Tuesday, 20 May 2008


I was recently fortunate enough to hear a superb talk on the Liturgy of Reconciliation, commonly called Confession, given by the Bishop of Richborough. He pointed out that people seem to take the line these days that they don’t really need confession. However, how many people would reasonably argue that they ‘didn’t need’ the other sacraments? "Baptism? Aw, no, don't worry about it" or “Oh, it’s alright, I don’t need to go to Mass, thanks, I’m quite full from lunch”. No. What a ridiculous suggestion, I’m sure you’ll agree. So why don’t people think of confession in the same way? Bishop Keith concluded two things: firstly, that people mistakenly assume that the General Confession in the Mass will suffice; secondly, that the practice of confession is far less widespread than it used to be amongst Anglicans and Anglo-Catholics and so has ceased to be one of the natural rituals of Christian life. A very helpful little book entitled "First Confession" (1901, published by the Catholic Truth Society), written by Mother M. Loyola of the Bar Convent, York, offers guidance to children preparing for confession. Her advice, though aimed at children, is also of use to us adults too, however. 'When we have done what was wrong to please ourselves, we are glad for a little while. But it is only a little while. Then we begin to be dull and sad... Sin is like those green sweets that are nice just whilst we have them in our mouth. But they leave a bad taste and pain behind, and we wish we had never touched them.' How blessed we are to have a way to repent and to be absolved.

In his talk, Bishop Keith also dealt with common fears and misconceptions about confession. It strikes me that the most significant factor in putting people off going to confession is that they just don’t know what it will be like. If you go to a new church, or some unfamiliar liturgy, you can rub along quite nicely by watching those around you (when to sit, stand, where to move to etc). Not so in the confessional where there are no such helpful models to follow. Apparently, in the good old days some theological colleges used to train up their priests using 'box tutes' where the liturgy of reconciliation would be simulated. This seems a pretty good idea for those who wish to go to confession for the first time. I can imagine that this is a widespread practice amongst those preparing children for confession, but I wonder how many adults have this opportunity. I would certainly have appreciated this before my first confession as I’m sure that I was almost as worried about doing and saying the right things as actually getting to the topic of nearly a lifetime’s-worth of sins. To be honest, I was terrified. Good advice in the words of Mother Loyola: 'Think you are kneeling at the feet of Jesus and you will not be afraid' . I was also fortunate enough to be encouraged by friends who were either novices like me, or had experienced it before and could reassure me that it would 'be ok'. I didn’t feel bullied into it; rather I was lucky enough to feel encouraged to the point where it was something I felt I wanted to do. Finally, one of the most powerful elements of Bishop Keith’s talk was the fact that he reminded us of the words spoken at the end of confession: the priest asks the penitent to pray for him, a sinner also. This, I think, is a great reminder of our equality before God, and how we are all fallible. We all try, but we all fail. And we can all seek God's forgiveness and receive it through this sacrament.

I'd like to let Mother Loyola have the last word on this one: 'Will the quarrelsome boys be like two little angels as soon as they come from confession? Not a bit of it. Or Alice be a busy bee directly? No. They will all break their good resolutions many and many a time. But shall I tell you who will succeed in the end? Not those who tried most the first day or two and then gave up. But those who go on and on, who are sorry when they break their resolution, and then try again as if they had never broken it. This is very brave. I will do this... My God, I will try not to do these things again. But if I do it again, I will not be cross and miserable, and say it is no use trying. I will say directly: "My God, I am sorry. Forgive me once more." Then I will try again.'

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Excellent Women: Felicia Skene

While browsing Project Canterbury, I came across the following title The Inheritance of Evil Or, the Consequences of Marrying a Deceased Wife’s Sister and decided to indulge in reading some Victorian polemical fiction. Referring to this nineteenth century political and ecclesiastical controversy, and written in opposition to the repeal of the 1835 Marriage Act, it relates the tragic tale of Elizabeth Maynard who suspects that her new husband is falling in love with her younger sister. I won’t reveal too much of the plot other than that, as you may already suspect, it lacks a happy ending.

However, the author, Felicia Skene, does not quite fit the modern stereotype of the Victorian lady novelist. In Felicia Skene of Oxford, her biographer Edith Rickards recounts incidents of mischievous childhood behaviour:

“it was the child's delight to slip her arm through her governess's in order to give a sly pull to the long veil which modestly covered that lady's face, so as to force her to make an involuntary bow to any officer they might chance to meet.”

This trait seems to have continued throughout her life:

“They think, ' There's that pious old lady, Miss Skene! ' and they'd never dream I could be so wicked."

She spent much of her early life travelling throughout Europe and lived in Athens for several years. On returning to England, she met the Revd Thomas Chamberlain of St Thomas the Martyr, Oxford and his cousin Marion Hughes and, under their influence, eventually moved to Oxford where she organised teams of nurses, some of whom later joined Florence Nightingale at Scutari, to tend to the victims of smallpox and cholera epidemics in 1849 and 1854. A local farmer was so impressed by her courage and devotion that he followed her home from the hospital and proposed marriage. This was, of course, politely refused, but Edith Rickards writes:

“Felicia's sense of humour was so tickled by the astonishment she felt at receiving such an unexpected offer that she hardly knew how to restrain her laughter.”

After the epidemics, she turned her attention to the plight of women held in Oxford prison. For the last twenty years of her life, she visited twice a week providing comfort and advice to the prisoners, and food and employment for the recently released. She encouraged former inmates to marry and provided the wedding breakfast which always included plentiful gin. She was the first woman in England to be given official permission to be a regular visitor in a public prison.

The conditions she saw in Oxford and elsewhere encouraged her to use her ability as a writer to campaign for the reform of women’s penitentiaries . Her 1865 pamphlet, Penitentiaries and Reformatories describes some of the dreadful conditions and humiliations that women in these institutions had to endure and condemns the traditional attitude to ‘fallen women’, that society “'sought to hide its blackest curse under a veil of mock prudery, while it let thousands of wretched women drift year after year into the abyss. . . because their sin was unfit to be named in the polite society that scrupled not to receive with open arms the very men for whom they sinned”. This anonymous pamphlet drove a clergyman to write to her to express his vehement disagreement but, thinking that it could only have been written by a man, he addressed the letter “Dear Sir”.

Were she alive today, I wonder if she would be blogging?

(The image is of the title page of Penitentiaries and Reformatories as digitized by the University of Indiana's Victorian Women Writers Project)

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Excellent Women: St Agnes of Rome

Below we have the first in what will hopefully be a series of ‘Excellent Women’ for the blog. The selection is, at the moment, entirely based on personal whim but please comment if there is any lady you would particularly like to see...

For the first of our Excellent Women, where better to start than with my namesake, St Agnes of Rome. Keats’ poem The Eve of St Agnes is inspired by the superstition that a young woman who goes without her supper on St Agnes’ Eve will dream of her husband-to-be. In this case, it ends in a midnight elopement from a romantic fantasy of a medieval castle. However, nothing could be less fitting to the actual story of St Agnes.

Agnes was a young Roman girl, reputedly martyred during the persecution of Diocletian in 304AD. According to her epitaph by St Damasus, she declared herself a Christian after an imperial edict against the faith. Other traditions relate that she refused to marry the son of a Roman official or perform pagan sacrifices and so was condemned to death. But the Roman authorities had a problem here: Agnes was only about twelve or thirteen and still a virgin so it was illegal to kill her. Damasus describes her as “nutricis gremium subito liquisse puella”, that is, hastening to martyrdom from her nurse’s lap.

To remove this barrier to her execution, it was decided that she be stripped naked and sent to a brothel. But, as the men there prepared to rape her, they were suddenly struck blind and fell down as if they were dead. Her hair also grew to hide her body from the gaze of onlookers. Then, they attempted to burn her alive but the torches would not light. The hymn Agnes Beatae Virginis, sometimes attributed to St Ambrose, as well as using the usual word taeda to refer to a torch used in torture, uses fax, a Latin word which originally referred to a torch carried in procession before the bride but later came to mean both marriage and death. This reminds us that a girl of Agnes’ age would normally have been ready to marry, but instead she could expect martyrdom. She was finally killed by the sword, either beheaded or stabbed in the throat.

Eventually, the daughter of the emperor Constantine built a mausoleum over her grave which later became part of the church of Sant' Agnese fuori le mura. Here, two lambs are blessed on her feast day. These later provide the wool for the pallium sent by the Pope to a newly consecrated archbishop and which can still be seen on the arms of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

So, next January I will remember Agnes’ honesty and courage in facing torture and death for her faith and pray that, in some small way, I can emulate her sacrifice in my daily life.

Let us gain courage for our own battle by honouring the martyrdom of the glorious virgin Agnes. St. Agnes, vessel of honour, flower of unfading fragrance, beloved of the choirs of Angels, you are an example to the worth of virtue and chastity. O you who wear a Martyr's palm and a virgin's wreath, pray for us that, though unworthy of a special crown, we may have our names written in the list of Saints.

And then I shall have my dinner and go to bed to dream of nothing in particular.