Novak (novak) wrote,
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Theological Notebook: The 1805th Feast of Perpetua and Felicitas

One of the most remarkable documents I've ever read from the ancient world is The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas. What makes this account of the martyrdom of a group of new Christians particularly noteworthy is that the text contains within it the journal that this 22 year-old woman, Perpetua, kept while she was in prison, awaiting her execution. We have virtually nothing written by women from the ancient world. And while she's educated, she seems to write in a more immediate style compared to other texts I've read from the period, one maybe less affected by current literary conventions, but perhaps for all that more to our own literary taste. For women's history, for early Christian history, for popular history – for all these areas of historical interest, her document is an absolute treasure, beyond price.

Hers is a robust, deeply-experiential Christianity: one given to the interpretation of dreams and the expectation of God speaking to them in visions. Early instances of prayer for the dead, of Christian visions of the afterlife, of the high status accorded to martyrs and the belief that their spiritual status and authority is one to which the bishops would appeal: all of these appear within the text. It is another side of the African Christianity that dominates Christianity's roots – Europe not becoming the intellectual center of Christianity until the Muslim invaders destroyed the bulk of African Christianity and culture in their invasions in the 7th century.

This is a text I had my high school Church History students read, their first experience at reading a primary source in my course. I toyed with the idea of pulling it out for my current Theology Through the Centuries course, but it didn't seem to fit as strongly as some other texts for our central "Trinity, Incarnation, Salvation" themes. Nevertheless, it remains a favourite of mine. Today is their feast day, the 1805th anniversary of their deaths. I try to make a point of remembering these people on this day: Vibia Perpetua, Felicitas, Revocatus, Saturninus, Secundulus and Saturus, their teacher who voluntarily joined them in prison so as to help see them through what lay ahead of them, and becoming, to my mind, perhaps the most dedicated teacher in Christian history.

Saturus is the most interesting figure in the text other than Perpetua and Felicity, and though he probably deserved his name in the title of the text, too, he has traditionally been overshadowed by the drama involved in the martyrdom of these young women. This was true even in antiquity, as I can see in the sermons Augustine annually preached on this day, commemorating the locally-popular heroes, which featured public readings of Perpetua's text. He too was, with the people, particularly focused on Perpetua and Felicitas. (Although Felicity is really the third most prominent figure in the text, I'd say, after the distant "second place" of Saturus.) And thus Augustine could ask, "For what could be more glorious than these women, whom men admire much more readily than they imitate?"

For me, personally, it was a tremendous afternoon when I had the chance to make a pilgrimage and visit the site of their martyrdom in the ruins of the Roman amphitheatre in ancient Carthage. I have a photo study of the Amphitheatre of the Martyrs here in my ScrapBook/Photo Album, if you are curious. More importantly, though, if you have the time or the interest, you might read the account, too. Perhaps as a Lenten moment. It seem to be winning more fans today, I see, with two recent novel/historical fiction adaptations, and even this attempt at translating the text into colloquial English (or this edited and less robust one).

The text leaves several images burned into my mind, not least of which is this final scene, reproduced here in this contemporary painting. The utter courage and faith of the woman, and maybe the wherewithal to still be challenging the jeering crowd, is here vividly and even brazenly demonstrated: she takes the sword of the freaked-out soldier (who understandably could be wavering, as he probably hadn't conceived of his role as a Roman soldier to be publicly stabbing young noblewomen) and guides it to her own throat in a final act of acceptance or defiance. Little wonder, then, that she still captures our memory and imagination today.
Tags: art, augustine, dreams, mysticism/spirituality, patristics, saint joseph's high school, teaching, theological notebook, travel-1998 rome/tunisia, tunisia
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