St. Agnes spared tortures by her angel

Jul 19th, 2021 • 7 min

From Life of St. Agnes, Virgin and Martyr, page 54:

The sentence had been spoken in a frenzy of vindictive passion, and straightway the shameless ruffians rushed forward to execute the orders of Symphronius. Rough hands are laid on Agnes to prepare her for the ignominious journey through the streets of Rome.

The maiden’s soul must have been transfixed with horror, but her constancy remained unshaken. In her countenance she betrayed no trace of her pain; nor did she waver from those sentiments which she had triumphantly expressed to the Prefect.

Her trust was not in vain. The barbarous order was carried out to the letter. The delicate and noble handmaid of God was publicly disrobed, but simultaneously her hair, by the power of God, descended and became a veil for her holy modesty, and the innocent maiden was spared a torture more bitter than death.

Pope St. Damasus says her long flowing hair clothed her even as her own garments. The miracle might have warned off a less bloodthirsty and impure crowd, but they who had assisted at the trial, and had taken a morbid delight in the sentence, were not to be so easily balked of their evil sport.

The public crier headed the procession, announcing to all the disgrace of the Roman virgin: Agnes, the virgin, found guilty of blasphemy against the gods, is condemned to the house of infamy. An ancient tradition in Rome points out the spot in which our saint was exposed to the lustful fury of her persecutors. The place is now marked by a church raised to the honour of the holy virgin.

The Romans of the period of which we write were given up entirely to games and sensual pleasures. To satisfy their thirst for diversion of every kind the city was crowded with places of amusement—the circus, the theatre, the amphitheatre and arena. The Circus of Alexander, situated in the Foro Agonale, was one of the largest and most frequented.

These places of amusement had nearly always their accompanying places of ill-fame. In many instances the underground cells were used for sinful excesses, and here fallen women gave themselves up to their abandoned trade, making a sordid living out of licentious frequenters of the public games.

It was in one of these repulsive cells that St. Agnes was conducted, to be handed over, a helpless victim, to the profligacy of young libertines. Scarcely was she thrust into this den of vice when a new miracle was wrought to preserve her. She had told the judge that an angel of light was her guardian, and here in her helplessness her words were proved true. In visible form the spirit appeared, shedding around a light which forbade any evil hand to be laid upon the virgin or evil eye to gaze upon her.

Agnes’s first thought was to give herself up to prayer, to thanksgiving, and to supplication for yet further protection in her apparently hopeless state. And whilst she prayed she beheld before her a vesture of snowy whiteness, with which she clothed herself once more, and, overjoyed, burst forth into a prayer of gratitude:

“I give Thee thanks, Lord Jesus Christ, that, counting me as one of Thy poor servants, in Thy bounty Thou hast provided me with this vesture, woven by the hands of Thy angels” (Ambrosius, “Acts” 88).

“Virginity is crowned and rewarded” says St. Maximus of Turin, “in this very place which was designed to ruin chastity.”

Meanwhile the wonders that had occurred were bruited abroad, and a mixed crowd from all parts hurried to the Circus of Alexander to behold the object of so much talk. By the average pagan all that had occurred was put down to the witchcraft of the Christians, and Agnes was one who had been in a special way instructed in the magic art.

Amongst the crowd came the son of Symphronius, longing still to carry out his unholy desires. The maiden was now his victim, he thought, and easy to bend to his own terms. Foremost of the party of gay youths, the son of the Prefect approached the place of Agnes’s captivity. The door was thrown open to him, and he found himself standing in the midst of a glorious light, brighter than the noonday sun, which never could penetrate into those dens of darkness.

He stood for a moment startled at the wonder before him, but then, mindful of his purpose and of the boasts which his fellows would see him carry out, he moved towards Agnes; but before he could disturb her prayer he stumbled forward lifeless on the earth. An evil spirit, say the “Acts”, had seized him and strangled the life from his body, or, as Prudentius says, “An arrow of fire had pierced him through.”

In any case, the example was terrible, and in it there was for Agnes a fresh assurance of her safety. No other would dare to cross that corpse to molest her. Wondering that so long a time elapsed before the son of the Prefect came forth to tell the result of his rash purpose, his companions entered the cell, and were awestruck to find what had occurred. In a few moments the cry had passed through the crowd that the infamous girl had by her magic arts slain the Prefect’s son. The rumour soon reached the father’s ears.

Breathless, he appeared upon the scene, only to prove the truth of the report that had terrified him. His son had incurred the extreme penalty of his temerity. Pale and vindictive, he stood over the corpse of his child, and turned to Agnes.

“With your witchcraft you have been the murderer of my son. Tell me how this has happened.”

“Your son,” meekly answered Agnes, “entered with evil designs, and no sooner did he move towards me than the Angel of the Almighty struck him in my defence.”

“If that be true, then, prove to us that you are not a sorceress; you can surely pray that same great spirit to restore my son to life!”

“Think you that your faith can deserve so great a favour from God? Nevertheless, I refuse not to ask this grace in prayer, if I may be left by you and by this crowd of onlookers.”

The Prefect turned, and, unable to articulate his words, waved away the assembled onlookers, ready to comply with any condition so he might see his son restored to him.

The prayer of the Saint was heard and answered. After a short interval the prison door was opened, and the victim of his own rashness appeared, and rushed through the crowd, exclaiming:

“There is but one only God, the God of the Christians! Vain and useless are our temples, vain are the gods adored in them, vain to think they can act for themselves or for us!” With such-like protestations the youth hurried away from sight.

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