A Reflection on Saints Perpetua and Felicity

          Saint Perpetua left us one of the earliest pieces of literature written by a Christian woman. She kept a journal of her conversion and imprisonment up to the moment of her death. One of her companions added the details of her death on 7 March 203 before his own death.

Perpetua and Felicity

            Perpetua in her own words writes that:

God may be glorified and humanity may be strengthened...

            She begins with the scripture that Peter uses to explain that the 120 souls in the Upper Room under the influence of the Spirit of God on Shavuoth, Pentecost, included the eleven surviving male apostles, Miriam, Mary, the mother of the Messiah along with his sisters, brothers and certain women. There were, by this account, 105 anonymous women under the influence of the Spirit and Peter, like Perpetua after him, turned to Joel.

In the last days, says the HOLY ONE, I will pour my spirit upon all flesh, and their sons and daughters shall prophesy; and upon my men servants and upon my women servants I will pour out my spirit....

Perpetua writes:

We also therefore, by whom both the prophecies and the new visions promised are received and honored, and by whom those other wonders of the Holy Spirit are assigned to the service of the Church, to which also was sent the same Spirit administering all gifts among all... do write...

And Perpetua writes that:

There were apprehended the young catechumens, Revocatus and Felicity his fellow servant, Saturninus and Secundulus. With them also was Vibia Perpetua, nobly born reared in a liberal manner, wedded honorably; having a father and mother and two siblings, one of them also a catechumen, and a son, a child at the breast; and she herself was about twenty-two years of age. What follows here shall she tell herself; the whole order of her martyrdom as she left it written with her own hand and in her own words...

            One of the most poignant moments that Perpetua relates is the attempt of her father to make her renounce her Christian faith that she might live. In response to his pleading, she writes:

Father, said I, Do you see (for example) this vessel lying, a pitcher or whatsoever it may be? And he said, I see it. And I said to him, Can it be called by any other name than that which it is? And he answered, No. So can I call myself nothing other than that which I am, a Christian....

            A few days later she and her companions were baptized. A few days after that, they were arrested. She writes:

I was much afraid because I had never known such darkness. O bitter day! There was a great heat because of the press, there was cruel handling of the soldiers. Lastly I was tormented thereby care for my child.

            Perpetua was a nursing mother. Yet she makes no mention of her husband visiting her with her mother, father, brother and sister. Apparently he had abandoned her. She writes:

Tertius and Pomponius, the blessed deacons who ministered to us, obtained with money that for a few hours we should be taken to a better part of the prison and be refreshed... I nursed my child that was now faint with hunger. And being concerned for him, I spoke to my mother and strengthened my brother and commended my son to them. I grieved because I saw they grieved for my sake. Such cares I suffered for many days; and I obtained that my child should stay with me in prison; and immediately I became well and was lightened of my labor and care for the child; and suddenly the prison was made a palace for me, so that I would sooner be there than anywhere else...

            Perpetua knew that her death was imminent. For like the prophets of old she received visions from God, and writes:

This was shown me:

I went up, and I saw a very great space of garden, and in the midst a man sitting, white-headed, in shepherd's clothing, tall milking his sheep; and standing around in white were many thousands. And he raised his head and beheld me and said to me: Welcome, child. And he cried to me, and from the curd he had from the milk he gave me as it were a morsel; and I took it with joined hands and ate it up; and all that stood around said, Amen. And at the sound of that word I awoke, yet eating I know not what of sweet. And at once I told my brother, and we knew it should be a passion; and we began to have no hope any longer in this world...

            Perpetua's father visited her many times in the prison, to beg her to renounce Christ and to sacrifice to the emperor.

And my father appeared there also, with my son, and would draw me from the step, saying: Perform the Sacrifice; have mercy on the child. And Hilarian the procurator... Spare your father's grey hairs; spare the infancy of the boy. Make sacrifice for the Emperors' prosperity. And I answered: I am a Christian. And when my father stood by me yet to cast down my faith, he was bidden by Hilarian to be cast down and was beaten with a rod. And I grieved for my father's harm as though I had been beaten myself; so grieved I for his unhappy old age. Then Hilarian passed sentence upon us all and condemned us to the beasts; and cheerfully we went down to the dungeon.Then because my child had been used to being breastfed and to staying with me in the prison, immediately I sent Pomponius the deacon to my father, asking for my child. But my father would not give him back to me. And as God willed, no longer did he need to be nursed, nor did I take fever; that I might not be tormented by care for my child and by the pain of my breasts...

            The last vision that Perpetua recorded before her death, before her baptism in blood, was that of "a font full of water..." She who had been baptized in water, would be baptized in blood. There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel's veins.

            The next words we have of her are from the hand of an eyewitness:

As for Felicity, she too received this grace... because she was now gone eight months (being indeed with child when she was taken) she was very sorrowful as the day of the games drew near, fearing lest for this cause she should be kept back (for it is not lawful for women that are with child to be brought forth for torment) and lest she should shed her holy and innocent blood after the rest, among strangers and malefactors. Also her fellow martyrs were much afflicted lest they should leave behind them so good a friend and as it were their fellow-traveler on the road of the same hope. Wherefore with joint and united groaning they poured out their prayer to the Lord, three days before the games. Incontinently after their prayer her pains came upon her. And when by reason of the natural difficulty of the eighth month she was oppressed with her travail and cried out, there said to her one of the servants of the keepers of the door: You that cry out so now, what will you do when you are thrown to the beasts, which you brought on yourself when you would not sacrifice? And she answered, I myself now suffer that which I suffer, but there another shall be in me who shall suffer for me, because I am to suffer for him. So she was delivered of a daughter, whom a sister in the Way reared up to be her own daughter...

Likewise on the day before the games, when at the last feast which they call Free they made (as far as they might) not a Free Feast but a Love Feast...

Now dawned the day of their victory, and they went forth from the prison into the amphitheatre as it were into heaven, cheerful and bright of countenance; if they trembled at all, it was for joy, not for fear. Perpetua followed behind, glorious of presence, as a true spouse of Christ and darling of God; at whose piercing look all cast down their eyes. Felicity likewise, rejoicing that she had borne a child in safety, that she might fight with the beasts, came now from blood to blood, from the midwife to the gladiator, to wash after her travail in a second baptism...

Perpetua began to sing...

            I don't know what she sang, but I hear the words: "Take me to the water, take me to the water, take me to the water, to be baptized. None but the righteous, none but the righteous, none but the righteous, shall see God."

            The soon to be martyred eyewitness writes:

But for the women the devil had made ready a most savage cow, prepared for this purpose against all custom; foreven in this beast he would mock their sex. They were stripped therefore and made to put on nets; and so they were brought forth. The people shuddered, seeing one a tender girl, the other her breasts yet dropping from her late childbearing...

Perpetua she stood up; and when she saw Felicity smitten down, she went up and gave her her hand and raised her up... And both of them stood up together...

And when the people begged that they should be brought forward, that when the sword pierced through their bodies their eyes might be joined there to as witnesses to the slaughter, they rose of themselves and moved, whither the people willed them, first kissing one another, that they might accomplish their martyrdom with the rites of peace.The rest not moving and in silence received the sword; Saturus much earlier gave up the ghost; for he had gone up earlier also, and now he waited for Perpetua likewise. But Perpetua, that she might have some taste of pain, was pierced between the bones and shrieked out; and when the swordsman's hand wandered still (for he was a novice), herself set it upon her own neck. Perchance so great a woman could not else have been slain (being feared of the unclean spirit) had she not herself so willed it....


O God the Sovereign, Sustainer and Shelter of saints, who strengthened your servants Perpetua and Felicity and their companions to make a good confession, staunchly resisting, for the cause of  Christ, the claims of human affection, and encouraging one another in their time of trial: Grant that we who cherish their blessed memory may share their pure and steadfast faith, and win with them the palm of victory; throughJesus Christ our Redeemer, who  lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

(preached at SA chapel in 2005)