By Ruth Amsden (Rated PG)
“And others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection.”
The story of the earthly sufferings and the Heavenly visions of St. Perpetua, an early Christian writer and teacher who gave up her life for Christ, is told in three different voices in The Passion of St. Perpetua. The first voice is Perpetua’s own. She tells her story as only she knows it, detailing to us her personal sufferings, as not only a condemned prisoner of the Roman Empire, but also as a mother of a small child and the daughter of a devoted father who is not resigned to her fate. Her story ends in Carthage, in the Roman arena, to be continued by her fellow martyr Saturus. Saturus, who will lay down his life in the gladiator games by Perpetua’s side, records his glorious vision of the heavenly land to which he and Perpetua will come home. These first-hand accounts are framed by an editorial explanation. Obviously written much later, this text has the advantage of the perspective of many years after the martyrs gave up their lives. The thrust of the editorial text is to present the glory of the martyr’s sacrifices for the edification and encouragement of contemporaneous saints.
Perpetua’s writing is a prison diary, a first-hand account in her own words of her resolution not to forsake her new-found Christian faith in the face of her father’s pleadings and tears, her own baby’s need of her, and the rough handling of the soldiers who cast her into prison. The goal of her prison diary appears to be to explain to her family why it was that she could not take the easy way out and deny her Christian faith. As she so eloquently pleads to her father, just as a vessel cannot be called by any other name, “so also I cannot call myself anything but what I am, a Christian.”
Perpetua’s prison diary is also a record of the visions of coming glory that gave meaning to her sufferings and gave her strength to face the beasts in the Roman arena. Although she foresaw in her vision of the bronze ladder and the dragon’s head that she would suffer, the vision gave her a glimpse of the glory that would be her reward. The bronze ladder, blazoned with weapons of cruelty, and the dragon, were merely obstacles to be passed on the way to the wonderful garden in which stood a Good Shepherd.
Finally, Perpetua’s prison diary gives us an account that only she could tell of her close relationship with God. As a holy woman in favor with God because of her commitment to her faith, she is confident that she can be assured of a vision of the sufferings and the glory to follow. She is confident that she can deliver by earnest prayer her brother who had died years before. And she is assured that she will win a final victory over the Devil in the garrison games.
Saturnus’ continuation of Perpetua’s narrative takes up the story where hers left off. But instead of a factual account of the Games, his account is of a glorious vision of his own. Carried in the arms of the angels beyond the reach of all suffering, his vision for himself, Perpetua, and their fellow martyrs is a rose-garden leading up to the very throne of God. Here they are welcomed by the angels, cherished by God, and reunited in peace and love with those who have gone before. Here is reassurance that Perpetua’s hope of a glorious reward is not a vain one. She is happy here in Saturus’s vision, surrounded by sweet fragrances, and content in God’s presence. While Perpetua’s prison diary is much concerned with present sufferings, Saturus’s vision gives us a glimpse of what lies beyond their pain.
The editorial framework provides an historical context for these personal accounts. The desire of the editor is that the sufferings and glory of the martyrs would be preserved and recounted so that contemporaneous saints could realize the power and glory of God had not changed in the centuries since the Christian persecutions. Claiming the will of the Holy Spirit, the editor fulfills that goal and answers the charge of Perpetua by providing a detailed account of the garrison games, in which the holy martyrs walked singing to their deaths.
These writings have been combined into one text called The Passion. Rather than expressing strong sexual or emotional feelings, in the commonly used sense of the word, “Passion” here refers to the sufferings and death of Christ. The holy martyrs, who were counted worthy to lay down their lives for Christ, were partakers in His sufferings and in His glory.
St. Perpetua. Trans. H. R. Musurillo. The Passion of St. Perpetua. Medieval Women’s Visionary Literature, ed. Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff. New York, Oxford University Press 1986
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