Agnus Dei and English Catholic History in Sun Slower Sun Faster

Agnus Dei Case, Italy, 15th Century, 1.6 cm x 1.6 cm, British Museum, London
Source here

Cecil picked out a little flat box and opened it. Inside was a circle of wax. There was an impression on it but the wax, held together by a frame, was broken across. It looked like an animal with a stick between its hoofs.

“What’s this? she asked.

Ambrose Morne screwed in his eye-glass.

“I can’t remember why that’s in this box,” he said. “It’s not exactly a seal.”

Dominic said, “It’s an Agnus Dei.”

“What’s that?” Cecil asked.

“The sign of the Lamb of God,” said Dominic. “It’s a very old symbol of the Savior. The Lamb is carryig a flag. Have you ever seen an old inn called the Lamb and the Flag? There’s one at Oxford. It’s the sign of the Resurrection of Christ.”

Old Mr. Morne snorted. “Foreign sort of thing for England,” he said. “Perhaps it’s from your father’s things, Dominic.”

“Not very likely,” said Dominic. “My father was an upright nineteenth-century Liberal of the rationalist tradition. He didn’t believe in God, on principle.”

“It’s certainly a papist thing,” said Ambrose Morne.

“There must have been priests at Welston once,” said Rickie, “because of the priest-hole.”

“What’s that?” Cecil asked.

“Where they hid papists in the old days,” said Rickie. “I’ll show you one day.”

Mr Morne began to put away the seals. Cecil still held the little Agnus Dei on the palm of her hand. She had taken a fancy to it, for she had a magpie’s passion for little oddments.

“You can have that if you like, my dear,” said Great-uncle Ambrose. “It does not belong in this collection.”

In Meriol Trevor’s juvenile time travel novel Sun Slower Sun Faster, two children, 14 year old Rickie and 13 year old Cecil are sent to live with a great uncle in an old English manor house. They find themselves repeatedly slipping back into the past where they meet with various ancestral relatives, who always seem to know who they are and to accept them as family in whatever time and place they find themselves. Each jump takes them further back into the past and deeper into the mysteries of the Catholic faith and into a growing knowledge of their own family’s rootedness in the faith.

Cecil’s wax seal with the Agnus Dei is an important object in the story; but until I read this book I had never heard of such a thing. I did some research and learned about how these wax seals printed with the lamb were were usually blessed by the pope in a special ceremony. Today Amy Welborn has a post about this beautiful ancient devotional object. Her essay about the agnus dei digs a little more deeply than I was able to go on my own.

Agni dei were conventionally made in the pontifical apothecary and consecrated by the pope during Holy Week in a special ceremony witnessed and assisted by the cardinals. 13 The ceremony was conducted in the first year of a pope’s election and once every seven years thereafter during his pontificate. Crafted from the wax of paschal candles, chrism oil, and holy water, the agni dei were stamped with the image of the Lamb of God on one side and the image of a saint or the name and arms of the consecrating pope on the other. They could be worn as pendants or preserved as devotional objects. The agnus dei was believed to possess many protective powers, including defence from storms, pestilence, fires, and floods, as well as the dangers of childbirth.

So Cecil’s little wax seal with the lamb was made of wax from paschal candles, chrism oil, and holy water and blessed by the pope. Her uncle isn’t wrong to see it as a strongly papist artifact. And indeed in the story the seal seems to be the mechanism for the time travel, bringing Cecil, Rickie, and Dominic into the past where they meet with their Catholic relatives.

Amy Welborn’s blog post also quotes from an article that explains something of the role of the Agnus Dei as a devotional object at the time of the English Reformation when the Catholic faith was outlawed and missionary priests from the continent risked their lives bringing, among other things, devotional objects such as the Agnus Dei to Britain:

The role of missionary priests in encouraging this culture of resistance through the distribution of sacred objects also merits further reflection. While the involvement of missionary priests in the circulation of prohibited religious books and the ‘sacred economy’ of masses and relics in early modern England has received considerable attention, they also played a central part in the circulation of other sacred objects like the agnus dei. Although the agnus dei lost its more dangerous political meanings when Elizabeth I died, it remained a popular but illicit devotional object in the seventeenth century. Missionary priests continued to bring agni dei and other prohibited sacred items into England, and their possession remained a significant expression of dissent. From this perspective, the possibilities for political participation within Catholic communities diversify and expand considerably.

At the same time, this process shows continuities between Catholic missions to England and those operating in other parts of the early modern world. The employment of sacred objects like the agnus dei to attract converts and schismatic Catholics back to the Roman fold in England reflect a broader strategy used by missionaries in Europe, Asia, and South America in this period The spiritual importance of materials like the agnus dei to the sustenance and survival of Catholicism in England also supports a growing body of scholarship which has emphasised the intellectual, cultural, and devotional connections between members of the English Catholic faith and their counterparts in other regions.The continued popularity of the agnus dei and other sacred materials in the late sixteenth century illustrates the resilience of ties between English Catholicism, the papacy, and the wider Catholic community, while the subversive significance it assumed during the reign of Elizabeth I embodies the wider political and confessional contexts which made English Catholicism distinct in early modern Europe.

This passage is illuminating. It seems likely that Cecil’s Agnus Dei was brought to England during the time of the Reformation– that is the time when it gets broken and after that visit it seems to take on a secondary role. And it’s fascinating to think of the role of the Agnus Dei in the missionary work of those priests, one of whom Rickie and Cecil meet and help to save when he is captured during their 15th century visit. Neither Cecil nor Rickie has been raised practicing any faith, and it is this ancestral object, the Agnus Dei, that becomes a primary tool for their evangelization. It is a channel for grace in their lives, a means of connecting them to those members of their family, living and dead, for whom the faith has been important.

Cecil meets a young ancestor when in Bath. She and Rickie and Dominic slide backwards in time to the 18th century while exploring the Pump Room. While they are there she loses the Agnus Dei and goes looking for it:

They went back to the brilliant Pump Room. The beautiful young lady was sitting near the door, fanning herself.

“I know what you have come for, my dear,” she said, smiling gently at Cecil, and held out her hand. On the palm lay the little medallion in its frame.”

“Oh thank you,” said Cecil, taking it. “Thank you very much.”

“So you are one of us,” said the lady softly, and kissed her. “Keep it safe. Better times are coming.”

“Thank you,” said Cecil again, shyly, and wondered what she meant.

“I am going overseas soon,” said the young lady, “to the Low Countries. I am going to the English Convent at Bruges. It is all settled and I am so happy. I shall pray so much for England, and you pray for me too that I may persevere and be a good religious, a good nun.” She tapped her fan against Cecil’s cheek and her eyes sparkled. “But it’s a secret!”

The Agnus Dei is a signal by which the young lady recognizes Cecil as a secret Catholic like herself. The irony is that Cecil is not yet a Catholic. But this meeting is a key moment in her journey towards that faith.

In the 17th century the Agnus Dei is also seen and recognized, right after Cecil has declined to say bedtime prayers because she doesn’t see any point in them:

Phillipa put out a finger and touched the Agnus Dei that hung round Cecil’s neck.

“What’s that then?” she demanded, triumphantly.

Cecil put her hand over it. “It’s a lucky thing,” she said irritably.

“I thought it had been an Agnus Dei,” said Phillipa. “We do wear such things now, sometimes, but my mother said not long since if such things were found on a man he’d be lucky to escape hanging.”

“Whatever for?” Cecil said.

“For being a Catholic,” Phillipa began, but just then Lady Magdalen, in a trailing white gown, came into the room.

In the novel’s final pages Cecil has a sort of mystical vision that begins with a visit to pre-Christian iron age Britain and that ends with her staring into the sun and seeing there the Lamb of the Agnus Dei she’s worn about her neck:

But this was no ordinary sun. For all its brilliance she could gaze unblinded into the very heart of it. The heart of this sun turned slowly like a wheel, like a wheel of crystal fountains, and like a rose it unfolded and unfolded, endless petals of flame till she felt as if she were in the very center of fire itself: and in the heart of the fire appeared, blazing, the sign she had carried all this time round her neck, the sign of the Lamb.

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Amy also offers some timely musings about the importance of such devotionals, especially in times when Catholics are deprived of the Mass:

Why are we interested, aside from our general historical curiosity? Well, perhaps because what’s explored, in part, is the importance of sacramentals and devotionals to maintaining faith. People deprived of the Mass and of normal, public religious observance had these small objects to help keep them spiritually anchored. The Mass was of supreme importance to them. They sacrificed much to protect priests who would say Mass as well as to preserve the objects needed. But even without the Mass, they weren’t left with nothing because these material objects – and the Catholic culture they came out of and represented – remained.

The material culture of the faith, the devotions that we practice at home, in private, outside of Mass, have an important role in nurturing and sustaining faith, especially in times of crisis and distress. What devotions do we have in our day that might play a similar role?

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