I have been reading about a martyr today. She rivets me. A young, vibrant noblewoman, married, and with a tiny, nursing baby, she was condemned to death for her faith in Christ. She lived in Carthage, right in the earliest centuries of Christianity. My reading today was marked by humble curiosity. Perpetua was one of those martyrs who seemed to have had the light of the sun in her eyes, who, for the most part, faced death, loss, and rejection with an almost Spartan refusal of grief. I don’t feel I am quite so brave. By all accounts, she was a determined young woman, who would not recant her faith before the Roman ruler even as her father grovelled before her, her newborn child in his arms, begging her to yield. Condemned to the die in the arena by the attack of a mad cow, she was so stunningly joyful, so full of song and this hope like laughter, she apparently didn’t realize she’d been thrown by the animal. She was brought back in to be kept for a later death by sword and had to be convinced that she was wounded.
I must admit. For awhile today, she stymied me. I have been sitting in my chair this morning, yearning to know how, how, she was so full of joy. I’ve read stories like hers before. I always thought that her sort of joy, her steel-faced faith was a teeth-clenched willing. She must have had willpower on a marathon scale to smile like that. I thought that she was simply stronger than me. Only way I could ever be like her was to gut up my sorrow and quit feeling sad about the world. That will never happen. Down came the guilt.
And yet, wait. I know without doubt that joy like that cannot be gutted out or gritted through. A hope like that cannot be scratched out from the the gravel of a frail, human self. Not one of us, even sun-faced martyrs, has that kind of strength on our own. If there is anything I have learned this year, it is that left to themselves, humans, all humans, are pitiful. We are so fallen. Hope and joy and beauty have to come to us from a source beyond ourselves. Like a spring of water, or the rising of the sun on darkened land, joy must come to us. Perpetua’s brand of strength had to be one that lived outside of herself. Abruptly, I understood that Perpetua was not stronger than me. She was more in love.
What can bring the sort of joy that makes a violent death and the loss of your child something to laugh through? Only an absolute belief that you are irrevocably loved. Loved by a Father whose mercy and power insure that all of you, body and soul and mind and heart, will never be abandoned, but healed in the end. Only by knowing the love with which you are loved to be the one true fact of the universe, a truth that will burgeon into a new heaven and earth of beauty even when all else fades away. A love in which all lost things are kept safe for a future redemption.
I realized that Perpetua was glad, downright drunk with joy so as to be oblivious to pain, because her eyes saw only the God who loved her. The fact of his affection was so real and true to her that in the prison and arena, in the dark hours of the night before she died, in the moment when she kissed her baby goodbye, she saw the good that would come instead of the bad that was happening. It was love that gave her Herculean strength. It was God’s face fixed in her mind that she saw instead of the leering arena crowd. It was his presence growing closer as her life flowed out that she felt instead of her broken body. I think in those agonizing moments of death, her trust in God’s love enabled her to glimpse the end of the story, the redemption that would come. And so, she had no reason to be afraid.
I want to be in love like Perpetua.