Saturday, September 20, 2008

Vibia Perpetua

For my Spiritual Formation course, I had to do a quick report on a Saint from the history of the Church. Mine was on a female figure from the very early Christian church, Vibia Perpetua. I thought some of you might be interested in it so I'm posting it. Enjoy!

At the time of Vibia Perpetua, around the year 203 C.E., the nation of Carthage in North Africa was under Roman occupation.[1] Rome imposed its culture on the people of Carthage and required its citizens to make sacrifices to the Emperor. The distribution of power in the country at that time was divided among three strata of society; the powerful Roman citizens, the colonized Carthaginians (who enjoyed a fair amount of influence), and the indigenous Berbers who had lost whatever power they once held, and worked in the olive groves and grain fields of the Romans.[2]
These were the early days of the Christian church, and the Roman authorities under Emperor Septimius Severus went to great lengths to suppress the new sect. Politically, they viewed Christians as dangerous because they refused to partake in Emperor worship, and the Romans wanted to avoid political upheaval that could disrupt trade (Carthage being a central trade port at this time).[3]
Perpetua was a Christian catechumen (or person who has been instructed in the faith for the purpose of baptism).[4] She was arrested under the authority of Emperor Septimius and, upon refusing to deny her Christianity, was martyred in the arena. We have a first-person account of her time in prison leading up to her death. From this, we learn that she was a young mother nursing an infant son at the time, and that she willingly accepted death as a means to uphold the truth of the church and to confirm her faith. She was given multiple visions during her time in prison, one of which showed her she would become a martyr, and one which gave her insight into her time in the arena and brought her to the belief that she would be struggling against not an Egyptian warrior or ferocious beasts, but the Devil himself. In an epilogue added later to her Passion, describing the scene at her death, she is described as "singing victory psalms... [and rejoicing] in that [she] had already obtained yet another share in her Lord's suffering].[5]
Perpetua's account of her time in prison is characterized by a deep selflessness – she speaks only of her fear and anxiety for others and never for herself. She worries for her family on account of their grief at having her in prison, and is intensely worried for her hungry child until he is permitted to stay in the prison with her, at which point she says "I immediately regained my strength. Suddenly the prison became my palace, and I loved being there rather than any other place."[6]
We know that Perpetua was a young, educated, newly married and probably beautiful young woman from a prosperous Roman family. Her death left her son without a mother (and possibly without a father, as his conspicuous absence from her account suggests he may have been the one to turn her in to the authorities).[7] Her sacrifice is exceptional for these reasons, because it shook the view of Christianity at the time. The gory public spectacles in the amphitheatre were intended not only to dispatch Christians but to dissuade others from joining the sect – the Romans sought to disprove the value of Christianity by showing that their faith would not save them. That Perpetua, a wealthy Roman citizen, would die for this faith was alarming. So was her friendship with people of all strata of society, such as her companion Felicitas who was martyred with her. Indeed, Perpetua embraced martyrdom as a chance to evangelize for her faith, both in her public "trial" (such as it was) before the spectacle, where she declared herself a Christian before the Roman authorities, and in the very act of her death itself.
Perpetua's writings are important for all Christians, but especially for Christian women looking for examples of piety and strength in the early church. In the words of church historian Frederic Palmer, in reading her account we are struck by "the nobility of human character it reveals, the sturdy loyalty to conviction, the courage that rises to joy, the triumphant dominance of the spirit over the body."[8]

P.S., this week we got to work with another amazing Christian woman – Dr. Mary Oyer. She has received a long list of well-deserved honours, not least among them a designation as one of the twenty most influential Mennonites of the twentieth century, and Fellow(ess?) of the Hymn Society of Canada and the United States. She has traveled all over the world learning music of different cultures and is a champion for congregational song. She's also in her mid-eighties and feisty! We had great fun singing with and learning from her.


[1] Shawn Madigan, ed., Mystics, Visionaries and Prophets: A Historical Anthology of Women's Spiritual Writings (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1998), 10.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, s.v. "catechumen," Donald K. McKim (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 40.
[5] From handout distributed by Rev. Marilyn Dickson [as quoted from Wilson-Kastner, G. Ronald Kastner, Ann Millin, Rosemary Rader, and Jeremiah Reedy, trans., "The Martyrdom of Perpetua," in A Lost Tradition: Women Writers of the Early Church (Landham, MD: University Press of America, 1981), 20-29], 63.
[6] Ibid., 61.
[7] Palmer, Frederic. "Perpetua and Felicitas, Martyrs and Saints", in Heretics, Saints and Martyrs (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1925), 180.
[8] Palmer, 184.

2 comments:

Larry said...

Yikes! Are you getting marked on this paper? It's very good. Cool story too.

hilaryseraph said...

Lol, sadly no. I should have said; this is for my "Spiritual Formation" course, which is all about taking care of our souls, and which we don't get credit for. So it's a pass/fail kind of situation. Hopefully the little pictures on foam card that David made for me put me over the top on this one.