Our age doesn’t much understand the veneration the Catholic Church has for a fourth century Virgin and Martyr. Both Virginity and Martyrdom seem alien virtues in an age that is conditioned to do everything possible to remain alive as long as possible and treats sex like just another recreational activity. Virginity and Martyrdom? What does that mean?

The virtue of virginity is even misunderstood by Christians who otherwise value celibacy and ‘family values.’ People can’t help but misconstrue the virtue and see it as somehow anti-marriage and anti-sex. Certainly there have been some Catholic writers who have treated sexual relations as innately filthy, but this is Christianity infected with Manichaeanism–that Eastern idea that the physical realm is somehow less worthy than the spiritual. So what is the virture of virginity?

There seem to me to be two aspects to it: first of all we value the virgins not because they have never had sexual intercourse. That would simply be a negative definition–like defining someone from Des Moines as ‘a person who has never been to Paris, France.’ No, there must be a positive virtue and it is that the virgin is one who has retained the essence of innocence and childhood. The gospel says that unless we become like a little child we cannot enter the kingdom, and the virgin is one who has retained a sense of beautiful, child-like innocence. Secondly, the virgin is one not one who has simply never had sexual intercourse. Lack of this action does not mean a person is truly a virgin. A person could be a physical virgin but be anything but virginal in his or her thoughts and words and activities.

The second aspect which confirms a true virgin in the spiritual sense is that this person who has remained a little child is also consecrated totally to God. This is the second aspect of virginity that all of us can learn from. We see the virgin martyrs like St Agatha and they become icons of what each of us must be, for each one of us, no matter how soiled and stained by our sins must again become like a little child. We must once more be washed in the blood of the Lamb and be restored to our baptismal perfection through the sacraments. We must also, like the virgin martyrs be totally and utterly dedicated to God. They show us this in their actual lives. We hope to attain it by God’s grace.

Agatha is also a martyr in an age that cannot understand martyrdom. It is strange that we cannot, for we have just emerged from the bloodiest century the world has seen, a century when more innocent souls of all sorts endured torture and deprivation and a kind of martyrdom in the death camps, the pogroms, the holocausts and genocides. It is Christianity which begins to make sense of these deaths and says, “Here are souls who are baptized finally into the complete identification with Christ. They have given their blood for the blood of the Lamb”

So Agatha and the other martyrs show us two truths in their martyrdom. First, that there are some precious deep down realities that are the foundation of everything else, and we cannot compromise them without compromising everything else. Our faith is our heart. Take out our heart and we cease to live. The martyrs tell us that these deep down realities are so precious and so eternal that we would rather die than lose them. If this is so, then the martyrs also show us that to live in that reality is to live a kind of martyrdom day by day anyway. We are there to live only for that deep down reality which is the faith, and living that way is a way of daily, joyful sacrifice.

St Agatha, Virgin and Martyr, pray for us.