I have to admit that the story of St. Agnes troubles me. A young Christian girl of maybe thirteen years old in the Roman Empire, ordered to sacrifice to pagan gods and lose her virginity by rape; threatened and tortured when she would only make the sign of the cross at the temple of Minerva. Offered a way out through marriage to a Roman young man, she refused and was martyred.
It’s a brutal story, from a brutal time. But what bothers me about it most, I think, is the way it calls into questions ideas around maturity and adulthood. Could a thirteen year old really understand the choice in front of her? Could she have a genuine, living faith enough to let her freely choose martyrdom, or did she choose it out of pressure from family or lack of real alternatives? What sort of life would she have had, if she had chosen to submit? And what does it say about the church that a child martyr has been held up as a role model for an adult faith?
I don’t have well-formed answers. But I find myself reaching in two directions as I ponder these things. Firstly, Agnes’ story reminds me that our notions of childhood are a cultural construct, and that other cultures in other times have expected much younger people to take on significant adult responsibilities and roles; and that often those young people have risen to and even exceeded expectations. I wonder whether sometimes we underestimate the young people in our midst? Do we too easily slip into looking down on them and, instead of seeing their potential, limiting it because of our own notions of maturity?
But on the other hand I wonder about something darker. I wonder about the tendency the church has sometimes had to see virtue where much more complex psychological forces were in play. I wonder whether Agnes is an entirely helpful exemplar in the Christian life today. I wonder whether stories such as hers encourage a view of virtue – especially women’s or children’s virtue – as accepting the violence of others, even to the point of death, rather than challenging the unjust social structures which give rise to and legitimate that violence.
Many questions to which I don’t have answers. But I am confident that they are questions worth pondering. I think it is also valuable for us to ponder together, as a church community, and to share our questions, insights and tentative answers, so that we can learn from our history even as we gratefully leave some aspects of it in the past.