March 7 is the Feast Day for Sts. Perpetua and Felicity (Felicitas). Perpetua’s letter to her father is a powerful testimony — then and now. I’m part of a small writing group in which we have 2 pages each week to write on a top that varies each week. In this case, the “spark” was “key.” This fictional dialogue between the two saints is what emerged.
Background: Perpetua was a noblewoman who lived in Carthage with her husband, infant son, and slave Felicity at the beginning of the third century. After Septimius Severus became Emperor in 193 CE, he proceeded to cripple Christianity on the grounds that it undermined Roman patriotism. Among those arrested were five Christians, including both Perpetua and Felicity. Perpetua’s father pleaded with her to renounce her faith, but she refused to do so. Her letters to him were as widely distributed as those of St. Paul to the early church and were instrumental in attracting people to the faith. Jailed while awaiting execution in the amphitheater, this “conversation” between Perpetua and her slave occurred on 4 March 203.
Perpetua: Felicity, you don’t have to become a martyr for Christ! You’re my servant and I herewith absolve you of all wanted or unwanted devotion to me or my faith. And before you protest too much, consider this: first, unlike me, you’re not yet baptized, and second, you will deliver a child in a month or so. Thus, Christians won’t condemn you and the Romans won’t execute you. You have time to reconsider. So please don’t let my fervor influence you; decide for yourself and your child-to-be.
Felicity: My lady, I watch you and other Christians and I am in awe. It was humbling to listen yesterday as you spoke to your father with a blend of kindness and firmness I’ve never witnessed before. Instead of being subservient – like me – you have a power that is quiet but inviolate. Christian women are taken as seriously as men; they seem to possess an authority that comes from God. That is why I want to join you – to experience the fearlessness that comes with faith. You make choices based on love, not power, and courage, not fear. I recognize that as liberty. It is something I have never known, so please allow me to join Christ and you in this path to freedom.
Perpetua: Those are lovely thoughts, but remember that you cannot follow me into the arena of death and new life: you have an infant growing inside you …
Felicity: Yes, but I have been praying fervently for the baby to come early. And just as your husband will care for your son, so also will other Christians foster my child. All will be well: I know that Jesus hears me and will do what is best…
Perpetua: Hmmm… How do you know? I understand my faith, but yours…?
Felicity: Dear lady, as you know, during the last years since we first learned about Jesus, I’ve been having wonderful dreams, unlike anything in the past. You understand this, for you write about your visions in ways that our leaders celebrate. But I haven’t been willing to share, until now. Usually it’s Jesus or Mary who bring encouragement, but last night, it was a very strange bird-like creature that came and hovered just a foot from my head. I was walking along a mountainous path far above the sea, wondering about life, and death, and whether Jesus was for real, and what heaven is like, or if, in fact, there is anything after death. I was wondering whether God controls everything or not, and whether God is kind or mean or in-between. Will martyrdom bring believers to Jesus and eternal happiness or is it just a silly notion to keep us docile? I was muttering some of these things aloud when this bird – it was colorful and huge like the mythical phoenix, but hovered without flapping its wings – rather like an angel over my shoulder. All of a sudden, it spoke aloud:
“Felicity, as you ponder what to do or what not to do – whether to join Perpetua and the other Christians in a brutal death or to take advantage of your pregnancy and slave status to deny your faith, know that God has sent me with one message and one message only. It is this: God is love and God will love you whatever you choose. Nothing more, nothing less.”
I interrupted. “But what does that mean – right here, right now? What does that mean, practically speaking?” I paused and then asked, “What is the key to God’s heart? If I knew what God wanted of me, then I would know what to do.”
The creature clucked, flapped its wings, did some kind of happy circle dance, and continued: “God is love, and love comes to those who live with courage, humility, and gratitude. It’s like a three-legged stool: consider what brings deep but simple joy (the gratitude part) and then examine how to balance that with the other two. Courage, humility, and gratitude: fused together, they become the key that opens the heart of God. What you will discover there is the peace that passes all understanding.”
That night, Felicity gave birth to a healthy daughter, who was handed over to other Christians in the community. Three days later, she and Perpetua were martyred in the amphitheater as part of the military games to celebrate the emperor’s birthday.