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Perpetua & Felicity: Striving for Eternal Happiness

The desire for happiness is a universal human experience. From of old philosophers have constructed their theories of what it means to live a good life based on this self-evident truth and have sought to articulate for the human family the path by which happiness could be attained. As the Christian tradition matured in the early centuries of its existence, it entered the fray of philosophical debate under the same assumption. In one of his early works, St. Augustine quips: “Certainly, we all wish to live happily. There is no human being who would not assent to this statement almost before it is uttered” (The Catholic and Manichean Ways of Life, 1.4). To this we could add that we do not want some fleeting form of happiness, rather we desire a happiness that is unending and that is out of the reach of fear from losing. In short, we don’t simply desire happiness, but eternal happiness. Such is the longing of the human heart.

In name the saints celebrated by the Church today, Perpetua and Felicity, remind us of this most basic desire and the account of their passion reminds us of the road we must travel to obtain it. In a series of sermons preached on these two great witnesses of the Christian faith, Augustine liked to play upon the meaning of their names, drawing a deep lesson from them: “Perpetua, of course, and Felicity are the names of the two of them, but the reward of them all. The only reason, I mean, why all the martyrs toiled bravely for a time by suffering and confessing the faith in the struggle, was in order to enjoy perpetual felicity” (s. 282.1). Perhaps we don’t normally equate the martyrs as being happy or being motivated by a desire for happiness, but this is precisely what Augustine is saying here. The martyrs, more than anyone else, were willing to struggle for eternal happiness to the point of shedding their blood to obtain it.

To some to make such a statement may sound flippant. To claim that happiness is the aim of life and that we should do everything we can to obtain it can sound shallow to our ears. This is because we have lost the understanding of what it really means to be happy. Lacking an understanding of what real happiness is, we have been convinced that happiness is either to be pursued in shallow ways or that because it is so often pursued in shallow ways it must be a shallow thing, a fleeting emotion. However, allowing this misunderstanding to go unchecked as Christians does a huge disservice not only to ourselves, but to the world at large. Why? There is a reason that the human heart desires happiness, or better, is hardwired in such a fashion. The reason is something that all of the classical philosophies understood, from Epicureanism to Stoicism to Platonism to Aristotelianism. The reason is this: for a creature to be happy means for it to have fulfilled its purpose. To be happy, in other words, was to have become what one was intended to be or reached the state one was meant for. This is why when Christianity enters the debate about what it means to live the good life it does not change the terms of the debate but rather broadens the framework.

The problem isn’t that people wish to be happy, it’s rather that we seek happiness in all the wrong places. Stop and think, if you were to name the ways people try and secure happiness for themselves, what would they be? The culprits are the same as they always have been: wealth, pleasure, honor and power. Now pause here. Many of us may think ‘well, thank goodness I don’t have those problems!’ How true is that? This is an important question to ask ourselves in more detail especially during this season of Lent as we strive to get back to the basics of Christian life and direct all our efforts towards following and imitating Jesus Christ. This is why it is so helpful to place before ourselves the examples of the saints during Lent, most especially the martyrs. They are the best reminders of what it really means to live the whole of one’s life for love of God in Christ Jesus for we who are constantly distracted by the passing goods the world offers us. When we look at ourselves in the mirror of the martyrs, how dedicated to God do we find ourselves to be?

The martyrs exemplify better than any others the Christian assertion that our only source of true happiness is found in eternal communion with God, which no mortal being can take from us except ourselves. This is above all why it is absolutely imperative that as Christians we affirm the universal desire for happiness, for that desire, regardless of who manifests it and in what way it is currently pursued, speaks however dimly of the human desire for God. Thus, it becomes all the more important that we as Christians learn how it is that we ought to pursue perpetual felicity, which is where the saints celebrated today come in. I want to suggest that there is a threefold lesson to be learned by examining The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity that can help us move forward on our journeys toward eternal happiness during this Lenten Season and beyond.

1) Water is thicker than blood. The allusion I am making here is to the waters of baptism. Stop and think for a moment, from where do I draw my identity. Some of us base our identities firmly upon the ties of blood, i.e. family. Others form their identity based upon their careers or a social group they are a member of. For many, it is a combination of all of these. Saints Perpetua and Felicity are excellent reminders that for Christians our identity is not something we inherit genetically or form through choice of profession or social group. Rather, our identity as Christians is gifted to us at baptism. It is by passing through the sacred waters of this sacrament that we are re-made into adoptive sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father by the power of the Holy Spirit (see Rom. 8:15-17; Gal. 3:26-27; Eph. 1:5-14), and it is this identity that we must cling to, strive to develop, and order the whole of our lives around including our careers and relationships.

Both Perpetua and Felicity are excellent examples of this. Throughout the course of her imprisonment and up to the hour of her martyrdom, Perpetua’s father tries no less than four times to convince her to do what is necessary to avoid her death by various means. In the first instance he simply tries to scare her through physical force (The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity, 3), but in the latter three he tries to dissuade her by appealing to her love for her family, including her newborn son (Ibid., 5, 6 and 9). He implores her: “My daughter, have pity on my grey hair, have pity on your father…Think about your brothers, think about your mother and your mother’s sister, think about your son who will not be able to live without you. Give up your pride; do not destroy us all” (Ibid., 5). We see something similar in the case of Felicity, who had been imprisoned while still pregnant. We are told in the text that it was not permitted by Roman law for pregnant women to be punished in public (Ibid., 15). What is remarkable about Felicity is that rather than using her pregnancy to avoid the hour of martyrdom, we are told that “she was in agony, fearing her pregnancy would spare her” (Ibid.). Consequently, “two days before the games” she and those imprisoned with her “joined together in one united supplication, groaning, and poured forth their prayer to the Lord” (Ibid.). We are told that the Lord heard their prayer, for “immediately after their prayer her labor pains came upon her” (Ibid.). 

None of this suggests that family is not important for Christians, far from it. This is not an either/or situation. Rather, while a true good, biological family for the Christian is nevertheless made relative to being members of the family of God through baptism. In a very real way because as Christians we are bound to one another by the Holy Spirit, that tie is more powerful and everlasting than DNA could ever be. This is exemplified both in the way the martyrs refer to themselves and in the love demonstrated by these martyrs for one another. For instance, the first time we hear from Perpetua it is in response to her father’s first attempt “to change [her] mind and shake [her] resolve” with respect to her impending martyrdom. Perpetua’s response exemplifies a life totally identified with Christ. She says: “I am unable to call myself other than what I am, a Christian” (Ibid., 3). This manner of understanding oneself, in turn, naturally informs one’s loves. Thus, we are told that Felicity’s “fellow martyrs were deeply saddened that they might leave behind so good a friend, their companion, to travel alone on the road to their shared hope” (Ibid.). And while they were in the arena being attacked by the wild animals, we see that the martyrs cling closely to one another, not to evade the attack, but to support one another in facing it courageously. Thus, a struggling Felicity is aided by Perpetua and the catechumen Rusticus clings to Perpetua’s side (Ibid., 20). What we see here is the bond of true Christian love that is a continual source of support in the midst of the struggles we all face. What The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity is reminding us here is the absolute necessity of Christian friendship. Stop and think, do you have good Christian friends in your life? Are they friends who not only support you, but challenge you and spur you on in your life of faith? If not, this Lent is a good time to begin seeking out those friendships. 

2) Everything is Grace. The support of Christian friendship is one of myriad ways grace assists us in our earthly journey toward our heavenly homeland. St. Thomas Aquinas uses the term “gratuitous grace” to speak of the divine influence we experience through others. Distinguishing “gratuitous grace” from “sanctifying grace,” Aquinas explains that gratuitous grace is the grace “whereby one man co-operates with another in leading him to God…since it is bestowed on a man beyond the capability of nature, and beyond the merit of the person” (Summa Theologica, I.II q. 111.1). Within Aquinas’s system, the gift of “gratuitous grace” presupposes one be in a state of “sanctifying grace” (ST, I.II, q. 111.5, ad. 2). Therefore, for Christian friends to be able to lead one another to God, it is pertinent that they actively seek out and co-operate with “sanctifying grace” in their own lives. The idea here is analogous (vis a vis univocal) to the idea that you can’t give what you don’t have. What this means practically is that in order to be good Christian friends to one another we must avail ourselves of the sources of “sanctifying grace” and make use of those practices which incline us to the reception thereof.

This is a dynamic which we should put into practice with greater focus and intentionality during this Season of Lent. The sources of sanctifying grace are, of course, the sacraments. On the other hand, there are many things which the Church holds within the treasury of the deposit of faith which prepare and incline us toward the reception of sanctifying grace in the sacraments, such as sacramentals, blessings and an infinite variety of devotionals and prayers. Even in the midst of their captivity, the martyrs prove to be excellent exemplars of this dynamic. For instance, they are baptized in prison (The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity, 3), and over the course of their time there we see them praying together (Ibid., 18), praying for others not with them (Ibid., 7), and even find Perpetua singing a hymn of praise to God as she is lead to her martyrdom (Ibid., 18). So focused was their devotion to God and so great was their intimacy with Him amidst their captivity that Perpetua likens the prison itself to a palace, “so that I wanted to be there rather than anywhere else” (Ibid., 3). These practices, moreover, demonstrate the directionality mentioned above of carrying out these practices in preparation for the reception of sanctifying grace in the sacraments. The sacrament of baptism has already been mentioned, but the martyrs’ longing for the Eucharist is clearly on display. So ardently did the martyrs desire unity with Christ that their visions are overtly Eucharistic. In one vision Perpetua receives cheese from the Good Shepherd and when she awakens from the vision tells us that she was “still eating some unknown sweet” (Ibid., 4), a clear allusion to the celebration of the heavenly Eucharistic banquet drawing on the Old Testament’s description of the Promised Land as a land flowing with milk and honey combined with the description of the honey-like sweetness of manna given to the Israelites in the desert (see Deut 31:20 & Ex 16:31). Thus, while the martyrs would not taste the sacramental banquet of the Eucharist this side of eternity, their hunger for Christ was so great that their imaginations had become thoroughly Eucharistic (see also The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity, 12). This Lent let us take our lead from these great exemplars of our faith and dedicate ourselves to a life organized around the sacraments and those practices which lead us to them, especially prayer.

3) We are happy in hope. In describing the actions of the martyrs above, it is clear that they were compelled inwardly by the virtue of hope accompanied, of course, by faith and love (1 Cor. 13:13). They looked forward to the fulfillment of Christ’s promises to them on the other side of their martyrial passions. However, these are not the only virtues we see at work in them. We should expect nothing less. Not only has the Tradition consistently upheld the doctrine of the unity of the virtues (Augustine of Hippo, The Catholic and Manichean Ways of Life, 1.25 & Thomas Aquinas, ST I-II q. 65.1), but especially evident in the Patristic sources is the idea that virtue is no mere human thing, but rather a manifestation of human participation in the divine life: “whoever pursues true virtue participates in nothing other than God, because he is himself absolute virtue” (Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, P.7; cf. Augustine of Hippo, The Catholic and Manichean Ways of Life, 1.22-23). Accordingly, we should expect to see a full array of virtues exemplified by the martyrs, and we do. Here I want to name just four that are especially pertinent for the Season of Lent and beyond. First, we see the work of prudence in them, especially in ordering their lives totally toward God and fitting all other aspects of life, including relationships, around this primary focus. Second, we see the virtue of religion, which seeks to do justice in our relationship with God, manifested in them by their prayers, their baptisms, and their Eucharistic imaginations. Third, we see the virtue of courage or fortitude on full display, the martyrs not blinking in the face of threats by family, the authorities, or by the wild animals they are thrown to (The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity, 6 & 19-21). Finally, most closely aligned with the theological virtue of hope, we see the gift of the virtue of perseverance exemplified by the martyrs, enabling them to confess the name of Christ in the face of death and to face their brutal passions with self-sacrificing love.

With God’s grace hopefully we have chosen a practice to pursue with great attention and ardor during this Season of Lent, whether it be “giving up” or “adding” something, maybe both. Hopefully whatever you have chosen to take on in addition to the regular days of fasting and abstinence the Church calls us all to, it is something difficult, something that stretches the limits of your capacity to carry out, be it a demand on your time or the virtue you currently possess. If not, today is as good a day as any to commit yourself to finding something that fits the bill for the remainder of Lent and sticking to it. Whatever that practice may be, it should be something that makes it clear to us that it cannot be accomplished without the help of grace. In this way we imitate the virtues of the martyrs, for undertaking such a task requires prudence and courage in initial choosing and living out so as to fend off temptation. It also requires the virtue of religion, for it will demand the imploring of grace as we test the limits of our capacities. Finally, it will demand that we persevere to the end, and if we fall down, rely on those around us and the grace of the Holy Spirit to pick us back up and push forward to the end. This training ground of Lent is ultimately meant to form our minds and wills in such a way that the whole of our life is impelled by the virtue of hope as we pass through this life, this valley of tears, stretching forward to the eternal loving embrace of our God. The very process should not be a source of sadness, but joy. Here and now we are truly happy in hope, for as we cooperate with grace and grow in divine virtue, we come to enjoy a foretaste of that heavenly kingdom, where there will be nothing but that which our heart desires more than anything else, perpetual felicity.

Your servant in Christ,

Tony

2 thoughts on “Perpetua & Felicity: Striving for Eternal Happiness

    1. So true. It’s simultaneously a cause of intimidation and humility to think of these great heroes, contemplating them as a mirror before us. It readily becomes apparent how far we fall short of their love, yet somehow, by God’s grace, we are granted a share in their fellowship.

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