Monday, March 7, 2011

SS. Perpetua, Felicity, & Their Companions (d. 203)

"If ancient examples of faith, which testify to the grace of God and give us encouragement, are honored and recorded for posterity in writing, so that by reading them the deeds of God are glorified and others are strengthened, why should we not in our generation also set down new witnesses which serve these ends. One day their example will also be ancient and important to our children, if at the present time, because of the reverence we accord to antiquity, they seem less weighty to us..."

We could easily apply this quotation from The Martyrdom of SS. Perpetua and Felicity and their companions to many modern witnesses to the Christian faith: Bishop Janani Luwum, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero, Matthew Shepard, to name but a few.

The moving account of these early 3rd century African martyrs stirred the imaginations of and deeply touched many Christians who lived at the time of their deaths and in subsequent centuries in the early Church. Vibia Perpetua was 22 years old, "reared in a liberal manner" of a noble Carthaginian family, a young married woman, "wedded honorably", according to The Martyrdom. She had two brothers, one of whom, Saturus, was a catechumen also and who died with her.  Her seven year old brother, Dinocrates, had died of diseased facial ulcers. It's interesting, however, that there's no mention at all of her husband in the account. Felicity was her personal slave and was pregnant at the time she was arrested. The baby was safely born and provided for. Felicity, along with her martyr companions, Revocatus, Saturninus, Secundulus, and Saturus, Perpetua's brother, were all catechumens and were baptized in prison. The group was sent into the public arena to be mauled by animals as a public spectacle. Perpetua, especially, faced the challenge with great evenness of spirit and deep faith. Part of the record of The Martyrdom is this account by Perpetua herself:

"What follows here she herself shall tell; the whole order of her martyrdom as she left it written with her own hand and in her own words. 'When,' she said, 'we were still under legal surveillance and my father was liked to vex me with his words and continually strove to hurt my faith because of his love: Father, said I, Do you see (for examples) 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 nought other than that which I am, a Christian.'

Then my father, angry with this word, set upon me to tear out my eyes; but he only vexed me, and he departed vanquished, he and the arguments of the devil. Then because I was without my father for a few days I gave thanks to the Lord; and I was comforted because of his absence. In this same space of a few days we were baptized, and the Spirit declared to me that I must pray for nothing else after that water save only endurance of the flesh. After a few days we were taken into prison, and 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 there by care for the child.

Then 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. Then all of them went out from the dungeon...I suckled my child who was now faint with hunger. And being careful for him, I spoke to my mother and strengthened my brother and commended my son to them. I pined because I saw they pined for my sake. Such cares I suffered for many days; and I was permitted to have the child abide with me in prison; and straightway 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.

Then my brother said to me: 'Lady my sister, you are now in high honor, even such that you might ask for a vision; and it should be shown you whether this is a passion or else a deliverance.' And I, as knowing that I conversed with the Lord, for Whose sake I had suffered such things, promised him nothing doubting; and I said: 'Tomorrow I will tell you.'  And I asked, and this was shown me.

I beheld a ladder of bronze, marvelously great, reaching up to heaven; and it was narrow, so that not more than one might go up at one time. And in the sides of the ladder were planted all sorts of iron objects:,,,spears, hooks, and knives, so that if any who went up weren't careful or failed to look up, he would be torn and his flesh cling to the iron. And there, right at the ladder's foot, was a serpent, marvelously great, which lay in wait for those that would go up, and frightened them that they might not go up. Now Saturus went up first, he who afterwards had of his own free will given himself up for our sakes, because it was he who had edified us, and when we were taken he had not been there. And coming to the ladder's head, he turned and said: 'Perpetua, I await you, but take care that the serpent bite you not.' And I said: 'It shall not hurt me, in the name of Jesus Christ.' And from beneath the ladder, as though it feared me, it softly put forth its head; and as though I trod on the first step, I trod on its head. And 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.

A few days after, the report went abroad that we were to be tried. Also my father returned from the city spent with weariness; and he came up to me to cast down my faith saying: 'Have pity, daughter, on my grey hairs; have pity on your father, if I am worthy to be called father by you. If with these hands I have brought you to this flower of youth and have preferred you before all your brothers, give me not over to the reproach of men. Look upon your brothers; look upon your mother and mother's sister; look upon your son, who will not endure to live after you. Give up your resolution; do not destroy us all together; for none of us will speak openly against men again if you suffer aught.'

This he said, fatherly in his love, kissing my hands and grovelling at my feet; and with tears he named me, not daughter, but lady. And I was grieved for my father's welfare because he would not rejoice at my passion out of all my kin; and I comforted him, saying: 'Whatsoever pleases God shall be done at this tribunal. For know that we are not established in our own power, but in God's.' And he went from me very sorrowful..."

The account also speaks of Felicity: "As for Felicity,...because she was now eight months with child when she was taken, she was very sorrowful as the day of the games drew near, fearing that for this reason she should be kept back (for it is not lawful for women that are with child to be brought forth for torment), and that she should have to shed her holy and innocent blood after the rest, among strangers and malefactors. Also her fellow martyrs were quite upset lest they should leave behind them so good a friend and, as it were, their fellow-traveler on the road of the same hope. Therefore with common and united supplication they poured out their prayer to the Lord, three days before the games....After their prayer her pains came upon her. And when, because of the natural difficulty she had at eighth months, she was feeling the pain of her travail and made complaint, one of the servants of the keepers of the door said to her: 'You complain now: what will you do when you are thrown to the beasts, which you disdained when you refused to sacrifice?' And she answered, 'I now suffer what I have to suffer, but there Another shall be in me who shall suffer for me, because I am to suffer for him.' So she delivered a daughter, whom a sister reared up as her own daughter..."

"The day of their victory now dawned, and they went from the prison into the amphitheater as if 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 her piercing gaze all cast down their eyes. Felicity likewise, rejoicing that she had borne her child safely, 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. And when they had been brought to the gate and were being forced to put on, the dress of the priests of Saturn for the men, and the dress of the priestesses of Ceres for the women, the noble Perpetua remained adamant to the end, and would not put it on. She said: 'We came willingly to this, in order that our freedom might not be obscured. We devoted our lives to this cause, so that we might do no such thing as this, as we agreed upon with you.' Injustice acknowledged justice; the tribune simply allowed that they should be brought forth as they were, without more ado. Perpetua began to sing,...Revocatus and Saturninus and Saturus piercingly gazed at the crowd which looked on. When they came into Hilarian's sight, stretching forth their hands and nodding their heads, they said to Hilarian: 'You judge us, and God judges you.' At this the people became enraged, and insisted that they should be soundly scourged before the line of gladiators, those who fought with beasts. Then truly the martyrs gave thanks because they had received somewhat of the sufferings of the Lord...

But for the women the devil had made ready a most savage cow...They were stripped, therefore, placed in nets, and thus brought forth. The people shuddered, seeing one a tender girl, the other her breasts yet dropping from her late childbearing. So the women were called back and clothed in loose robes. Perpetua was first thrown, and fell upon her back. And when she had sat upright, her robe being rent at the side, she drew it over to cover her thigh, mindful of her modesty rather than of pain. Then, looking for a pin, she likewise pinned up her disheveled hair, feeling that it wasn't appropriate for a martyr to suffer with dishevelled hair, which would make it appear that she was grieving in her glory. So she stood up; and when she saw Felicity on the ground, she went over and offered her hand, raising her up.. Both of them stood together and...were called back to the [gate called the] Gate of Life. There Perpetua was supported by one named Rusticus, then a catechumen, who stood close at her side, and as now awakening from sleep...began first to look about her. Perpetua than asked, 'When are we to be thrown to the cow?' When she heard that this had already been done, she would not believe it till she noticed some marks of mauling on her body and on her dress. Thereupon she called her brother and the catechumen to her, and spoke to them, saying: 'Stand fast in the faith, and love one another. Don't let our suffering be a stumbling block to you.'

Saturus, at another gate, encouraged Pudens, the ajutant: 'Indeed, as I trusted and foretold, I have felt no assault of beasts until now. Just believe with all your heart. Behold, I'm going out there and I shall perish with one bite of the leopard. Immediately at the end of the spectacle, the leopard was released, and with one bite Saturus was covered with so much blood that the people, seeing his second baptism, cried out to him: 'Well washed, well washed!'...Saturus then said to Pudens the soldier: 'Farewell, remember the faith and me, and don't let these things trouble you, but rather strengthen you.' So saying, he removed from Pudens' finger a little ring, and dipping it in his wound gave it back to him again as an heirloom, leaving him a pledge and memorial of his own blood. As Saturus' breathing became labored, he was thrown down with the rest in the accustomed place where their throats were to be cut. And when the crowd demanded that they be brought forward...the martyrs rose by themselves and moved forward...first kissing one another, so that they might complete their martyrdom with the kiss of peace. Without resisting and in silence, each received the sword. Saturus had already...gone up earlier, and now waited for Perpetua. But Perpetua had yet to taste more pain. Pierced between the bones, she cried out, and when the gladiator's hand fumbled still, for he was a novice, she herself set it upon her own neck. Perhaps so great a woman could have been killed in no other way, feared as she was by the unclean spirit, unless she herself gave her consent...

O most valiant and blessed martyrs! O ones truly called and chosen for the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ!"  

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