Approaching Mystery: Jessica Mesman Griffith Peers at St. Agnes

Approaching Mystery: Jessica Mesman Griffith Peers at St. Agnes November 29, 2017

As we approach the solstice, I am thinking about the truth and beauty found in darkness.  (Read Jeanette Winterson’s beautiful take on this time of year here.) This week’s post comes from Sick Pilgrim publisher Jessica Mesman Griffith.  Starting this Friday, Griffith will be teaching an online course with poet and novelist Rebecca Bratten Weiss, “Reading and Writing Through the Darkness: An Advent Journey.”  Registration information is here.

–Joanna Penn Cooper, “Approaching Mystery” editor



This morning I saw St. Agnes through a keyhole. I was sitting on the toilet, letting my blood drain into the water in the bowl. I almost wrote monthly blood, but it’s not predictable anymore; that’s just a writerly contrivance. Blood comes in a gush while I’m walking through Ikea with my son, and I double over at a sudden hitch in my side. My left ovary, the only ovary I have–on the left and what is left–overcompensates. Today blood came as I walked on the treadmill, recently purchased to ward off the winter blues before they settle in. (I think of a despondent family left on my doorstep, frozen in place, unable to come in, to settle down.) I was on the toilet waiting for the tub to fill with water and salt when I noticed the old-fashioned keyhole in the bathroom door, felt a little thrill of delight. What was the old superstition about keyholes? You could see the devil through them? I leant forward, squinting one eye, and there she was, St. Agnes, serious face framed in a blue habit. She’s perched on the window frame on the landing outside the bathroom, a laminated holy card I made years ago, a homeschool project for All Saints Day. I wanted a parade of saints for my toddler daughter, something impressive to grab her attention. I found hundreds of icons online and printed them in the bookstore of the college where my husband worked in another life, praying all the while that my daughter didn’t break anything while I neglected her. There were so many saints in the end, too many, lining the mantle and the bookcases and the walls of our faculty house, and when I lit the tea lights in front of them I did find them impressive, but my husband was embarrassed. I didn’t bother to get the icons out this year. They’re stacked neatly in a glass-front bookcase with the children’s baptismal candles. St. Agnes must have fallen from a moving box, and someone propped her there, in the window, where her face can be seen perfectly framed in my Nancy Drew keyhole. I laughed. Wiped. Wiped again. And again. Filled the bowl with toilet paper. Flushed. Got in the tub. Thought of Agnes, God’s little lamb. Didn’t they cut off her breasts? Or was that St. Agatha? Agnes was so pretty even the pagans cried when they led her to the stake, but the flames wouldn’t burn her, so they cut off her head with a sword. Her blood poured—so much blood, the stories say, a miraculous flood—and the Christians soaked it up with their clothes. Patroness of chastity—how many do we need?—one of those who wanted only Jesus for her lover and hated sin more than death and went singing to her pyre. I get out of the tub, dripping water, shivering, unsettled. I lean over to peer through the cartoon keyhole again, her stern face still there. The little devil.


Jessica Mesman Griffith is the publisher of Sick Pilgrim and a widely published writer whose work has been noted in Best American Essays. Her memoir, Love and Salt: A Spiritual Friendship in Letters, co-authored with Amy Andrews, won the 2014 Christopher Award for “literature that affirms the highest values of the human spirit.” She is also the author of A Book of Grace Filled Days (2016, Loyola Press), and is at work on Eden Isles, a memoir of her Catholic girlhood in southern Louisiana. Jessica has been acquainted with the night.

Her full bio is here:

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