On February 5th the Latin Church celebrates the Feast of Saint Agatha, who was born in Sicily in 231. Among the more well-off of the Christian minority during the Roman times, Agatha’s parents consecrated her to God from a young age. When Quintanus, governor of Sicily under Decius, heard of her beauty, he bent the laws against Christians so that he could imprison her for her chastity. While in jail, Quintanus had her breasts chopped off, and continued to torture her in other ways.
Among the more gruesome of the early Roman virgin martyr tales, Agatha’s witness is commemorated through rather peculiar images and traditions. Most paintings and statues depict her holding a plate with two severed breasts on them. And it is often customary for Sicilian bakeries to make “minni di virgini” (virgin’s breasts) on her feast day.
These oddly sadistic snacks are reminders of the extreme lengths that these young Roman girls went to to maintain their virginity. While some may see their stories as a reflection of the repression or hysterics of the early Christian sexual ethos, I see an example of human (and even erotic) passion that goes beyond anything known in a Roman pagan orgy. In addition to challenging Roman norms of sexuality, these young virgin martyrs challenged the socio-political status quo.
But first it would be helpful to explore the origin and wider implications of Christian virginity. For this, I’ll turn to Fr. Luigi Giussani who, in the third section of his book Is it Possible to Live This Way? Vol. 3, describes virginity as a call to “bring about and complete Christ’s work in the world.” Christ calls specific people to the task of witnessing to the fact that all of existence is ordered toward Him. The virgin gives witness to this by dedicating the entirety of her life to Christ, and in this way, her life becomes an offering for the Church and world, as was Christ’s life. Giussani goes on to characterize the phenomenon of virginity as a “foretaste of eternal tenderness”: the virgin’s total unity with Christ gives the world a “taste” of what awaits those who will spend eternity with Him in Heaven, namely the promise of “the hundredfold.”
More practically, the vocation of virginity serves as a pedagogical tool for the Church. The virgin is a living sign and reminder of the fact that all immediate reactions to an object—pleasure or distaste, like or dislike—are fleeting, and cannot constitute the truth of an object. “The immediate is not true, so much so that it dies…In the morning you’re excited about your wife…in the evening, you want to kick her out.” In this way, the presence of virgins in the Church educates married couples to understand that the true nature of spousal love lies not in affirming one’s spouse as the “answer” to one’s desire, but as the companion on one’s journey toward unity with Christ—the ultimate object of desire.
The virgin makes Christ’s self-giving love a tangible and concrete reality for all of the Church and the world. Giussani offers the paradoxical insight that as much as virginity does imply a particular renunciation, it is better characterized as the experience of deeper, more true “possession” of the other. Assuming that truly loving another means to affirm the person’s destiny, the virgin fully possesses the person they love insofar as they dedicate the entirety of their lives to the destiny of all people: unity with Christ. “A person truly loves another person when he detaches himself from her and reaches through her the possession of Another, that is, of God. It is not so much that he ‘detaches himself’ from her, but that he ‘goes to the depth’ of who she is, because love, to the degree that it ends in eternity, loses nothing, not even a hair from the head, as Jesus said.” Giussani goes on to clarify that the sacrifice implied in virginity “does not mean suspending the will for something, suspending love for someone or something; it does not eliminate anything.”The virgins of the early Church demonstrates how their lack of sexual relations was a matter of deepening their erotic desire rather than curtailing it. Though countless Roman men lived lives of virginity, perhaps the women exemplify the radical distinctness of the Christian ideal of morality from that of pagan Rome.
The belief in the incarnate God and the brand of sexual renunciation that flowed forth from it radically challenged both the moral ideals and social order of the Roman Empire. The woman who freely and passionately chose to renounce marriage for the sake of giving her life to Christ, the “true Bridegroom”—who corresponded to her heart’s desire in a more totalizing way than an earthly husband—was oftentimes a scandal to her family and community. Her defiance of the spiritual/moral order and of the political order (which placed upper-class men atop the hierarchy of power and divinized the power and orderliness of the Empire) gave witness to this alternative worldview, in which the poor and weak were the “greatest” and loving communion with the transcendent Deity was the moral ideal (cf. Matt 5:3-12, 18:1-4, 22:35-40). It should be of little surprise that many of the female virgins recognized in the Church’s liturgical prayers were martyred for renouncing marriages arranged by their parents with well-to-do men.
In his work The Body and Society, classical historian Peter Brown explains how these early virgins defied the ethical and social expectations of women living in the Roman Empire. He notes that while celibate women did indeed play a role in Roman pagan worship, they only had a “crucial importance for the community precisely because [celibacy] was anomalous…Though eminent and admired, they were not thought to stand for human nature at its peak…” Unlike the prophetic or eschatological role of celibacy in the Christian moral worldview, for the pagan Romans “[c]hastity did not announce the dawning light of the end of time.”
He also notes that the “chastity of many virgin priestesses was not a matter of free choice for them,” nor did it imply a lifelong commitment. The “exceptional” and “anomalous” nature of their lifestyle only served “to reinforce the rule. The presence in some cities of a handful of young girls, chosen by others to forgo marriage, heightened the awareness of contemporaries that marriages and childbirth were the unquestioned destiny of all other women.” Brown goes on to point out that this practice reflected the social stratification of Rome at the time. “In the second century AD, a young man of the privileged classes of the Roman Empire grew up looking at the world from a position of unchallenged dominance. Women, slaves, and barbarians were unalterably different from him and inferior to him.”
Brown continues, “the Incarnation of Christ, the Highest God had reached down to make even the body capable of transformation. In admitting this possibility, Clement implied that the stable environment posited by pagan thought, an intractable body and a social order adjusted to its unchanging needs, might burst from its ancient bounds. Sexual renunciation might lead the Christian to transform the body and, in transforming the body, to break with the discreet discipline of the ancient city.”
Agatha’s story embodies this subversive reality that Christianity presented to Roman society at that time. Her words to Christ while imprisoned also demonstrate how she experienced virginity to be a matter of passion, as opposed to one of restriction or repression. “O Jesus Christ!’ she cried, “all that I am is Thine; preserve me against the tyrant. Christ alone is my life and my salvation.”
Butler’s Lives of the Saints describes her last days as simultaneously filled with torture and passionate love. “When Quintanus turned from passion to cruelty, and cut off her breasts, Our Lord sent the Prince of His apostles to heal her. And when, after she had been rolled naked upon potsherds, she asked that her torments might be ended, her Spouse heard her prayer and took her to Himself. St. Agatha gave herself without reserve to Jesus Christ; she followed Him in virginal purity, and then looked to Him for protection. And down to this day Christ has shown His tender regard for the very body of St. Agatha. Again and again, during the eruptions of Mount Etna, the people of Catania have exposed her veil for public veneration, and found safety by this means; and in modern times, on opening the tomb in which her body lies waiting.”