02 February 2009

'In Virtue Above Nature'—The Eve of St Agnes

On the Orthodox calendar tonight is St Agnes’s Eve. St Agnes (her name has been related to the Latin agnus, or ‘lamb’, as well as the Greek ἁγνεία, or ‘purity’) was a thirteen-year-old girl who was put to the flames and beheaded for Christ under the Emperor Diocletion in 305. According to the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine (1215):

It happed that when the friends of S. Agnes watched at her sepulchre on a 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 S. 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 I my thought. And this was the eighth day after her passion. And because of this vision holy church maketh memory of her the eight days of the feast after, which is called Agnetis secundo.

Although one wonders what Montague Summers would have to say about this story, to me it harkens forward to the wonderful Middle English poem, ‘Pearl’ (see Tolkien’s translation in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo, trans. J.R.R. Tolkien [NY: Ballantine, 1980], pp. 99-132).

Apparently there are all sorts of customs in Western Europe involving St Agnes revealing future husbands to young girls who fasted, kept silence, and performed certain rituals on the eve of her feast. One can read about these on the Fish Eaters site. There, they also link to the famous Keats poem, ‘Eve of St Agnes’, which they call ‘rather sensual’. More to the liking of the pious is this one by Tennyson:

St Agnes’ Eve

Deep on the convent-roof the snows
Are sparkling to the moon:
My breath to heaven like vapor goes:
May my soul follow soon!
The shadows of the convent-towers
Slant down the snowy sward,
Still creeping with the creeping hours
That lead me to my Lord:
Make Thou my spirit pure and clear
As are the frosty skies,
Or this first snowdrop of the year

That in my bosom lies.
As these white robes are soil’d and dark,
To yonder shining ground;
As this pale taper’s earthly spark,
To yonder argent round;
So shows my soul before the Lamb,
My spirit before Thee;
So in mine earthly house I am,
To that I hope to be.
Break up the heavens, O Lord! and far,
Thro’ all yon starlight keen,
Draw me, thy bride, a glittering star,
In raiment white and clean.

He lifts me to the golden doors;
The flashes come and go;
All heaven bursts her starry floors,
And strows her lights below,
And deepens on and up! the gates
Roll back, and far within
For me the Heavenly Bridegroom waits,
To make me pure of sin.
The Sabbaths of Eternity,
One Sabbath deep and wide—
A light upon the shining sea—
The Bridegroom with his bride!

(Alfred Lord Tennyson, Poems of Tennyson, ed. Jerome H. Buckley [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958], pp. 89-90.)

In his treatise ‘Concerning Virgins’, I.ii.5 (available here), St Ambrose of Milan writes of St Agnes:

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.

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