Today marks the optional memorial of the early martyrs Perpetua and Felicity, put to death likely in the year 203, under the reign of Septimius Severus, an emperor who seems on the whole to have been well-disposed to Christians. But the religion was still one hundred and ten years away from being legally recognized by Constantine, and could suffer persecution even without an emperor’s explicit command, for example, by local magistrates with a grudge, or to offer a spectacle to a bored populace. In this case, the claim is made that the ‘games’ in the Coliseum in which these Christians were put to death were in honour of the emperor’s birthday.
The two saints are amongst that rare group of martyrs the ‘acts’ of whose passion are recounted in contemporaneous terms, in this case in the first person, by Perpetua herself, with additions from an editor, offering a vivid window into the real-life persecution of Christians, the horrible nature of their sufferings, and what supernatural courage, determination and even joy they displayed. It is, as the saying goes, like ‘being there’. As the excerpt from today’s Office has it:
The day of the martyrs’ victory dawned. They marched from their cells into the amphitheatre, as if into heaven, with cheerful looks and graceful bearing. If they trembled it was for joy and not for fear.
It all makes for a rather dramatic and spiritually embracing read, highly recommended.
Both Perpetua and Felicity were young mothers, and even with this near-irresistible earthly bond, both refused to apostatize and give up their faith, and their very souls. They knew God would take care not only of their own eternal fate, but also the fate of their infants. Perpetua offered her child to her own mother and brother to be raised, while Felicity – a slave girl – was actually pregnant, and feared she would miss out on her martyrdom, for the Romans, for all their cruelty, refused to put to death women who were ‘in the family way’. This should give our own age, with less care for the unborn, some pause. But Felicity gave birth in prison, giving the child away to Christian parents we may presume.
Both women, along with a number of others, were sent out into the stadium, scourged, then set upon by wild beasts, who tore at their flesh. Wounded and bleeding, they were dispatched by the sword. Perpetua’s own death offers encouragement to us all:
The others stood motionless and received the deathblow in silence, especially Saturus, who had gone up first and was first to die; he was helping Perpetua. But Perpetua, that she might experience the pain more deeply, rejoiced over her broken body and guided the shaking hand of the inexperienced gladiator to her throat. Such a woman – one before whom the unclean spirit trembled – could not perhaps have been killed, had she herself not willed it.
We read in the Gospel Christ’s exhortation that If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. And he who does not carry his cross and follow me, cannot be my disciple.
By ‘hate’ Christ means that we must love God above all things, and everything, and everyone else, in light of this same love of God. As such, we must be willing, should push come to shove, to ‘lose’ everything else, even our nearest and dearest, for His sake. For only from such an eternal perspective can we hope to find and gain our true reward. Life is a pilgrimage towards heaven – if we but accept the mission. If there is one thing missing from the bland and flaccid ecclesia moderna, it is that – a sense of adventure, a challenge put before us. Love costs, and grace is not cheap. The early saints saw themselves as spiritual athletes for Christ, and as Saint Paul said, if they give up so much for the gloria mundi, what are we willing to give up for the gloria Dei?
We may have a well-founded hope that both Perpetua and Felicity are now enjoying the company of their children, and their children’s children to many generations in a happy Jerusalem. For God is never outdone in generosity, and what we offer to Him in this life – however radical it may seem – He will give back to us, flowing over, a hundredfold.
It was also on this day in 1274, on his way to the Second Council of Lyons, that Saint Thomas Aquinas fell ill, soon after his departure from the Dominican priory in Rome. He was taken to the Cistercian monastery at Fossanuova, where the monks nursed him for the few days had had left on this earth. Thomas, who laboured in the Lord’s vineyard to the very end, in return offered the monks a verbal commentary on the Song of Songs. As the great Dominican received the Last Rites, he prayed: I have written and taught much about this very holy Body, and about the other sacraments in the faith of Christ, and about the Holy Roman Church, to whose correction I expose and submit everything I have written.
Earlier, in December of 1273, after a mysterious vision on the feast of Saint Nicholas, Thomas had declared that, in comparison to what he had seen, all he had written seemed as straw. Yet what straw it was. When someone protested in the process of Thomas’ canonization that there were no miracles in his life, one of the cardinals replied: “tot miraculis, quot articulis“—”there are as many miracles (in his life) as articles” (that is, in his Summa Theologica).
This March 7th was Thomas’ original feast (and still is in the usus antiquior), but was moved in the revisions of 1969 to January 28th, likely to move it out of Lent. But we may still celebrate in some small way on this day, when the pure soul of Thomas went straight to the Lord, Whom he had loved so much.
Sancti Perpetua, Felicitas et Thomas, orate pro nobis! +