SERMON 280 – On the Birthday of the Martyrs Perpetua and Felicity
Perpetua and Felicity have received the reward of perpetual felicity
1. This day, coming round year after year, is a reminder to us, and after a certain fashion represents for us the day on which God's holy servants Perpetua and Felicity, adorned with the garlands of martyrdom, burst into bloom in perpetual felicity, holding onto the name of Christ in the war, and at the same time also finding their own names in the reward. We heard of the encouragement they received in divine revelations, and of their triumph in their sufferings, as it was all being read; and all those things, recounted in such glowing words, we perceived with our ears, and actually saw with our minds; we honored them with our devotion, and praised them with love.
However, a solemn annual sermon is also owed by me†2 at a celebration of such universal devotion. If what I can offer is quite unequal to the merits of these saints, I can still contribute my own enthusiastic feelings to the joy of this great feast. What, after all, could be more glorious than these women, whom men can more easily admire than imitate? But this redounds supremely to the praise of him in whom they believed, and in whose name they ran the race together with faithful zeal, so that according to the inner self they are found to be neither male nor female;†3 so that even as regards the femininity of the body, the sex of the flesh is concealed by the virtue of the mind, and one is reluctant to think about a condition in their members that never showed in their deeds.†4
So the dragon was trampled on by the blessed Perpetua's chaste foot and victorious tread, when the ladder by which she would go to God was set up and revealed.†5 Thus the head of the ancient serpent, which had been the ruin of woman as she fell,†6 was made into a step for woman as she ascended.
Our delight in the spectacle of martyrdom very different from the delight of the actual spectators
2. What could be more lovely than this spectacle? What more gallant than this contest? What more glorious than this victory? At that time, when the holy bodies of the martyrs were exposed to the wild beasts, the nations were roaring throughout the amphitheater, and peoples meditating vain things. But the one who dwells in the heavens was laughing at them, and the Lord was mocking them (Ps 2:1.4). Now, however, at this time, the descendants of those whose voices were impiously raging against the flesh of the martyrs, are raising their voices in pious praise of the martyrs' merits.
Nor at that time was the theater of cruelty filled with as great a throng of people to see them killed, as the one that now at this time fills the Church of family piety to do them honor. Every year loving-kindness watches in a religious service what ungodliness committed on one day in an act of sacrilege. They too watched, but with a vastly different intention and attitude. They achieved by their shouts what the wild beasts did not complete with their bites.†7 We, on the other hand, both deplore what was done by the godless, and venerate what was suffered by the godly. They saw with the eyes of flesh sights with which to glut the monstrous inhumanity of their hearts; we behold with the eyes of the heart sights which they were not permitted to see. They rejoiced over the martyrs' dead bodies, we grieve over their own dead minds. They, lacking the light of faith, thought the martyrs liquidated; we, with the clear sight of faith, perceive them crowned. Finally, their shouts of abuse and mockery have been turned into our shouts of admiration and joy.†8 And these indeed are religious and everlasting; while those were impious then, and are of course non-existent now.
If this life, which the martyrs gave up, is so sweet, what must that life be like, for which they exchanged it?
3. We believe, my dearest friends, and rightly believe, that the martyrs win the best prizes. But if we take a thorough look at the contests they engaged in, we won't be in the least surprised that the prizes are so good. Because, you see, this life, though painful and short-lived, is still so sweet that, while people cannot manage not to die, they still take tremendous pains to avoid dying soon. Nothing can be done to put death away for good, and everything possible is done to put it off for a time. Every soul, clearly, finds the pains of life irksome; and yet even those people who have no hopes of anything, either good or bad, after this life, take the greatest pains to stop all pain being stopped by death.†9
What about those who either mistakenly imagine a future life after death of false and fleshly delights, or with right faith hope for an inexpressibly tranquil and blissful rest? Don't they also do all they can, and take the greatest care to avoid dying too soon? What else, after all, is the meaning of all the hard work put into obtaining the necessary food, of all the services, whether of medicine or of other attentions which the sick demand, or which are paid to the sick, except to avoid reaching the terminal of death too quickly? And so if the mere deferment of death is valued so highly in this life, for how much should one be prepared to buy the total elimination of death in the next? Such, after all, is the heaven knows what kind of sweetness of this doleful life, such the horror of death implanted in the nature of those living any kind of life, that not even those people are willing to die, who pass through death to a life in which they cannot die.
The martyrs think nothing either of death or of excruciating pain for the sake of Christ
4. Therefore it is this very great attachment to living and fear of dying that the martyrs of Christ, with outstanding strength of mind, despise in the sincerity of their love, the certainty of their hope and their faith unfeigned (1 Tm 1:5). In the power of these virtues, they turn their backs on the world's promises and threats, and stretch out to what lies ahead (Phil 3:13). These virtues climb up to heaven by trampling on the head of the serpent, as it hisses and whispers its various suggestions.†10 In fact, you have triumphed over all lusts, once you have crushed the tyrannous power over you of love of this life, which all lusts serve as its accomplices. Nor is there anything whatsoever you can be held enchained by in this life, if you are not held down by love of life itself.
But it is usual for bodily pains to be associated with the fear of death. Sometimes, I mean, it's the one, sometimes the other that conquers a person. You tell lies when tortured, in order not to die; even when you are on the point of dying, you tell lies in order not to be tortured.†11 The martyrs of Christ conquered them both for the sake of Christ's name and his justice; they feared neither death nor pain. It is the one who lived in them that conquered in them,†12 in order that, as they lived not for themselves but for him,†13 they might not die even when they were dead. He was showing them spiritual delights, so that they would not feel bodily pains, except†14 such as would be enough to test them, not to break them. Where, I mean to say, was that woman, when she was unaware she had been pitched against the savage cow, and when she asked when something was going to happen that had in fact happened already?†15 Where was she? What was it she was seeing, that stopped her seeing these things? What was it she was enjoying, that stopped her feeling these pains? By what love was she taken out of herself, called away by what marvelous spectacle, drunk on what cup?†16 And she was still stuck in the meshes of the flesh, still encumbered with her dying limbs, still weighed down by the perishable body.†17
What about when the souls of the martyrs have been released from these chains after the labors of their perilous contests, when they have been welcomed and entertained in triumph by their escort of angels, where they are not told, “Carry out what I have ordered,” but “Receive what I have promised”? With what enjoyment must they now be feasting in spirit! With what assurance, and how sublimely honored, must they be boasting in the Lord! Who could convey any idea of this by any example taken from this earth?
The difference between the next life as it is now, and as it will be after the resurrection
5. And in any case, that life which the blessed martyrs enjoy now, while there can be no comparison between it and any felicities or sweetnesses of this world, represents only a small particle of what is promised, indeed is no more than a consolation for the delay. But the day of recompense is coming, when with bodies restored, the whole person will receive whatever he deserves; when the limbs of that rich man, which were once adorned with temporal purple, will be roasted over eternal fire; although even now he is thirsting in hell for a single drop from the finger of the poor man, who is resting delightfully in the bosom of the just.†18
Just as there's all the difference in the world, you see, between the joys or woes of those who are dreaming and those who are awake, so too there is a great difference between the torments or the joys of the dead and of those who have risen again. Not that the spirits of the dead are necessarily being deluded, like those of dreamers; but that the rest enjoyed by souls without any bodies is one thing, and the glory and felicity of angels with heavenly bodies quite another, and it is with them that the multitude of the faithful will be equated when they rise again.†19 In that state the glorious martyrs will be resplendent with the special light that distinguishes them, and the bodies in which they suffered unseemly torments, will be turned for them into seemly robes of honor.†20
We must not think it a light matter that we, like the martyrs, are members of the body of Christ
6. So then, let us celebrate their feasts, as indeed we are doing, with the utmost devotion, soberly cheerful, gathered in a holy assembly, thinking faithful thoughts, confidently proclaiming their sanctity. It is no small part of imitation, to rejoice together in the virtues of those who are better than we are. They are great, we are little; but the Lord has blessed the little with the great (Ps 115:13). They have gone ahead of us, they tower over us like giants. If we are not capable of following them in action, let us follow in affection; if not in glory, then certainly in joy and gladness; if not in merit, then in desire; if not in suffering, then in fellow feeling; if not in excellence, then in our close relationship with them.
It should not seem a small matter to us, that we are members of the same person's body as they are too, even though we cannot compare with them. Because if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; so too, when one member is glorified, all the members rejoice with it (1 Cor 12:26). Glory be to the head, by which consideration is given to the hands above and to the feet below. Just as that one man laid down his life for us all,†21 so the martyrs too imitated him, and laid down their lives for their brothers and sisters; and in order that this bumper crop of Christian peoples might spring up like sprouting seeds, they watered the earth with their blood.†22
So we too are the fruit of their toil. We admire them, they are sorry for us. We congratulate them, they pray for us. They strewed their bodies like garments on the road, when the colt carrying the Lord was led into Jerusalem; let us at least cut branches from the trees, pluck hymns and praises from the holy scriptures, and offer them in a joint expression of rejoicing. At least we are all in attendance upon the same Lord, all following the same teacher, accompanying the same leader, joined to the same head, wending our way to the same Jerusalem, pursuing the same charity, and embracing the same unity.
1. After Saint Cyprian, these two martyrs and their companions were the most venerated martyrs of Africa. They suffered in 203 during a persecution instituted by the African Emperor Septimus Severus, on 7 March. An account of their martyrdom will be found in Butler's Lives of the Saints under 6 March, since their feast was pushed back a day by the intrusion some centuries later of the bulkier figure of Saint Thomas Aquinas. But in the present calendar they are now back on their rightful date, as Thomas has been moved to 28 January.
Butler's account reproduces very thoroughly their Passio, which was in all probability edited by Tertullian. It is a document of quite extraordinary interest, because it was put together by a friend and eyewitness, who for most of it simply quotes Perpetua's own account of her arrest and imprisonment with four other young catechumens, Felicity, a slave, and three young men. To this account, which includes several visions she was granted while in prison, is added that of one of her companions, Saturus, who was the catechist in charge of the young catechumens, and who baptized them in prison. The Latin text of the Passio is to be found in Migne's Patrologia Latina III, as an appendix to Tertullian's works.
Allusions in the sermon to the Passio will be explained in the footnotes, but perhaps a little more information would be helpful here. Perpetua was a young married woman of good family, 22 years old, mother of an infant boy whom she was sometimes permitted to suckle in prison. She had to resist the tearful pleas of her father, not a Christian, to do what the law required, and offer the sacrificial incense before a statue of the Emperor. Felicity, a slave, was eight months pregnant when they were all arrested, and was terrified she would not be able to join them in their martyrdom, as pregnant women condemned to death could not be executed until they had given birth. So if she hadn't given birth by the time they were due to appear in the amphitheater, she would find herself dying in the company of common criminals, and not of her fellow Christians. Accordingly they all prayed very fervently for her, and their prayers were answered, and she gave birth prematurely to a baby girl, who was adopted by a Christian woman.
While no date or place is suggested for the sermon, the rather elaborate style inclines me to date it about 400. The martyrs suffered in Carthage, but their popularity was such that their feast was celebrated universally, and the sermon is as likely to have been preached in Hippo Regius as anywhere else. See note 2.
2. I think this may well indicate that he was preaching in his own Church; a sermo sollemnis can hardly be said to have been owed by him anywhere else, unless—as was often the case when he visited other churches—he had promised one. But nothing has been said here about such a promise.
3. See Gal 3:28; Eph 3:16.
4. Their courage gave the lie to “the weakness of their sex”—a thoroughly sexist sentiment. But it is one Perpetua at least would have shared, since in one of her visions she is put into the arena to fight a huge Egyptian (the devil; but why in the guise of an Egyptian? Perhaps they had recently been having the Exodus story read and explained to them). In preparation for the bout she is changed into a man, and proceeds to defeat the Egyptian with what sounds exactly like karate techniques: “I kept on striking his face with my heels.”
5. In her first vision Perpetua saw a golden ladder reaching into heaven, with all sorts of fearful instruments of torture on either side, so that it functioned rather like a gauntlet to be run. Saturus
went up first, and then beckoned to her to follow. There was a dragon at the foot of the ladder, but it meekly lowered its head, and let her tread on it as her first step in climbing the ladder.
6. See Gn 3:1-5. I treat this as a general statement about “woman”; but it could also be translated as about “the falling woman,” Eve, and “the ascending woman,” Perpetua.
7. An allusion to the fact that those martyrs who were not in fact killed outright by the wild animals, and they included both the women, were dragged to the side of the arena to be dispatched by gladiators.
8. Denique illorum insultatio facta est nostra exultatio.
9. No euthanasia movement in those days! But he exaggerates; suicide was regarded by many pagans, according to the ancient Roman ethos, as an honorable way out.
10. A reference again to Perpetua's dream.
11. Here there occur two sentences which I cannot make head or tail of. I suspect they started as scribbles in the margin of a manuscript, which then got transferred to the text, probably incorrectly. Here they are: Verum dicit, non ferendo tormenta, ne pro se mentiendo torqueatur. Sed superet horum quilibet in mentibus quibuslibet. You tell the truth, not by enduring torments (perhaps the copyist incorporating the scribble into the text added the “not”), in order not to be tortured by telling lies for yourself. But let whichever you like of these (these fears?) overcome in the minds of whoever you like. Make sense of it who can.
12. Word play: Vicit in eis qui vixit in eis. We could get a similar effect in English with “live” and “love”: it is the one who lived in them that loved in them. For the allusion, see Gal 23:20.
13. See 2 Cor 5:15; Rom 14:7-8.
14. Supplying nisi, which appears to have dropped out of the text.
15. Perpetua and Felicity were exposed to a mad cow, which tossed them both, injuring Felicity badly. Perpetua came to her help, and then asked, as if in a dream, when they were going to be given to the cow. In her visions in prison she had been shown scenes of paradise.
16. See Ps 23:5; 36:8.
17. See Wis 9:15.
18. See Lk 16:19-24.
19. See Lk 20:36.
20. The comparison of the experience of the deceased before and after the resurrection of the dead to the difference between dreaming and waking is very striking, and reveals how thoroughly non-Platonist Augustine really was, when left to his own originality.
21. See Jn 10:15.
22. A pious commonplace borrowed from Tertullian.
SERMON 281 – On the Birthday of the Martyrs Perpetua and Felicity
Christ victorious in Perpetua and Felicity
1. Both the merits and the names of Perpetua and Felicity, God's holy servants, shine out brightly and pre-eminently among their fellow martyrs. A more splendid crown, I mean, is owed to those of the weaker sex, because a manly spirit has clearly done much more in women,†2 when their feminine frailty has not been undone under such enormous pressure. They had done well to cling to one man, to whom the one Church is presented as a chaste virgin.†3 They had done well, I say, to cling to that man, from whom they had drawn the strength to withstand the devil; with the result that women knocked out the enemy, who through woman had knocked out man.†4
The one who had made himself weak for them was shown to be undefeated in them. The one who had emptied himself (Phil 2:7) in order†5 to sow them, filled them with courage in order to reap them. The one who for their sake had heard abusive accusations, made them worthy to receive these honorable citations. The one who for their sake was willing mercifully to be born of a woman, enabled these women to die faithfully like men.
How Perpetua overcame the devil, trying to weaken her resolve through the tearful pleas of her father
2. The devout mind, though, is delighted to behold such a spectacle as the blessed Perpetua tells us was revealed to her about herself; how she was turned into a man, and took on the devil.†6 By that contest, to be sure, she too was hastening to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Eph 4:13). That old and crafty enemy had once, of course, beguiled a man through a woman; so in order to let slip no opportunity of treachery, and because he sensed that this woman was reacting to him in a manly way, he very sensibly tried to overcome her through a man. And it was not her husband he introduced into the ring, because she was already, in her exaltation of spirit, living in heaven, and the slightest suspicion of carnal desire, would make her, for very shame, all the stronger. Instead, it was her father whom he equipped with beguiling words, hoping that a religious spirit which would not be softened by the promptings of pleasure, might be broken by the attack of family duty and feeling.
Saint Perpetua, however, answered her father with such moderation, that she neither violated the commandment by which honor is owed to parents,†7 nor yielded to the tricks which the real enemy was practicing. Beaten at every turn, he caused her father to be beaten with a stick; so that while she had ignored his words, she would at least grieve at his lashes.†8 She, though, did indeed grieve at the insult offered her aged parent; and while she did not give him her consent, she kept her affection for him undiminished. What she hated in him was his folly, not his nature; his unbelief, not her roots. Thus she earned all the greater glory by resolutely rejecting the bad advice of such a beloved father, considering that she could not see him thrashed without feeling the pain herself. In fact that pain in no way undermined the strength of her resolve, and also added to the renown of her sufferings. For those who love God, you see, all things work together for good (Rom 8:28).
Felicity gives birth in prison, and so joins her companions in martyrdom
3. As for Felicity, she was pregnant when imprisoned. In giving birth, she testified with her woman's voice to her woman's condition. The punishment of Eve was not missing,†9 but the grace of Mary was at hand. The debt owed by the woman was exacted, but the one whom the virgin bore was there to give relief. At last the child was born, a month prematurely.†10 It was the work of God, that the womb should lay down its burden at what was not its proper time, so that the honor of martyrdom might not be deferred from what was its proper time. It was, I repeat, the work of God that the baby should be born on a day when it was not due, as long as Felicity was given back to such a great company to whom she was due; otherwise, if she had not been with them, it would seem not only that the martyrs were missing a companion, but also that they were missing their martyrs' reward.†11
You see, the names of both women were the same as the reward of all the martyrs. I mean to say, why do martyrs endure all that they do, if not in order to revel in perpetual felicity? So these women were called what everyone is called to. And that's why, although there was a very large team†12 engaged in that contest, it is by the names of these two that the eternal bliss of them all is signified, and the annual festival of them all is notified.
1. For background, see Sermon 280, note 1. There is no reason to suppose that this sermon, any more than Sermon 280, was preached anywhere else but in Augustine's own diocese of Hippo Regius. I would be inclined to date it a little later than that sermon—any time between 405 and 410.
2. Reading in feminis instead of the text's in feminas, which I take to be either a scribal error or an editorial misprint.
3. See 2 Cor 11:2.
4. See Gn 3:1-6.
5. Supplying an ut which seems to have dropped out of the text before seminaret; to read now qui eas ut seminaret, semetipsum exinanivit.
6. See Sermon 280, note 4.
7. See Ex 20:12.
8. Wordplay: ut cujus verba contempserat, saltem verbera condoleret. When the prisoners were brought before the magistrate, Perpetua's father tried to pull her down from the platform on which they were paraded, and on the magistrate's instructions he was slashed across the face and pushed away by one of the court attendants.
9. See Gn 3:16.
10. See Sermon 280, note 1. “A month prematurely” is a very bald translation of his more elaborate paradox: immaturo mense maturus, which I am totally at a loss how to reproduce in English.
11. That is, their felicity.
12. Six altogether, I think; three other male catechumens and Saturus their catechist.
SERMON 282 – On the Birthday of the Martyrs Perpetua and Felicity
Perpetua and Felicity are the names of two martyrs, but the reward of all
1. Today we are celebrating the feast of two holy martyrs, who were not only outstanding for their surpassing courage when they suffered, but who also, in return for such a great labor of piety, signified by their own names the reward awaiting them and the rest of their companions. Perpetua, of course, and Felicity are the names of 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. So it was by an ordination of divine providence that these women had to be, and were, not only martyrs, but also the closest companions, in order to set the seal of their glory on one single day, and to leave posterity with a joint festivity to celebrate.
By the example, you see, of their glorious struggle they encourage us to imitate them; and likewise by their names they bear witness to the indivisible gift we are going to receive. May they hold on tight to each other, bind themselves together. We are not hoping for one without the other. Perpetual, after all, is not much good if there is no felicity there; and felicity fades away if it is not perpetual. These few words must suffice for the time being upon the names of the martyrs to whom the day is dedicated.
They overcame the enemy, notwithstanding the drawbacks both of their sex and their status
2. As regards the women themselves, whose names these are, as we heard when their Passion was read, as we know from what we have committed to memory, these two of such strength of character and merit were not only women, they were wives as well.†2 And one of them was also a mother,†3 so that to the weakness of her sex might be added feelings less capable of endurance; thus the enemy would assail them from every quarter, and fondly suppose that as they would not be able to endure the hard, cruel burdens of persecution, they would give in to him straightaway and very soon be his to gloat over. They, however, being watchfully and firmly on guard in the strength of the inner self, scotched all his crafty tricks, and broke the force of all his attacks.
Though there were men among their companions in martyrdom; only these two womens’ names mark this feast day
3. In this remarkable and glorious company there were men too who were martyrs, very brave men who conquered by their sufferings on the same day; and yet they haven't stamped their names on this day. The reason this has happened is not that the women were ranked higher than the men in the quality of their conduct, but that it was a greater miracle for women in their weakness to overcome the ancient enemy, and that the men in their strength engaged in the contest for the sake of perpetual felicity.
1. See Sermon 280, note l, and Sermon 281, note l. I would date this short sermon later than both those; say between 415 and 420.
2. Non solum feminae, sed etiam mulieres; what he primarily means is that they lacked the honorable status of virgins. Mulier in his Latin meant more than “woman”; it meant in particular “non-virgin.” Whether Felicity, being a slave, could properly be called a wife, I do not know. But presumably the Church, even if not the civil law, accepted the faithful union of slaves as genuine marriages.
3. Perpetua; while Felicity was, as we would now say, an expectant mother.