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Twain Meeting

Carl Sommer directs our attention to Sandro Magister’s discussion of the latest developments in Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, noting that the discussion “appears to focus on Clement of Rome’s intervention in Corinth, the precise meaning of Ignatius of Antioch’s designation of Rome as ‘first in love,’ and exactly what Cyprian of Carthage thought of Rome’s primacy.” These are issues that Carl himself discussed at some length in his book We Look for a Kingdom.

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Agnes Day

Today’s saint, Agnes of Rome, is long overdue for a revival. Why? She was probably the most revered female martyr of the early Church — outstanding in a field that included Blandina and Perpetua, among others. St. Jerome was not a man easily impressed, but of today’s saint, his near-contemporary, he wrote: “Every people, whatever their tongue, praise the name of Saint Agnes.” Prudentius wrote a long poem and a hymn in her honor. Ambrose extolled her as the model virgin. Augustine praised her. Damasus memorialized her in verse. Her name means lamb, and in art she often appears holding a lamb.

At least one modern historian holds that her martyrdom was the tipping point in the long term of Diocletian’s persecution. It was with the brutal, legal murder of this young girl that the tide of opinion began to turn among Rome’s pagans. With this act they realized they had become something they didn’t want to be; and that moment’s repugnance may have been the beginning of their healing.

Agnes was twelve or thirteen when she was denounced as a Christian. A beautiful girl from a noble family, she had reached the age when she could be married. She turned away her suitors, however, explaining that she had consecrated her virginity to Jesus Christ. It was likely one of her jilted suitors who turned her in.

Agnes knew that her martyrdom was likely. She faced the judge fearlessly, even when he brought out the instruments of torture that could be applied to her. She was unmoved. Knowing how much the girl prized her virginity, the judge condemned her to work in a brothel. She was stripped of her clothing, but even the debauched Romans couldn’t bear to look upon her. One man who did was struck blind, only to be healed by Agnes’s prayer. Agnes let down her long, blond hair to cover herself. (Some accounts say that her hair miraculously grew to veil her body.)

Having failed at another punishment, the judge turned her over to the executioner. Ambrose wrote: “At such a tender age a young girl has scarcely enough courage to bear the angry looks of her father and a tiny puncture from a needle makes her cry as if it were a wound. And still this little girl had enough courage to face the sword. She was fearless in the bloody hands of the executioner. She prayed, she bowed her head. Behold in one victim the twofold martyrdom of chastity and faith.”

She died around 304 A.D., and immediately the world knew her story. The emperor Constantine’s daughter invoked St. Agnes to cure her of leprosy; and when she was cured, she had a basilica built at Agnes’s tomb. One of my all-time favorite books is about that fourth-century church. It’s Margaret Visser’s The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery, and Meaning in an Ordinary Church. Visser has taped a feature-length documentary about St. Agnes Outside the Walls. You can view excerpts here.

Another church in Agnes’s honor stands in Rome’s lovely Piazza Navona. We’ll visit both churches on our May pilgrimage to Rome, and we’ll see the saint’s relics, which are exposed for veneration. Please consider joining us!

I visited St. Agnes’s relics in 2002 with my daughter Mary Agnes, who has already outlived her little namesake. May she equal her, at least, in virtue.

One of my great as-yet-unpublished works is a song about St. Agnes, written with Rock n Roll Hall-of-Famer Dion.

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Fortun(atus) Cookies

Here’s something sweet. BMCR sizes up a new book on a sixth-century figure, The Humblest Sparrow: The Poetry of Venantius Fortunatus. (We’re still singing VF’s hymns today.) The review begins with a word patristics students will find encouraging: “The extraordinary growth of interest in late antiquity has been among the most significant developments in the humanities over the last few decades.”

In his splendid book The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, Robert Louis Wilken spends a chapter examining the development of a distinctive Christian poetry.

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The Golden Treasury

More old gold found in another patristic-era Egyptian monastery. From Al Ahram:

An archaeological mission from the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology of Warsaw University excavating in a monastic building at Deir Al-Malah Monastery at Naqlun in Fayoum recently unearthed a decorated clay cup of Aswan production full of coins. The hoard consists of 18 gold coins and 62 fragments of coins, all of them provisionally dated to the Abbasid period.

Under the charred remains of a collapsed wall, archaeologists also uncovered a chandelier and a well-preserved oil lamp, both made of bronze.

“The whole treasure was found inside a room that seems to have been hastily abandoned during a fire,” said Woldzimierz Godlewski, head of the Polish mission. He added that the monastic complex of Naqlun was built in the early sixth century AD, while the area excavated this season dated to the seventh century and was destroyed by a massive fire in the eighth or at the beginning of the ninth century AD.

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Ghost Towns of the Fathers

The Guardian just ran a cool feature on the Byzantine “ghost towns” of the Syrian desert. I talk a bit about these in my book The Resilient Church. I also discussed them in a blog post, some time back.

Here’s a snip from the Guardian …

We walked back down the hill and set off for the region’s most famous historical site, the shrine of St Simeon Stylites. The vast ruined church, the most ambitious structure on earth in the late fifth century, contains the stump of the pillar where St Simon supposedly spent the last 36 years of his life until his death in 459AD. He was said to eat once a week, frugally of course.

Tolle, lege.