A Valiant Woman

Or rather, two, indeed, three. My admiration for SS Perpetua and Felicitas whose memoria we keep today can be traced through this blog and its predecessor, e.g. here, but I have a very personal reason for keeping these two great martyr saints in mind. Eleven years ago to the day, a wet and windy Ash Friday 2003, three companions and I set out from Stanbrook Abbey, Worcester, not knowing where the Lord would take us but determined to follow wherever he would lead. The oldest among us was D. Teresa Rodrigues who had spent more than fifty years as a nun of Stanbrook but who retained to the end great determination and fidelity to her vocation. She is the third valiant woman I recall today.

For SS Perpetua and Felicitas there was the red martyrdom of blood — and what a martyrdom it was! Their Passio is among the most thrilling and complex works to have survived from early Christianity. For D. Teresa there was the slower, ‘white martyrdom’ of monastic life, lived out in daily fidelity to Rule and observance, and in the little things that mark our lives. The names of the Carthaginians echo down the ages; D. Teresa’s will probably be forgotten; but all three are great encouragements to us as make our Lenten journey. They are the type of the valiant woman; and valour is not something strange or alien, it is a necessary part of the Christian life. We need courage; we need constancy; above all, we need to keep our eyes fixed, as they did, on our goal, the Easter of the Lord.

Today is also the Women’s World Day of Prayer.


Christianity’s First Woman Writer?

Today is the feast of SS Perpetua and Felicity, who were martyred at Carthage on 7 March 203. Much of the account of their martyrdom (strictly speaking a Passio) is written in the first person by Perpetua herself and therefore has a claim to being the earliest known text by a Christian woman. There are two versions, in Latin and Greek, with a little working over by our old friend Tertullian, which you can read here and a modernized version of Walter Shewring’s translation here.

Historians and hagiographers love these texts because they contain many puzzles, but I think the ‘ordinary Christian’ can get a great deal from them because they plunge us straight into the world of the third century with the dramatic intensity of a good thriller or whodunnit. Put simply, they are the record of profound faith and heroic courage. They remind us that family and friends are often the last people to understand why we believe or the importance of faith to us; that what we sometimes think of as ‘persecution’ in the west is nothing of the sort; and that often it is those whom we least regard who show the most sterling qualities.

Cold and wet as it is here today, I intend to spend a few minutes under the broiling heat of a Carthaginian sky nearly two thousand years ago. The noise of the crowd, the smell of sweat and blood, recall another and greater Passion. Christianity’s first woman writer makes incomparable Lenten reading.