Learning From Our Mothers of the Faith
Words by Amy Gannett
I held her hand as she exhaled in defeat.
“I can’t do it,” my friend whimpered. “I can’t keep up with Christianity.”
My eyes were fixed on her, studying the slightest motion in her face, trying to interpret even the smallest expression. My concern was evident on my face: was my dear friend giving up the faith? What kind of exhaustion laid in her spirit? She continued, “I feel the never-ending pressure to be ‘A Good Christian Woman’,” she said throwing quotes in the air with her fingers. “And I can’t.”
As she continued to roll out the narrative of the past few months: the moms in her MOPS groups, the Christian women whose blogs she follows, even other church member’s Facebook and Pinterest feed overwhelmed her with guilt and feelings of inadequacy. I quickly realized that her notion of being “A Good Christian Woman” as she put it, more readily aligned with “Keeping up with the Jones’” than a tale of Christian womanhood.
“Has it always been like this,” she asked. “Has being a woman in the Church always felt this exhausting?” Her words pierced the dead space in that busy little coffee shop. Her face was pained, her red eyes expressed nothing but sincerity in asking and eagerness to hear the answer.
No, sister. It absolutely has not.
Since that conversation, a growing concern of mine is our immediate context in which we are “doing Christianity.” The only persons we compare our own journey of faith is those immediately around us – those on Facebook and on blogs. And these have become our standards – the Christian women on the internet today have become the measuring line against which we measure our faith. This is frightening. Christianity has not always been about crafts and home made bread. And if we’re going to understanding what it means to be a woman of God today, we must look at women of God in the past.
Let me say this both with sincerity and severity.
Listen, ladies: if we do not sit attentively at the feet of the women of faith who have gone before us, we cannot be surprised in the least when our own identities as Christian women wanes with every Pinterest post and every motherhood how-to. Without knowing the litany of saints and mothers and disciples and scholars that have gone before us, we will find it increasingly difficult know how to be women who are about the things of Christ.
I’m reminded of a particular visit home I made during the fall semester of my junior year of school. Like most college students, I left for college with some angst about my family, my family history, and the relational dynamics at play in our home. For the first few years of college, I gradually disconnected from my family in order to “find out who I really am.” But on that trip home, with autumn having just began to peak through the tops of the trees, I walked with my mother down the long road from my childhood home to the park where younger siblings were already swinging. My mother had adjusted to my disconnectedness, and respected my emotional space enough to let me grow in all the ways I thought I needed; but she was sad, and I knew it. We walked along, carrying the conversation rhythm that we had grown accustomed to: “How’s grandma doing? What sports is Zach playing this fall?” And as she answered the former, she talked idly about her mother, her growing up years, their fights and traditions. And I suddenly heard my own voice. There, mingling in the resonance of her tone and timbre, I heard my own thoughts, my own journey of self-discovery. She was me in so many ways, and only a handful years earlier. Our personalities are so very different, but all the things that she has done, all the things she has not, have formed and fashioned me while I was completely unaware. That walk to the park changed me. It taught me that unless we know something about where we come from, something about the ways in which our history has been written, we move forward fumbling, clumsy, and in the dark.
When most people think of the forbearers of the Christian faith, not many women make the list. And it’s not because there weren’t prominent women in the faith tradition, or that only men were written about; rather, the women seem to have simply fallen off the radar in recent generations. So, in an effort to remind us – and to remind myself – let me tell you the story of two of them, Perpetua and Felicitas.
These women have marked my mind. In some ways, they haunt me, standing as reminders of the bravery, physical fortitude, and resolve that I often inappropriately disassociate from women.
Let me tell you right now, this is not a tranquil story.
Perpetua and Felicitas were an unlikely pair: Perpetua was a noblewoman and Felicitas was a slave. Both heard about Jesus. Both were mothers. Both loved Jesus. Both believed in resurrection.
They were imprisoned in Carthage together in the early 3rd century. In a day and age where emperor worship was the rule, following Christ was not only unpopular, but also dangerous. Perpetua and Felicitas were imprisoned specifically because they claimed the name of Jesus, and for their faith they faced execution.
A great treasure of both the Church and scholarly work is Perpetua’s diary, which recounts her prison experiences for us in first person accounts, showing us not only the depth of her suffering, but the joy she held forth in partnering with Christ in martyrdom.
One such account records how her father, not a follower of Christ, came to plead with her to renounce Christianity. All that was required is that she make an offering to the emperor, and she was to walk free.
While we were still under arrest my father out of love for me was trying to persuade me and shake my resolution. 'Father,' said I, 'do you see this vase here, for example, or waterpot or whatever?'
'Yes, I do', said he.
And I told him: 'Could it be called by any other name than what it is?'
And he said: 'No.'
'Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.'
Perpetua’s resolve endured through many similar testings. Though a woman of noble birth, she more readily aligned herself with the family of God, rather than her biological family of nobility:
One day while we were eating breakfast we were suddenly hurried off for a hearing. We arrived at the forum, and straight away the story went about the neighbourhood near the forum and a huge crowd gathered. We walked up to the prisoner's dock. All the others when questioned admitted their guilt. Then, when it came my turn, my father appeared with my son, dragged me from the step, and said: 'Perform the sacrifice--have pity on your baby!'
Hilarianus the governor … said to me: 'Have pity on your father's grey head; have pity on your infant son. Offer the sacrifice for the welfare of the emperors.'
'I will not', I retorted.
'Are you a Christian?' said Hilarianus.
And I said: 'Yes, I am.'
Felicitas similarly displayed and immensity of faithful resolve. Imprisoned while pregnant, she gave birth to a little girl in her jail cell. Perpetua’s journal recounts that the labor and delivery was incredibly difficult and painful. One of the soldiers mocked her saying, “You suffer so much now--what will you do when you are tossed to the beasts? Little did you think of them when you refused to sacrifice.” But Felicitas retorted, “What I am suffering now, I suffer by myself. But then another will be inside me who will suffer for me, just as I shall be suffering for Him.” Many thought she was referring to the child just born, but they were wrong. Felicitas claimed that “one inside [her]”, Jesus Christ, would suffer for her, and insisted that she would suffer for him.
The women were brought into the gladiator ring. Dressed like those led to slaughter in the arena, they wore white linen tunic, and nothing else. Historical accounts report that the audience was disturbed, seeing Perpetua’s young body though the tunic, and seeing clearly that Felicitas had just given birth as her breasts dripped with milk.
The beasts were released into the ring.
Perpetua was thrown by a bull. At the first pass, she was knocked to the ground, but she stood, and closed her ripped tunic to cover her thighs. She stood and pulled back her hair, “for it was not right that a martyr should die with her hair in disorder, lest she might seem to be mourning in her hour of triumph.”
A brother in Christ was mauled by a leopard. Perpetua was heard saying, “Well washed, well washed,” as he was baptized through martyrdom and ushered into the kingdom of light.
Felicitas was thrown to the ground, and Perpetua went to her, lifted her up, and the two sisters in the faith stood hand in hand in the area that would take their life.
Mothers. Martyrs. Saints.
Someone finished Perpetua’s diary, recording the narrative that she could not. On the final page, we read:
Ah, most valiant and blessed martyrs! Truly are you called and chosen for the glory of Christ Jesus our Lord! And any man who exalts, honours, and worships his glory should read for the consolation of the Church these new deeds of heroism which are no less significant than the tales of old. For these new manifestations of virtue will bear witness to one and the same Spirit who still operates, and to God the Father almighty, to his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom is splendour and immeasurable power for all the ages. Amen.
As we live our lives in the wake of these faithful Christian women, may we know them, may we be them, may we someday raise them.