Perpetua and Felicity: Empowered by The Holy Spirit for Martyrdom
With the gifts of the Holy Spirit, our human nature is elevated, which empowers us to act in ways proper only to God
Fortitude enables one "to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions. It disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice his life in defense of a just cause" (CCC 1808). Yet the gifts of the Holy Spirit elevate us further, and give to us the power and ability required in order to readily sacrifice our life as a gift of self to Christ.
Empowered by the Holy Spirit, Perpetua and Felicity were given a share in actions proper only to God, and thus were enabled to freely offer their life for the love of the Son of God.
Here we immediately get a sense of a moment in time in which two of God's precious children, infused by supernatural grace and burning with charity, met with astounding courage and fortitude circumstances that would normally strike paralyzing terror into the hearts of men. Rather than fear, these saints were filled with joy; in contrast to hesitation and the instinct to flee in the face of death, they marched forward in eager anticipation of an approaching, violent demise.
Imprisoned and sentenced to death by wild beasts at Carthage during the persecution of Septimus Severus, Sts. Perpetua and her slave Felicity, along with three of their companions, perhaps endured their greatest torments in the days preceding their martyrdom. It is impossible to comprehend what it would be like to await such a death. There could be no escape for the victims; their long days of imprisonment in dark and dank quarters were surely filled with horrifying thoughts and images of what lie before them: the devastating claws and teeth of bears and leopards; the angry snorts of boars, and the deadly horns of wild cows.
Perpetua was a young mother who had recently given birth to a son. The dark cell forced upon her as her uncomfortable residence, combined with the savagery of the prison guards, must have thrown her into misery. Further, who can imagine the indescribable pain inflicted upon a mother's heart at the thought of leaving her young child behind? Also, Felicity was pregnant at the time, and gave birth to her daughter -- later adopted by a Christian woman -- only two days prior to her martyrdom.
These courageous women and their three companions were sentenced to suffer unimaginable deaths because they refused to apostatize: they would not trade the Christian faith and the promise of an eternal life immersed in Love Itself for the pagan practice of sacrificing to the gods.
Rather than forgo that incomparable Beauty and boundless Love we call God, Perpetua, Felicity and the others marched with certainty of faith and hope into the arena as if into heaven itself. "Perpetua was the first to be thrown down, . . . She got up and, seeing that Felicity was prostrate, went over and reached out her hand to her and lifted her up. . . ."
Ordered to the gate called Sanavivaria, Perpetua was welcomed there "by a catechumen named Rusticus. Rousing herself as if from sleep (so deeply had she been in spiritual ecstasy), she began to look around. To everyone's amazement she said: 'When are we going to be led to the beast?' When she heard that it had already happened she did not at first believe it until she saw the marks of violence on her body and her clothing."
Having survived the wild beasts, the onlookers demanded that the saints be led to the middle of the amphitheater, where they would be slain by the sword. Perpetua had to be helped along the way due to her broken body. After the kiss of peace, Perpetua, "that she might experience the pain more deeply, . . . guided the shaking hand of the inexperienced gladiator to her throat. Such a woman -- one before whom the unclean spirit trembled -- could not perhaps have been killed, had she herself not willed it."
Infused Grace: Supernatural Gifts Which Elevate and Perfect Human Nature
We might ask, how could anyone endure such horror with such joy? We might find within ourselves the natural ability to suffer for some desired concrete reward. But would we do so joyfully? That is doubtful. Further, while most of us would find the strength to die in order to save our own child, is it within our human power the ability to die for something invisible, something promised by faith that we have neither seen nor heard? Is it within our natural human power to offer our life with joy in order to obtain an abstract good?
What gives to us the power -- what adds to what is naturally possible for the human person -- necessary to face our own death with great courage and determination as did Sts. Perpetua and Felicity? In order to accomplish such a feat, we need something that will elevate our human nature and therefore enable us to achieve that which was formerly beyond our capability. Obviously, we are speaking about something we cannot acquire for ourselves; thus it must be a free gift. And ...
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