambrose of Milan wrote about Agnes that “all were astounded that she should come forward as a witness to God when she was still too young to be her own mistress.” The various accounts of Cecilia and Agnes’ martyrdom are appalling, which show something of the impact of the life and death these two young women made upon their contemporaries and succeeding generations.
The word “courage” comes to mind in remembering martyrs such as Cecilia and Agnes. Our word courage comes from the Latin word for heart, cor, then the Old French, corage. Courage emanates from the heart, the heart symbolizing the essence of a person. We hear Jesus say, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid.”[i] But courage is not something to work on. Becoming courageous is not a spiritual calisthenic. Courage comes as a byproduct, a characteristic or an action which is quite invisible to the person themselves. I have never once heard someone described as having done something courageous who sees this about themselves. Courage is in the eye of the beholder, not in the awareness of the actor.
The Feast of St. Agnes
Today the church tells the story of Agnes. The story of Agnes is a dark story, and Christians have been telling it for 1600 years. Agnes was a beautiful girl who attracted many suitors, though she rebuffed them all because she wanted to remain a virgin, and be faithful to God alone. As a result, Agnes suffered a cruel death which violated her sexuality. She was twelve years old.
So what are we to make of this story? The early church Fathers praised Agnes’ courage and chastity, and remarked upon her name, which means ’pure’ in Greek and ‘lamb’ in Latin. In the Gospel reading for today Jesus encourages us to ‘become like children,’ and perhaps what is important to us in Agnes’ story is the exemplification of a certain kind of innocence and purity of heart that Kierkegaard describes as ‘willing one thing’.
Recently, I’ve been reading Le très-bas or in its English translation, The Very Lowly by Christian Bobin. This is the first time I’ve ever read anything by this French Catholic author. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard of Christian Bobin for that matter. The Very Lowly is a biography of St. Francis of Assisi. But it isn’t like any biography I’ve ever read before. Les très bas reads more like poetry even though it’s written in prose. Honestly, it isn’t like any book I’ve ever read before.
Le très-bas is described on the book’s back cover as “exquisite and moving.” It is very much both of those things and I have found myself reading it as lectio divina. Savoring the depths of its insights as a meditative exercise while basking in its strikingly beautiful language.