St. Perpetua in her Own Words
When we think of the literature of early Christians, we might immediately think of letters (like Paul’s) as well as homilies, scriptural commentaries and other theological works. These are the kinds of texts that are generally spoken of or quoted in contemporary Christian works that refer to early Christianity. But the lives of the saints also feature prominently in early Christian literature, and among these there is one that is very special: The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity.
Sts. Perpetua and Felicity are early Christian martyrs, killed c. 203 in Carthage, North Africa (modern day Tunisia) and we celebrate their feast today (March 7). Devotion to these two martyrs was widespread, but was especially strong in Roman North Africa – multiple sermons survive which were preached on their feast day two hundred years after their death by St. Augustine, for example. Their fame is reflected by the fact that their names appear in the Roman Canon alongside some other early martyrs whose names may be more familiar (such as Agnes and Lucy). But, unlike many other Christian martyrs about whom we know precious little, we have a firsthand account of the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity. Eyewitness accounts of martyrdoms and holy lives are by no means unheard of in the early Church, but The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity has a large section which is purportedly written by the martyr Perpetua herself, which is quite rare (if not unique) among early Christian writings.
The so-called prison diary of Perpetua, in which she recounts her experience in a Roman jail, has long been of interest to scholars and has generated much academic discussion, but it seems to have drifted out of the consciousness of the faithful. Perpetua is a nursing mother, and her conflict with her family, her commitment to the faith in spite of her youth as well as her visionary experiences make her story memorable and compelling. For example, of the difficulties of caring for her child while under arrest, she writes:
I nursed my baby, who was now weak from hunger. In my worry for him, I spoke to my mother concerning the baby and comforted my brother. I entrusted my son to them. I suffered grievously when I saw how they suffered for me. I endured such worry for many days and I arranged for my baby to stay in prison with me. Immediately I grew stronger, and I was relieved of the anxiety and worry I had for my baby. Suddenly the prison became my palace, so I wanted to be there more than anywhere else.
The style of her writing is straightforward, brief (perhaps even more brief than we would like!) and in our age of selfies and of sharing pictures of every meal, I think we can appreciate the simplicity and steadfastness with which she considers Christ to be the anchor of her self-identity and nothing else. The opening of her prison diary says as much:
While we were still with the prosecutors my father, because of his love for me, wanted to change my mind and shake my resolve. “Father,” I said, “do you see this vase lying here, this small water pitcher or whatever?” “I see it” he said. And I said to him: “Can it be called by any other name other than what it is?” And he said “No.” “In the same way, I am unable to call myself other than what I am, a Christian.”
For Perpetua, as for other early Christian martyrs, the words “I am a Christian” is the confession for which they die, and in the account of Perpetua’s trial, these are the words she speaks (in spite of many opportunities to recant) for which she is given the death sentence. This unyielding attitude disturbed the Roman authorities, because they interpreted the unrelenting confession to mean that Christians could not be good Roman citizens. The name, after all, seemed to supersede all other commitments, which to a Roman proconsul was not only odd but dangerous, superstitious and criminal. But, for us, Perpetua’s quiet determination should be a challenge. Would we be found to be a Christian above else and forsaking all else because to have that name is worth even our family, even our own life?
Perpetua’s fellow martyr Felicity exhibits the same endurance. She is pregnant when her companions are sentenced to death, and since Roman law prohibited her execution until her child was born, the group prays that she might give birth and not go to the lions with common criminals. Their prayer is granted, but Felicity is mocked by her jailers for crying out in pain during childbirth. They ask her how she is to endure the beasts if she cannot endure labor pains. Felicity replies: “now I alone suffer what I am suffering, but then there will be another inside me, who will suffer for me, because I am going to suffer for him.” Both Perpetua and Felicity put into practice the Pauline dictum, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20 ESV).