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


John Donne vs. Agnes of Rome

  • John Donne (63%, 2,523 Votes)
  • Agnes of Rome (37%, 1,496 Votes)

Total Voters: 4,017

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

  1. Although my grandmother was named Agnes, and I liked her a lot, I am voting for John Donne. He wrote good poems, and his sermons are good reads. Try them! Besides, before he came to religion, he was wild and sensual. Meaning: There's hope for everybody.

  2. I finally went with Donne, based on his Christmas sermon 0f 1640 "THE AIRE IS NOT so full of Moats, of Atomes, as the Church is of Mercies; and as we can suck in no part of aire, but we take in those Moats, those Atomes; so here in the Congregation we cannot suck in a word from the preacher, we cannot speak, we cannot sigh a prayer to God, but that that whole breath and aire is made of mercy. "

    1. OK, Deacon Alicia, you clinched the deal with "that whole breath and aire is made of mercy." While Agnes's story is indeed chilling, she was nowhere near the only young woman martyred because she wouldn't marry Daddy's choice. There's only "onne" (Sorry, Roodrunner!) Donne.

  3. In the words of Samuel Johnson, today's matchup of Donne versus Agnes would seem "the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together . . . "

    Had to go with Donne as much for the sheer beauty of his writing as for his fierce and uncompromising intellect.

  4. A "womanizer" paired against a virgin dragged to a brothel to be defiled before death...this IS madness.

  5. I think that the stories of the saints whether partially true or fully true are inspiring. I think that Agnes is a timely story today with the lack of respect for women in many countries.

  6. “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
    ― John Donne, No Man Is An Island

  7. Some of us still believe that preaching can be "a form of spiritual devotion, an intellectual exercise, and dramatic entertainment." Not that it's likely to get me canonized...

  8. This was a hard one as both saints have redeeming qualities. Donne seems the most likely winner because of his belief of personal thinking.

  9. I wonder how many young girls Donne encountered in his wild days of passion and entitlement? For all the girls who ever were part of the 30%, I vote for Agnes.

  10. I'm gonna have to stop playing if the matchups stay this hard--young female martyr vs priest/poet/preacher...though martyrdom is prophetic witness in its own right, I've cast my vote for the preacher, as so many prophetic preachers have influenced my life. Donne deal.

  11. Those that had trouble voting for Anges because of the mytical, over the top stories of her should remember another quote from Donne, "Reason is our soul's left hand, Faith our right."

  12. My head says John Donne, the rogue poet and priest, but my heart says St. Agnes, namesake of my hometown. Gotta go with the home team this time, but will be fine with the outcome either way.

  13. Donne deal and a little too much drama about Agnes...too over the top. maybe a sexist viewpoint but some martyrs tales are too too!

  14. I was all set to vote for Agnes the martyr. But after reading Donne's bio., especially the "He was spiritual but not religious" which speaks so well to the changing nature of church and religion in our own day, I changed my mind. Here is one who could well speak to us as well as Brian McLaren or Diana Butler Bass. I think he might understand well our modern struggles of faith and religion. And, since I have not read this one yet.....
    Git'er Donne.

  15. Donne is one of the most profoundly spiritual writers I've read. He trumps stories about a child of the 300's enduring an unlikely scenario.

  16. Agnes had a hard go, regardless of the mythical aspects of her story. She was a faithful kid abused and murdered by vicious adults. Donne was seducer (not a rapist) in his youth, but matured into a great writer and preacher whose works have the power to change hearts and maybe convince vicious adults that anyone's death diminshes them, virginal or not.

  17. Although I am really intrigued by the possibility of someone spontaneously growing a hair coat, I am taken today by the panache of Rev. Donne and a royal decree that he may only be employed by the Church! He strikes me as a reformed Jack Sparrow.

  18. My favorite Lent Hymn (140) in Hymnal 1982 (with his own pun on his own name at the end):

    Wilt thou forgive that sin, where I begun,
    which is my sin, though it were done before?
    Wilt thou forgive those sins through which I run,
    and do run still, though still I do deplore?
    When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
    for I have more.

    Wilt thou forgive that sin, by which I won
    others to sin, and made my sin their door?
    Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did not shun
    a year or two, but wallowed in a score?
    When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
    for I have more.

    I have a sin of fear that when I've spun
    my last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
    swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
    shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore.
    And having done that, thou hast done,
    I fear no more.