One of the most interesting and moving documents from the early Church is the small diary kept by Perpetua, a catechumen of the Church of Carthage, in the days before her martyrdom with other Christians in about 203 A.D. When we read her own words we find ourselves brought into the life of the earliest Christians in a most direct manner. The introduction to her account begins…
There were apprehended the young catechumens, Revocatus and Felicity his fellow servant, Saturninus and Secundulus. With them also was Vibia Perpetua, nobly born and reared in a liberal manner, honorably married; having a father and mother and two brothers, one of them a catechumen like herself, and a son, a child at the breast; and she herself was about twenty-two years of age. What follows here she will tell herself; the whole order of her martyrdom as she left it written with her own hand and in her own words.
There were five of them, arrested and held on the charge of being Christians. Some of them were servants, but Perpetua was of a noble family and carried her infant son with her. Her father was a pagan, and he tried to urge her to abandon her faith. But she responded to him saying…
Father, said I, Do you see this vessel lying, a jug or whatever it may be? And he said, I see it. And I said to him, Can it be called by any other name than that which it is? And he answered, No. So I cannot call myself anything other than that which I am, a Christian.
What a brave response from someone who was a catechumen. But very soon she was made a member of the Church, even while she could have easily denied her Lord. In her own words she records…
In this same space of a few days we were baptised, and the Spirit declared to me, I must pray for nothing else after that water save only endurance of the flesh. After a few days we were taken into prison, and I was much afraid because I had never known such darkness. O bitter day! There was a great heat because of the crowd, there was cruel handling of the soldiers. Lastly I was tormented there by care for the child.
What a moving description, and in the very words of this Christian sister from the earliest years of the Church. Far from abandoning her Faith, the trial into which she found herself plunged led her to be even more committed, and to receive baptism as the preparation for what might follow. What is immediately of interest is that Perpetua, having been baptised, receives a word from the Holy Spirit instructing her to pray for endurance, for the strength to persevere rather to escape.
Two of the Deacons from the Church were able to pay the guards so that for a few hours Perpetua and her companions were able to be held in a less unpleasant part of the prison, and she was visited by her mother and brother, to whom she was able to commend her little son, and she was finally able to feed the child, who had grown weak with hunger. After several more days she was able to keep the baby with her and was much comforted by his presence.
Her brother, during his visit, asked his sister…
Lady, my sister, you are now in high honour, even such that you might ask for a vision; and it should be shown you whether this be a passion or else a deliverance. And I, as knowing that I conversed with the Lord, for Whose sake I had suffered such things, promised him nothing doubting; and I said: Tomorrow I will tell you. And I asked, and this was shown me.
Her brother wanted to know from the Lord whether this trial would lead to the martyrdom of those who had been arrested, or whether they would finally be released after bearing witness to their Faith. Perpetua had no doubt that God would reveal this to her, and now she describes what she saw…
I beheld a ladder of bronze, marvelously great, reaching up to heaven; and it was narrow, so that not more than one might go up at one time. And in the sides of the ladder were planted all manner of things of iron. There were swords there, spears, hooks, and knives; so that if any that went up took not good heed or looked not upward, he would be torn and his flesh cling to the iron. And there was right at the ladder’s foot a serpent lying, marvelously great, which lay in wait for those that would go up, and frightened them that they might not go up. Now Saturninus went up first (who afterwards had of his own free will given up himself for our sakes, because it was he who had edified us; and when we were taken he had not been there). And he came to the ladder’s head; and he turned and said: Perpetua, I await you; but see that serpent bite you not. And I said: it shall not hurt me, in the name of Jesus Christ. And from beneath the ladder, as though it feared me, it softly put forth its head; and as though I trod on the first step I trod on its head. And I went up, and I saw a very great space of garden, and in the midst a man sitting, white-headed, in shepherd’s clothing, tall milking his sheep; and standing around in white were many thousands. And he raised his head and beheld me and said to me: Welcome, child. And he cried to me, and from the curd he had from the milk he gave me as it were a morsel; and I took it with joined hands and ate it up; and all that stood around said, Amen. And at the sound of that word I awoke, yet eating I know not what of sweet.
And at once I told my brother, and we knew it should be a passion; and we began to have no hope any longer in this world.
This was the first vision of Perpetua. There is a ladder reaching up to heaven, but the one who ascends by it must be careful in his steps. On the first rung of the ladder there was a serpent waiting for those who would go up, and seeking to frighten those who had not yet put their foot upon the step. Saturus was the first to climb the ladder, and he called back down to Perpetua to be careful of the serpent. But she spoke the name of Jesus Christ and trod on its head. When she reached the top of the ladder she saw a wonderful garden, and a shepherd surrounded by thousands, who gave her something to eat. And when the people said, Amen, she awoke still eating something sweet.
What can we make of this vision? Perpetua knew that it meant that they would all be martyred, and that Saturninus would be the first. Satan was the serpent at the foot of the ladder, and the garden at the summit, with the shepherd, was Paradise and her Lord Jesus.
Her father came again to visit her, and tried once more, speaking of her family and of her son, to induce her to abandon her Faith. She was sad because he was the only one of her family who would not support her during the trial of her Faith. He left her sorrowful again.
Then the group of Christians were brought together before the Procurator in the forum, where a great crowd had gathered. Perpetua’s father was present there as well, and the judge tried to convince her that her duty as a daughter and mother required her to offer sacrifice to the gods. But she would not be moved, and Hilarian the Procurator condemned her and the others to death by the wild beasts. She asked her father to let her have her son, but he took him away, and Perpetua notes that miraculously she was not made ill by ceasing breast feeding to suddenly, and the little boy was weaned and no longer needed his mother to feed him.
A few days later, Perpetua has a second vision. She introduces it saying…
While we were all praying, suddenly in the midst of the prayer I uttered a word and named Dinocrates; and I was amazed because he had never come into my mind save then; and I sorrowed, remembering his fate. And straightway I knew that I was worthy, and that I ought to ask for him. And I began to pray for him long, and to groan unto the Lord. Immediately the same night, this was shown me.
We should know that Dinocrates was a younger brother of Perpetua, and he had died some time before without ever becoming a Christian. In the prison the Christian witnesses had not ceased to pray, just as the Apostles had done when they had been imprisoned, and while she was praying, suddenly the name of her brother came into her mind. He had not been a Christian, and she felt that she should pray for him, and so Perpetua began to pray earnestly and deeply and without ceasing, and in such a state of prayer she had another vision…
I beheld Dinocrates coming forth from a dark place, where were many others also; being both hot and thirsty, his raiment foul, his color pale; and the wound on his face which he had when he died. This Dinocrates had been my brother in the flesh, seven years old, who being diseased with ulcers of the face had come to a horrible death, so that his death was abominated of all men. For him therefore I had made my prayer; and between him and me was a great gulf, so that either might not go to the other. There was moreover, in the same place where Dinocrates was, a font full of water, having its edge higher than was the boy’s stature; and Dinocrates stretched up as though to drink. I was sorry that the font had water in it, and yet for the height of the edge he might not drink.
And I awoke, and I knew that my brother was suffering. Yet I was confident I should ease his suffering; and I prayed for him every day till we passed over into the camp prison. (For it was in the camp games that we were to fight; and the time was the feast of the Emperor Geta’s birthday.) And I prayed for him day and night with groans and tears, that he might be given me.
What does Perpetua see? Her brother, Dinocrates, is in a dark place. He doesn’t look well. He is pale and his clothing is dirty. He still bears the marks on his face of the cancer that had been the cause of his death. There was a basin of water where she saw Dinocrates, but it was too high for him to reach and be refreshed. She could see that between them was a chasm so that she could not go to him, and he could not come to her. It was for her brother that she had been praying, and his situation seemed desperate.
When Perpetua awoke from this vision, she remembered that she had seen her brother suffering. But she believed that by her prayers she could ease his suffering, and so she continued to pray every day. She records that she prayed for him day and night, without ceasing, and with many groans and tears, so that forgetting her own situation she was more concerned with her brother and his condition in the darkness of Hades. Perpetua continued in deep and earnest prayer for her brother, and she was given another vision…
I saw that place which I had before seen, and Dinocrates clean of body, finely clothed, in comfort; and the font I had seen before, the edge of it being drawn to the boy’s navel; and he drew water thence which flowed without ceasing. And on the edge was a golden cup full of water; and Dinocrates came up and began to drink therefrom; which cup failed not. And being satisfied he departed away from the water and began to play as children will, joyfully.
And I awoke. Then I understood that he was translated from his pains.
Now she sees that her brother Dinocrates is clean and dressed well, and is no longer suffering. The basin of water was now in his reach, and cool, refreshing water flowed without ceasing so that he could drink as much as he wanted, and he is seen by Perpetua to play like a child filled with joy. When she reflects on this vision after waking, she knows that it means he is no longer in the place of gloom and darkness, but has been brought out of Hades into Paradise.
Then, as the day of her martyrdom approached, Perpetua had another vision…
The day before we fought, I saw in a vision that Pomponius the deacon had come hither to the door of the prison, and knocked hard upon it. And I went out to him and opened to him; he was clothed in a white robe ungirdled, having shoes curiously wrought. And he said to me: Perpetua, we await you; come. And he took my hand, and we began to go through rugged and winding places. At last with much breathing hard we came to the amphitheatre, and he led me into the midst of the arena. And he said to me: Be not afraid; I am here with you and labour together with you. And he went away. … And there came forth a man of very great stature, and he besought silence and said: The Egyptian, if shall conquer this woman, shall slay her with the sword; and if she shall conquer him, she shall receive this branch. And he went away. And we came nigh to each other, and began to buffet one another. He tried to trip up my feet, but I with my heels smote upon his face. And I rose up into the air and began so to smite him as though I trod not the earth. But when I saw that there was yet delay, I joined my hands, setting finger against finger of them. And I caught his head, and he fell upon his face; and I trod upon his head. And the people began to shout, and my helpers began to sing. And I went up to the master of gladiators and received the branch. And he kissed me and said to me: Daughter, peace be with you. And I began to go with glory to the gate called the Gate of Life.
And I awoke; and I understood that I should fight, not with beasts but against the devil; but I knew that mine was the victory.
Perpetua was encouraged by this vision. Not only would she be supported in the contest by the thought of others standing with her, but she saw that she would be victorious, by God’s help, against Satan, and she would receive the victor’s branch. The day came for their martyrdom. After being abused in various ways, the martyrs faced the wild beasts, Perpetua and Felcitas being torn by a wild cow. Then having been mauled in such a way, the sword of the soldier despatched them all. Perpetua was stabbed by an untrained swordsman, and she took the blade and placed it at her own neck, so that it was said of her…
Perhaps so great a woman could not otherwise have been killed (the unclean spirit being so afraid of her) had she not herself so willed it.
This is a moving account of great faithfulness even to death. And it represents the living testimony of the Christian life and hope of those who lived at the beginning of the Church, when the remembrance of the Apostles was still fresh, and when the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church.
May the prayers of the great martyr, St Perpetua, and her companions be with us all.