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. Donne, passion, complexity and redemption... a story for our age if ever there was one. Agnes, in a world where the three words that most likely predict a death are, "It's a girl."


  2. This was the toughest day yet for a priest/poet myself I was tempted to break my daughter's heart and my usual custom of going for the girl in any coed contest. In the end though the beautiful picture of her with the lamb, just like the icon in our home of Rachel the matriarch-- a memorial of our daughter Rachel who would have been 22 today-- got Agnes my vote, pointless though it appears to be against such an Anglican hero!

    1. The writer/poet/preacher in me won out. I had to go with Donne. Of course if I had a sweet little girl like yours I would've went with Agnes. You just can't break sweet, little hearts like that.

  3. Agnes seems like somewhat of a one-trick pony, whereas Donne had a whole corpus of work and deeds. Although Agnes' story is aweful and I agree with those who commented about her inspiring those woman who were commonly treated like chattal at the time, I'm not sure how much more there can be to it. I'm going for the one who found redemption, and see what more I can learn in the later rounds.

  4. "Yes" to Donne, though Agnes' story is longer familiarity with and affaction for the poet, I find, compel me...

  5. As I get older, I find quasi-legendary stories of early martyrs just too far over the top. I vote for John Donne, whose life is well-attested and whose work continues to have an impact on Christian lives. And, besides, he had More!

  6. In John Donne's day "preaching was a form of spiritual devotion, an intellectual exercise, and dramatic entertainment." Now there is something we should work toward now! Vote Donne

  7. This was a tough one. I like that Donne led people to decide for themselves rather than blindly follow, but as the father of two daughters I had to go for the Patron Saint of girls. Agnes is looking out for my girls like I am.

  8. Agnes' story is a bit over the top for me, although I have heard horrible stories about young girls in some countries who are victimized by their families for not marrying who they are told to that makes me think there may be some truth to it. But this sentence is the one that sealed it for me for Donne: Donne recognized that there is no belonging to a faith community without truly belonging.

  9. Agnes's story is heartbreaking, but I am surprised at myself that I can't shake a little bit of resentment. Untold numbers of girls have been killed from her time to now, have been seen/used as chattel, have not been permitted to treat their bodies as their own. Why does Agnes get to be the saint? I need to pray about this, I did not expect this reaction from myself!

  10. What a bizarre matchup --yes, Lent Madness is in full throttle. But I must go with the underdog here ... any young child (I have a 14-year-old daughter) who is dragged through the streets to be raped so she can be killed because of her faith has my vote ... and I'm thinking of all those young girls in Afghanistan and other parts of the world who are so undervalued and live in fear for their lives today. It's Agnes for me!

  11. This is a heartbreaking choice - I did not know of Agnes' story and am infuriated and inspired by her refusal to let others own her body. But John Donne - I mean just wow. Reading him never fails to make me proud of being an Anglican. Still, it seems unfair to vote for him because of his writing when Agnes didn't live long enough to leave anything behind. I think I've just commented myself into voting for Agnes.

  12. Donne's poetry was the subject of a paper I did in school many decades ago,
    yet I learned more about him today than I did after having completed that project. Thank you.

  13. The Agnes story has too much mythology around it. I had to go with Donne since the historical record is better.

  14. "There is nothing that God hath established in a constant course of nature, and which therefore is done every day, but would seem a Miracle, and exercise our admiration, if it were done but once" - John Donne

  15. If it were donne when 'tis donne, then it were well it were donne quickly. What can I say? I'm a sucker for English poets.

    1. Ah, Melanie that I should see you here after many years and both of us moving away from St. Thomas! Lent Madness reunites old church members! I went with Donne as well - any "recovering Catholic" has to appreciate his encouraging words!

  16. It has to be Donne. Two statements really speak to me: "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.” and "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.” It is the wonderful mix of a personal relationship - knowing what I think and believe while understanding the corporate relationship that we are all connected and have an impact on each other.

  17. Agnes is a very timely figure. When you look at the violence against women that we are now confronting with throughout the world, she is a good symbol.

    Still Donne's body of work is terribly compelling.

  18. It was a Donne deal for me. While an English major many years ago, I came to appreciate his expression of faith through poetry. Milton was another one. I am glad my college taught the classics! Agnes of Rome is inspiring, but I went with pure unreasoned sentimentality today. So goes Lent Madness.

  19. I think both stories are inspiring, and Agnes has great meaning even if we likely conclude that she is largely or entirely myth. Nevertheless, I had to side with the confirmably true and redemptive story of Donne.

    Also, FYI, we should keep in mind what scholarship is saying about the literary style and rhetorical function of martyrdom. In a couple of weeks a church historian at Notre Dame will have her new book published, *A Myth of Persecution*. Looks like it is worth reflecting on and being challenged by:

  20. I really thought I would go with Agnes on this one. But this writer and preacher had to go with Donne in the end. I think the decision was made when I read that He wanted Christians to think for themselves. A man after my own heart.

  21. I know this is the "year of the martyr", and generally I lean toward those folks over non-martyrs, since they sacrificed more, but Agnes' hagiography is so over the top that I have to vote for a man who gave substantial intellectual and artistic contributions to the faith.

    On a totally separate note, I love that the patron saint of virgins is facing off against one of the Don Juans of the church.

  22. It's Donne for me...married as I am to Deborah Dunn...inspired by Donne's work...he was also the fave of my late-great-father-in-law John Wallace Dunn...and I lost badly yesterday voting as I did for nasty old English Loyalist Seabury without whom we would have no Episcopal church. Also...I was smacked down for my sin of pride...I was perfect going into yesterdays vote. In the words of Charlie Brown: ARRRGGGHHHH!

  23. I agree with the discomfort of the clearly mythical aspects of Agnes. John Donne is inspiring in part because of the way he was able to evolve. It seems as if all the earlier parts of his life contributed to the extraordinary passion and intelligence of his later spirituality, characterized as it was with "gladness and singleness of heart."

  24. I had to go with Agnes on this one, a timely choice in these awful days of so much violence against women. Plus, with an utterly completely sinful attitude, I'm still not over Donne smacking down T.S. Eliot...

  25. I am torn. As a lit major, I love Donne's secular and spiritual writing. But I was born in Santa Ynez! For all the girls who have felt alone and embattled, I have to go with Agnes. Surely he who wrote "no man (one) is an island" would understand

    1. I get it, Michelle. I voted for Donne, but the mission at Santa Ynez is really nice --- tranquil and alive.

  26. I don't think I can stand onne more Donne ponne. I would never speak ill of blessed Agnes, though one has to wonnder about the orgins of the hairy lady legend. Agnes' story must be a great encouragement to those facing violent persecution; but most of our culture needs the witness of one who can communicate the Gospel with insight & beauty. Round to Donne.