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Historia Ecclesiastica

Perpetual Felicity

On Saint Perpetua.


My favorite saint’s heavenly birthday is in March, and believe it or not it isn’t Saint Thomas Aquinas. In his memoir, Louis Bouyer recounts the story of being a university student in Paris and of strolling through the city one day with a fellow Protestant—discussing in hushed tones the illicit pleasure they both took in the (far too Catholic) Story of a Soul, when his friend confided in him: “To me the Little Flower just is Christianity.” That is precisely how I feel about Saint Vibia Perpetua.

I first read the Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis in my own college days. It was the beginning of freshman year, and the Passio was the first text assigned in my Intro to Christianity class. I finished it and I marveled. I had been in Catholic schools my whole life until then, and I had never heard Perpetua’s name so much as mentioned. (Our school Masses never included the Roman Canon, of course, but used exclusively what one priest friend refers to as the Roman Bullet and another has dubbed the Bugnini Bikini: “barely enough to cover the mysteries.”) Now here I was among the heathen at Columbia, and they had introduced me to this beautiful martyr in week one. My relationship with the communion of saints would never be the same.

Many stories of the early Christian martyrs are quite similar (which, needless to say, does not make them false, but just shows God’s penchant for multiplying the best things). But Perpetua’s story does not fit the mold. She wasn’t like Saint Agnes or Saint Philomena, a simple Mediterranean maiden who had consecrated her virginity to God in secret, and who thereafter had to defy her parents and the scorned suitor they had chosen for her, before ultimately dying at his command for Jesus her heavenly spouse. Perpetua was neither maiden nor virgin: she was a mom. She was not from the Italian peninsula or the Greek islands, but from Carthage. Nor was she simple, but rather a noble Roman citizen and one of the most educated women of her day: “honeste nata, liberaliter instituta.” Perpetua’s prison diary is the earliest example we have of Christian Latin written by a woman, and the Passio tells of her speaking with authority to learned clerics in Greek as well. At twenty-two years of age, Vibia Perpetua was clearly far from elderly, even by ancient North African standards, but neither was she an innocent child. She was a proper woman, a proper wife (or widow—she was “honorably wed,” but her husband never appears in the text), and a proper mother with a child at the breast. Lastly, unlike those victim saints whose joy is found only in the life to come, Perpetua is remarkable for her enjoyment of this life, both before and after her conversion, and even in confinement where “the prison was made a palace for me, so that I would sooner be there than anywhere else.” In a vision of heaven Perpetua says, “God be thanked, that I that was glad in the flesh am now even more so.” Her death is not a transition from sad to happy, therefore, but from happy to happier.

Despite its being fewer than twenty pages long, the Passio Perpetuae is a complicated document, from at least three or four pens, only one of which is Perpetua’s own. It is bookended by a preface and a final encomium, both composed by an educated orator (once believed to be Tertullian) who sought to contextualize these writings for posterity. Nested within that grand opening and conclusion is the narration by an anonymous friend of Perpetua’s, whom she had asked to complete her book after she died, who both inserts transitions between the various parts and then recounts everything that took place in the days leading up to the martyrdom and in the arena itself. (It is possible, but in my view unlikely, that the orator and friend are one and the same.) There is also a section by Saturus, the catechist who had “edified” Perpetua and her companions, wherein he relates his vision of being carried to paradise after the martyrdom, along with Perpetua, on the hands of angels. Finally, the deepest layer of the text is Perpetua’s own testimony, written from prison while awaiting the beasts, which accounts for almost half of the Passio.

The internet informs me that Perpetua is the patron saint of ranchers and butchers (which is rather like making Saint Lawrence the patron of Weber and George Foreman), but I think of her as a patroness for converts whose families are hostile to their faith. Not that all her relatives were unsupportive: her mother is mentioned as piously rejoicing at her passion, as are her mother’s sister and Perpetua’s two surviving brothers. In Perpetua’s case the hostility came from her father. He appears three times in her prison journal, and all three times his only goal is to persuade his daughter to commit idolatry. The diary opens in medias res with the first of these episodes, which sets the tone for the whole work. Perpetua describes him as striving “to hurt my faith because of his love”—under no illusions about the evil of his actions (“he departed vanquished, he and the arguments of the devil”), but acknowledging the good of love at the base of that corruption. Probably her father is allowed to visit only on the condition that he try to change her mind—almost as though Meg and Saint Thomas More have switched roles. There is simultaneously a sophistication and a simplicity to Perpetua, which is part of what I love about her. In their first encounter, she alludes to Plato’s Cratylus to answer her father with plain authenticity (no doubt drawing on an education that he himself had provided her): “Father, do you see that vase lying there? Can it be called by any other name than what it is? So neither can I call myself anything but what I am: a Christian.” For my part, I can’t imagine a better argument, but it didn’t work on him, since his response is to lunge at his beloved daughter and try to rip out her eyes. He goes on begging her to pity his old age, insinuating that she despises him, recalling all he has done for her, accusing her of pride, reminding her that she was his favorite over her brothers, blaming her for making him a laughing-stock, listing the various family members whose reputation she will destroy, kissing her hands and groveling at her feet, weeping and calling her “not daughter but lady,” going away sad, returning with her infant son and using him to make her feel guilty, then refusing ever to let her hold the child again. In the end he even tears out his beard in front of her, perhaps now not so much to convince his daughter to save her life as to mourn for one already dead. He debases himself to such a degree that even the judge in charge of Perpetua’s case becomes disgusted, ordering that her father be publicly scourged and humiliated in front of her, which causes her such pain that she feels as though she is receiving the beating herself. One thinks of the climax of Silence, except that unlike Endo’s apostate, Perpetua perseveres. “What happens in this trial will be what pleases God,” she tells her father: “We are not set in our own power, but in his.”

It is remarkable that our Carthaginian saint eventually found her way into the decidedly Roman Canon, and she isn’t there alone. After the Mother of God, the first women mentioned in the great Eucharistic prayer are “Felicitate, Perpetua,” placed even before “Agatha, Lucia, Agnete, Cecilia,” and—the last to be added—“Anastasia.” Saint Felicity was Vibia Perpetua’s companion in death, as she had been her companion in life. But Felicity was not a fellow noblewoman; she was a slave, most likely Perpetua’s own. Like her mistress, she was a new mother at her martyrdom. Unlike her mistress, she delivered her child in prison. Their confinement begins with Perpetua’s breasts aching for her son, and it ends with Felicity giving birth to her daughter—who is then adopted and raised by another woman from their Christian community. In fact, the other martyrs-to-be pray Felicity into labor, since she cannot be led out to the games as long as she is pregnant (Roman law considered the fetus innocent of the mother’s crime), and the martyrs have no intention of “leaving behind so good a friend and fellow traveler on the road of the same hope” to be slain the next month among “strangers and malefactors.” When one of the prison guards mocks her birth pains, saying that she should apostatize after all since the pain of the beasts will be worse than the pain of childbirth, Felicity responds, “I myself suffer now what I suffer, but there another shall be in me who shall suffer for me, because I am to suffer for him.” Both women were evidently well acquainted with that Spirit who teaches what to say before rulers and magistrates.

Indeed Perpetua was so well acquainted with the Holy Spirit that she received from him extraordinary mystical favors. After they have been baptized during house arrest and then transferred into the prison proper, Perpetua is approached by her brother—whether in Christ or in the flesh is not clear—who, sure of her favor with God, tells her to pray for a vision so that they might learn what will become of them. She readily agrees, knowing that she is already “conversant with the Lord, for whose sake I had undergone so much.” There follows the first of four visions Perpetua will receive in prison: she and Saturus are standing before “a ladder of bronze, marvelously great, reaching up to heaven,” but with swords and hooks and all manner of iron threats along the sides for those who deviate from the narrow way. When Saturus calls down to warn her of the serpent (or dragon?) lying below the ladder, she replies with confidence, “It shall not hurt me, in the name of Jesus Christ.” At these words, the serpent in fear softly extends its head to her, and like the Blessed Virgin in miniature, she treads on the snake as though it were the first rung. At the top of the ladder Perpetua finds herself in an expansive garden, and in the middle a tall man with white hair in shepherd’s clothing sits and milks his sheep, surrounded by many thousands robed in white. “Welcome, child,” he says to her—a paternal variation on the Gospel’s Euge serve bone. The Good Shepherd calls her over and offers her a morsel of cheese, which she receives with joined hands. As she consumes it, the onlookers all say, “Amen.” Perpetua wakes up, still eating a certain sweet je ne sais quoi (literally a “nescio quid”). Then interpreting what she has seen, she informs her brother that “it will be a passion—and we began to have no hope any longer in this world.”

Perpetua’s second and third visions go together, and they may be the earliest recorded visions of Purgatory in Church history. One day while the prisoners are together at prayer, Perpetua suddenly finds herself calling out the name of Dinocrates, another of her brothers, this one having died a terrible death from facial tumors at the age of seven. Now God gives her a vision of the pitiful boy, separated from her by an unpassable gulf, and struggling to drink from a fountain whose rim is too high for him to reach—all of which she describes in purposefully Virgilian terms. Perpetua wakes up and begins praying for her brother’s soul, “day and night with groans and tears.” Some days later, when she and her companions have been placed in the stocks, she miraculously beholds Dinocrates once again, now clean and finely clothed and comfortable as the result of her prayers. The fountain has been drawn down to his navel, and he drinks from the living waters that flow without ceasing, with a golden cup that never goes dry. Sated at last, he departs from the fountain and “begins to play as children will, joyfully”—a consoling reminder for all Christians of our power and duty to succor the holy souls. It is noteworthy that Dinocrates’s baptismal status is ambiguous in the text, but he seems to have died long ago, whereas Perpetua herself seems to be a fairly new believer. Perhaps she should also be a patroness for loved ones who die without this sacramental character.

If Perpetua’s relationship with Felicity gives new meaning to the Pauline promise that in Christ there is no slave or free, her fourth vision raises the stakes to include the transcendence of male and female as well. The day before the games, Perpetua has a vision of a deacon friend coming to fetch her from prison and leading her out to the amphitheater. He promises to be with her always, then promptly vanishes (which is probably how the apostles felt at the Ascension). But rather than a beast, Perpetua’s opponent in the arena is revealed to be an odious Egyptian who emerges opposite her, flanked by his demonic team of gladiatorial support staff. A group of beautiful young men appear to serve as Perpetua’s own angelic helpers. They strip her clothes to prepare her for battle, and—she relates matter-of-factly—“I became a man.” (Saint Teresa of Avila would be so proud.) Perpetua’s angels massage her now male body with oil as the Egyptian wallows in the dust. Then there arrives the master of gladiators (a kind of referee, if referees wore white copes with purple orphreys), towering over the whole arena, who announces the contest and then likewise vanishes. The fight itself reads like something out of Mortal Kombat, a flawless victory for Perpetua. After some mutual buffeting early on, she reports that her opponent “wanted to trip up my feet, but with my heels I smote upon his face.” Next the man Perpetua unleashes what can only be described as a bicycle kick. In the end, she finishes him by interlacing her fingers behind the Egyptian’s head, slamming his face into the ground, and treading upon his head just as she had upon that of the serpent—fatality. The crowd cheers at her triumph, her guardian angels sing a hymn, the master of gladiators reappears, and Perpetua receives a green branch with golden apples (echoes of Hercules or Paris). The master kisses her, saying, “Daughter, peace be with you,” and she goes with glory to the victor’s gate, the gate of life. “I awoke,” she says, “and I understood that I should fight not with beasts, but against the devil, but I knew that the victory was mine.”

The Passio’s literal report of her martyrdom is no less fantastic than the iconographic version in Perpetua’s vision. Instead of the customary last meal, the group chooses a Last Supper, feasting together at the table of the Lord on the night before they are to suffer. As “the day of their victory” dawns, the martyrs process from the prison to the arena “as it were into heaven, cheerful and bright of countenance.” If the group trembles at all along the way, “it is for joy, not for fear.” Perpetua herself takes the last place in this procession, which is modeled on the pompa of Roman funerals, but which is presented now as Perpetua’s wedding march. She is “glorious of presence” on this day, “a true spouse of Christ and darling of God.” Her look is powerful and piercing, like a Christian Polyxena, and seeing her all the spectators have to cast down their eyes. Felicity accompanies her mistress, giving thanks that she could bear her child in time to be here, coming now “from blood to blood, from the midwife to the gladiator, to wash after her travail in a second baptism.” Perpetua begins to sing, “already treading on the Egyptian’s head”—while the men of the group threaten the people with divine judgement, and even the procurator himself: “You [judge] us, and God you.” As punishment for these words they receive a scourging even before the games begin, and like the Apostles in Acts, “they give thanks that they have received something of the sufferings of the Lord.”

A disagreement arises about the wardrobe choices for their martyrdom. At first both the men and the women are ordered to put on pagan priestly vestments (the women those of the fertility goddess Ceres), but Perpetua refuses, since they have consented to martyrdom precisely to avoid such sacrilege: “Injustice recognized justice.” She and Felicity are then thrown into the arena wearing only nets, but the people shudder at this, “seeing one a tender girl, the other with breasts dripping from her recent childbearing.” So finally it is resolved that her wedding gown can be a simple set of loose robes. Perpetua is thrown back out, and she lands hard upon her loins. This is one of many references to her womanhood in the course of the passion; another is the savage cow the devil has prepared for her and Felicity, against all custom, to mock their sex. When Perpetua sits up from her fall and realizes that her robe has been torn down the side, her first reaction is to pull it across her thigh, “mindful rather of modesty than of pain.” Then she looks around for a pin to put up her hair, “for it was not meet that a martyr should suffer with hair disheveled, lest she should seem to grieve in her glory.” Seeing Felicity struck down, Perpetua runs to her slave and friend, offers her hand, and raises her up. The two women stand together until they are called back to the gate of life, where Perpetua is described as awaking from a kind of sleep, “so much was she in the Spirit and in ecstasy.” She will not even believe that they have already been thrown to the heifer until she beholds the “marks of mauling” on her body. Perpetua then calls her brother and a catechumen to her side and speaks to them her last recorded words: “Stand fast in the faith, and love one another, and be not offended because of our passion.”

As a final favor from Christ, Who had said, Ask and you shall receive, each of the other companions receives the particular beast that he had desired to face in the arena. Saturus, for example, hated the idea of being killed by a bear, but he prayed and predicted that he would die by one bite of a leopard. Thus the boar that is assigned to him first kills its gladiator instead, and the bear to which he is given next refuses to leave its den. When the leopard comes forth and his prophecy is fulfilled, Saturus is covered with so much blood that the people cry out, “Well washed, well washed.” They mean it as a taunt, but the narrator notes the irony since Saturus is indeed well washed in this bloody baptism. Just before he dies, Saturus calls out for Pudens, the prison warden who had converted in the course of their captivity. Saturus takes a ring from the warden’s finger, dips it in his bite-wound, and returns it to Pudens as an “heirloom,” a “pledge,” a “memorial of his blood”—in other words, a first-class relic. “Now believe with all your heart,” he tells the man, who today is invoked as Saint Pudens Martyr.

At the end of the games all of the prisoners, whether living or dead, are gathered together for the cutting of their throats. Typically this would happen offstage and out of sight, but the bloodthirsty mob in the stands insists that it be done in the center of the arena. Those sacrificial victims with life still in them exchange the kiss of peace before their perfect communion in the body of Christ. Perpetua’s companions are then slain quickly and in silence, but she receives a special end. First, so that she might experience a taste of pain before death since the Spirit had spared her until now, she is pierced between the bones and shrieks. Then the swordsman moves to deliver the final blow, but he is a novice and his hand wanders, so Perpetua helps him by setting the blade upon her own neck. Like her Lord the saint could say, No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. “Perhaps so great a woman could not otherwise have been slain,” the account concludes, “being feared as she was by the unclean spirit, had she herself not so willed it.”

For all its rich narration, one thing the Passio does not mention in this moment is that, as Perpetua stood tall in the center of that amphitheater—staring out with such defiant intensity that no one could meet her gaze, commanding even her own executioner—her Roman judge would have been sitting in the audience. How miserably inadequate he must have felt on that day. Her confession from the trial, “Christiana sum,” must have been ringing in his ears. His victim won the victory over him, not just in an otherworldly sense but also here below. This is the same woman who a few days prior, longing to be offered as an unblemished sacrifice, had confronted her own jailer for denying her basic nutrition and sanitation, overcoming him with appeals to his occupational self-interest vis-à-vis the Caesar. Perpetua puts the lie to the idea that the early Christians were somehow apolitical. Martyrdom is a political act. It is infinitely more than this, but not less. The martyrs prove by their blood that no state can stop them. Not even the threat of death will discourage these Christians. To the contrary, this radical religious sect takes the worst punishment a government can inflict and transforms it into a reward, a palm, a crown. Vibia Perpetua is a Roman citizen, but even Rome’s denying her a citizen’s execution will not deter this noblewoman. Felicity is a slave, but by her witness she challenges the state’s claim to such absolute authority over her. The martyrs glory in their deaths and so defeat the pagan empire. There were more conversions than executions on that day. “The blood of the martyrs, the seed of the Church”—and of Christendom as well.

Saint Perpetua was martyred in A.D. 203, when even the Patristic period was barely underway, and I think of her Passio as a kind of “unfiltered Christianity.” In saying that, I do not mean to imply that filters are bad (no one who has tasted those trendy unfiltered “bio” wines could possibly think so). Our holy religion, like a fine wine, has been improved by filtering. I may have even greater affection for this mater et martyr than I do for the Doctor Angelicus, but at the end of the day I am still a Thomist of the strict observance, and, as Thomas would remind us, while the object of our faith is supremely simple—God Himself—nevertheless we men are far from simple. The careful elaborations of our creeds and sacred theology are how we complex creatures have come to understand our simple God. The development of Catholicism is a good thing; there is a maturity to our filtered faith. So I do not advocate some archaeologizing return to the allegedly purer article of the early Church—I have read too much Newman for that. Nonetheless, when it comes to Vibia Perpetua’s “unfiltered Christianity,” I confess that it is sometimes still refreshing to encounter the raw article.

For those who would like to see for themselves, there are any number of English translations of the Passio Perpetuae, several of which are available for free online. There is even a very fine graphic novel from Oxford University Press, which can be enjoyed by children and adults alike. But I would encourage those who have studied Latin to try this text in the original. It is well worth the effort, and as ancient texts go this one isn’t too hard. In fact, I used the Passio for my Latin II students when I was teaching seminarians, the first real literature they would encounter after a year of grammar studies, and they always did just fine. We followed an early draft of what has now been published as a proper textbook, edited by Thomas G. Hendrickson and his own Latin students, and put out by Pixelia Publishing as a part of its Experrecta Series (so named for Perpetua’s frequent “awakenings”). A comparable Latin edition was prepared last year by the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Sarah Klitenic Wear under the title Patience and Salvation in Third Century North Africa, which besides the Passio also contains Tertullian’s Ad martyras and Saint Cyprian’s De bono patientiae. Wear’s volume is more advanced than Hendrickson’s and perhaps somewhat more professional; I recommend either or both. As of 2012, there is also a new critical edition and translation by Thomas Heffernan, complete with more than three hundred pages of first-rate scholarly commentary (if one can tune out his occasional un-Catholic biases). Unfortunately, academic pricing applies.

Of all the options out there, however, my personal favorite is an edition published almost a century ago by Sheed and Ward, with the full Latin text as well as a lovely (if antiquated) translation by W. H. Shewring. It was then reprinted in 2002 by Ignatius Press as a part of its best series, now inexplicably discontinued, the Classics of Catholic Tradition (which also included such gems as Hugh of St. Victor’s commentary on the Rule of Saint Augustine and William Roper’s Life of Sir Thomas More). The Ignatius version is simple and handsome, though hard to find these days. But because the original is out of copyright it is now possible to pick up a reprint through Hassell Street Press, which is anyway better than nothing.

One of the nicest things about this volume, in any of these iterations, is that it includes Shewring’s translation of four homilies of Saint Augustine, preached in different years on the feast of Saints Perpetua and Felicity. Contrasting the arena where they were martyred with the church where they are honored, Augustine declares:

The children of them whose voices in evil wise raged against the martyrs’ flesh do with godly voices now praise the martyrs’ worth; nor was the theatre of cruelty then so filled with them that gathered together unto their slaughter as is the church of godliness now with them that gather together unto their honour. Every year doth charity with religion behold that which on one day wickedness with sacrilege did commit. . . . Lastly, their insulting hath become our exulting: but this is holy and everlasting; that was unholy then, and now is nothing.

Evoking Perpetua’s fourth vision, and remarking on her and Felicity’s virile femininity, Saint Augustine asks his congregation:

For what thing might there be more glorious than these women, whom men may wonder at sooner than they may imitate? But this is chiefly the glory of Him, in Whom they that believe . . . are indeed according to the inward man neither male nor female; so that even in them that are women in body the manliness of their soul hideth the sex of their flesh, and we may scarce think of that in their bodily condition which they suffered not to appear in their deeds.

Recalling her first vision and summoning the faithful to her cult, Augustine even paints Perpetua as another new Eve:

The dragon therefore was trodden down by the chaste foot and victorious tread of the blessed Perpetua, when that upward ladder was shown her whereby she should go to God; and the head of the ancient serpent, which to her that fell was a stone of stumbling, was made a step unto her that rose.

After the Passio itself, these homilies are the only tributes I consider worthy of my beloved saint, and they are written by one who is as taken with her as I am.

During their doctoral studies in Rome, two of my priest friends made a pact to celebrate Mass at the tomb of every saint in the Roman Canon. I have not yet followed their footsteps down to Carthage (a suburb of modern-day Tunis), where a shrine still stands to our holy martyrs. But on the hottest day of last summer, I was able to make a pilgrimage through the Loire Valley, to which region Perpetua’s body was translated in the ninth century, and to pay her a visit in the small town of Vierzon, France. There is nothing extraordinary about the church. As with many such places, most of the locals have no idea what a treasure they possess. Perpetua’s relics are housed in a side altar on the epistle side, before a less-than-wonderful depiction of her in a stained-glass window, and beside an awful felt banner left over from 2003 (the eighteen-hundredth anniversary of her martyrdom). But a stack of holy cards indicates that there is still a “Fraternité Sainte Perpétue” in the parish, and the burnt-out candle stubs show that someone there has still wanted her intercession. That day I lit several of my own—including for the Walther family, since the editor of this magazine has given his two eldest daughters “Perpetua” and “Felicitas” for their middle names.

Which calls to mind one last element that I love in Augustine’s sermons. Ever the rhetorician, Augustine in all four homilies plays with the etymologies of Perpetua and Felicity, which are too perfect not to have been providentially arranged for just these two women. “For wherefore do martyrs endure all things if not for this,” Augustine asks, “that they may rejoice in perpetual felicity?”

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Urban Hannon’s writing has appeared in First Things, Ethika Politika, and other publications. He currently studies theology in Rome.