John Donne vs. Agnes of Rome

February 22, 2013
Tim Schenck

We finish up the first full week of Lent Madness with a match-up between a 17th-century priest and poet and a young, early 4th-century martyr. John Donne made it into the official bracket by defeating T.S. Eliot in the final play-in round known as the Great Poetry Slam. By winning that battle, Donne proclaimed to the world that he would not be, in the parlance of March Madness, "one and Donne."

Yesterday, in the biggest blow-out to date, Hilda of Whitby crushed Samuel Seabury to advance to the Round of the Saintly Sixteen. The only drama of the day was whether Hilda would be able to attain the magic blowout number of 80% of the vote. Samuel Seabury was able to stave off ignominy in this regard but still lost 79% to 21%.

Oh, and the other intrigue yesterday was whether we'd be able to make it to 1,000 followers on Twitter. As of this very moment @LentMadness stands at 989 followers (or, as we prefer to call them, "disciples"). Big (undetermined!) prize for our 1,000th follow.

images-1 John Donne

Rarely do great preachers, gifted writers, and esteemed Deans of Cathedrals begin life as poetic rakes who end up in prison.

Or maybe great preachers are great because they lived a life of passion, complexity, and redemption. John Donne certainly did. He was born to a Roman Catholic family, but struggled with his faith in his early life before converting to Anglicanism. He attended several institutions of higher learning without attaining a degree, womanized ladies in courts all over Europe, lived off the wealth of patrons, and wrote poetry. He was spiritual but not religious...and wrote poetry. His poetry was ground-breaking literature of the day with its images and ideas that connected seemingly unrelated things together like a parasite and sex (The Flea).

Donne eventually began a promising political career. His  intelligence and charm opened doors, and he sat in Elizabeth’s last Parliament. Until he followed his heart and married Ann More -- a marriage that was opposed by all parties except the woman and man to be married. They married. Donne got sacked and landed in prison...along with the priest who married them. He was eventually released from prison, and he and Ann, by all accounts, lived happily married until her death.

As Donne’s life became more settled, his questions of faith became more complex. His poetry during this time spoke to the intricacies of human nature and the demands of the Gospel. He also wrote satire, pointedly observing the hypocrisy of government and church practices. He challenged Christians to think for themselves, not blindly to believe what someone in authority told them. He writes (translated slightly), “You won’t be saved on the Day of Judgement by saying Harry or Martin told  you to believe this. God wants to know what YOU thought and believed.”

King James wanted him to become a priest so badly that he declared to all of England that Donne could not be hired except in the church. Donne was ordained in 1615 and soon became known as a great preacher in an age of great preachers, in an era of the Anglican church when preaching was a form of spiritual devotion, an intellectual exercise, and dramatic entertainment.

Donne’s legacy of poetry; of life lived fully and recklessly, with forgiveness and redemption; a life lived in the freedom of human passion and the obedience of devotion to the Gospel; and a life of questioning faith are all great legacies. Perhaps, though, in his own writing, his legacy of community is his greatest. Donne recognized that there is no belonging to a faith community without truly belonging. We are all connected in God one to another. As he writes, “All that she [the Church] does belongs to all.... Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

One Lord, one faith, one baptism. We are all one in God. Amen and Amen.

Collect for John Donne
Almighty God, the root and fountain of all being: Open our eyes to see, with your servant John Donne, that whatever has any being is a mirror in which we may behold you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

-- Laurie Brock

stagnesAgnes of Rome

Agnes was one of the early martyrs of the church whose story of faith and perseverance through persecution continues to inspire us today.

Agnes was a victim of one of the random persecutions in Rome that occurred during the first three centuries of Christianity. In the year 304, Diocletian, one of the most brutal and thorough of Roman emperors, launched a round of persecutions aimed at totally wiping out Christianity.

Agnes’ name means ‘pure’ in Greek, and ‘lamb’ in Latin, so perhaps she was destined for her fate, which she met when she was only 12-years-old.

Tradition tells us Agnes was born to Roman nobility in 291 and raised in a Christian family. Apparently a pagan prefect named Sempronius wished to have Agnes marry his son, but she refused. This decision condemned her to death.

However, Roman law did not permit the execution of virgins. So Sempronius had Agnes dragged through the streets naked to a brothel. There are legends that say on the way to the brothel Agnes prayed, grew hair all over her body, thus clothing her. Then, at the brothel, God continued to protect her: any man who attempted to rape her was struck blind. Agnes was finally led out to a stake to be burned, but the wood would not catch fire. That’s when the officer in charged killed her with a sword.

A few days after Agnes' death, a girl named Emerentiana was found praying by her tomb. This girl claimed to be the daughter of Agnes' wet nurse, thus her foster sister. Emerentiana refused to leave the place, and reprimanded the pagans for killing Agnes. She was stoned to death and later canonized.

Today, Agnes' bones are conserved in the church of Sant'Agnese fuori le mura in Rome, which is built over the catacomb that housed Agnes' tomb. Her skull is preserved in a side chapel in the church of Sant'Agnese in Agone in Rome's Piazza Navona.

The anniversary of Agnes’ martyrdom is marked on January 21. She is regarded as the patron saint of young, unmarried girls. In fact, there is a folk belief that if a girl goes to bed without dinner on the eve of St. Agnes’ Day, she will dream that night about her husband to be.

Collect for Agnes of Rome
Almighty and everlasting God, you choose those whom the world deems powerless to put the powerful to shame: Grant us so to cherish the memory of your youthful martyr Agnes, that we may share her pure and steadfast faith in you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

-- Chris Yaw


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187 comments on “John Donne vs. Agnes of Rome”

  1. Agnes may be a martyr here, remarkable and inspiring. But John Donne and I are old friends; he is one of my great spiritual companions and has inspired me constantly since the 12th grade when I first read the Flea. Perhaps because there are many points where our lives seem to have taken similar turns, but Donne is the only poet to whom I've ever taken such a shine. His works, both poetical and homiletical, continue to inspire me, and he has been quoted in my sermons more than any other man except Jesus. Maybe.

  2. Remembering we do this to learn and have fun, I stuck with Donne (as I had done before). Agnes’s story is heartbreaking and infuriating, partly because of the facts, but mostly because I didn’t know about it before now. Ignorance does not spare me indictment however. Oh well – now I know.
    But what’s done is Donne.

  3. I think so far, and quite rightly, martyrs for the faith have trumped. I think today will be an exception, and quite rightly.

      1. Wow- My Mother was Ellem M. Eckstrom born in Ingartabu, Sommoland, Sweden. She went to Duluth, Minnesota with her parents in 1913. I was babtized there in Saint Pauls. Just stepped down as Senior Warden at Saint Thoms, St. Petersburg, FL.

        I am very pleased with the Lentmadness, all sorts of great stuff that we did not know or were unwilling to study. This is a great Lent discipline. Don't give up someting, learn and apprciate the saints that made us who we are.

        Today I went not with Donne, but that is unimportant, both did good for God.

        PAX Walt Jaap

  4. I recall my high school English teacher saying Keats' "St. Agnes' Eve" had the coldest stanza in English literature, for its description of that chilly wintertime feast day. But I'll go with the one who said, "Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” This is to me the great statement of our connection as a human community.

  5. Donne is my hero!!! "He challenged Christians to think for themselves, not blindly to believe what someone in authority told them."

    1. I agree with Patsy. I also voted for Donne because it gives hope that one who was such a rake early on could end up as revered as he obviously it!

      1. I'm with Liz and Patsy. Donne is very complex and speaks to many people in many ways on many levels.

  6. I know that Mr. Donne is going to win, but I had to vote for poor Agnes -- she's my birth Saint! Go Agnes!

      1. Whichever of today's saints wins, Luke will most likely trounce him/her in the Saintly 16 round... With her history of fortitude in the face of torture, had to go with Agnes for this fate!

  7. Voted for Donne. But Agnes has the better Collect. Why does someone who lived by words not have a better one.

      1. Read that Donne collect again....I think it is one of the best. The desire to see God in any being might have prevented the horrible death of Agnes.

  8. Another difficult choice but must go with John Donne for his literary contributions, which, hopefully, still speak to many.

  9. The stained glass window for Agnes is beautiful and Donne's picture must have been from his rakish period and is not very appealing. However, the case for Donne is overwhelming, much more so than in the play-in round, where I went for Tallis! He clearly embraced life to it's fullest, a life of vibrant color and contrast, led to great wisdom, wisdom that enlightens us across the ages. Agnes has no sparkle for me, except in the stained glass. (Maybe I'm tired of the martyred young girl stories.). Hence John wins and my voting is Donne.

    I was hoping Hilda would reach that 80% mark. Disappointed she didn't. Would have liked that to be taken by a woman. I think John D. will carry this reward!

  10. I remember reading Donne as a senior at an all girls Catholic High School. My senior English teacher included his work, pointing out that he was a tormented soul who "reluctantly" gave up his faith. I think that was the only way they would be allowed to include him in the curriculum..I found his writing exquisite and still do.

  11. This is a first for me - not particularly inspired by Donne and the life of Agnes seems to be based mostly on myth - Hmm..what to do!

  12. I found Agnes' story heartbreaking and infuriating, but it's hard to vote against anyone who believes "We are all connected in God one to another," and writes, "All that she [the Church] does belongs to all…. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” Doing my part to make sure he isn't "one and Donne"!

  13. Really? Donne up by 38 points???? Let's beat the bushes!! All those Agnes wannabes...oh, right...martyr...well, Agnes died for her beliefs, sitting in English poetry class made you want to die because of Donne's. Just kidding...

  14. Once again, I find myself siding with the underdog. Not that I don't love Donne (just as I venerate yesterday's blow-out winner). But Agnes is, for me, a marvelous icon for every girl who makes the radical (and often fatal) move of living the truth that her body belongs to her and to God, not to anyone else. Myth may have become attached to her story, but the kernel at the center is true: she refused to be chattel, and was killed for it. Girls and women all over the world can be inspired by her grace-filled example.

    1. I have a 12-year-old daughter. You clinched it for me. In this culture, it is so hard to make your way through your teens and 20s and emerge sconfident and steadfast in your faith, sensuality and womanhood. These kinds of role models for young women are rare. I wish I had had one like Agnes.

  15. Just Google "Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God" and see if you can possibly vote other than for John Donne.

  16. Man, this is a difficult one! But in light of all the discussion of violence against women all over the world these days, I believe St. Agnes can inspire us to fight to make people aware of the injustice committed against women every day. Still, in our age, the first sexual experience of some 30 percent of women was forced (according to the WHO)! Though I agree wholeheartedly with Donne's beliefs and sayings, I am going with the feminist cause today.

  17. Meditation XVII is so famous that even the waverers would be moved if they read it in its entirety. Donne's poetry, and my long familiarity with it, clinch my vote, even though I would vote for Lucy in almost any other circumstance. Thisis a hard contest.

  18. O sacrificial lamb, thou art so sweet,
    all legend-clothed in fast-grown hair alone,
    yet wielded words wring Grace from iamb's beat:
    something there is that loves good works well Donne.

    1. I see it as, really, John Donne? A man who had the opportunity to love life to the hilt as a young man, the opportunity to be educated at the best schools without ever getting a degree, pampered by the nobility, then marries the woman of his dreams and marries, is blessed with many children. Yes, he wrote great poetry and he was "forced" to be ordained. But sweet Agnes, she never had a chance to experience anything in life. She and her dear foster sister deserve at least this small acknowledgement of their lives. Sigh...

  19. Another tough one, you are really playing with us, aren't you? Agnes wins simply for the purity, but I went with Donne. It makes me think I can be a saint(small s).

  20. Another toughie. I knew the story of St. Agnes, and it gives me chills to read it again. But I didn't know the "rest of the story" about John Donne, a favorite of mine from my poetery class my senior year. Voted for Donne, and am hoping that this isn't a lopsided affair.