What makes Perpetua special? Journal and Visions

Perpetua and Felicity

I read the Passio Perpetuae (from c. 204) for the second time today; the first was for a course I was auditing, this time for a course I am TAing/tutoring. First let me tell you what does not make her special: specious, imagined similarities between her and suicide bombers, as I blogged last time I read this text. And now let me tell you what makes this early third-century Latin Christian text special: Perpetua’s journal and the visions it includes.

The eyewitness editor/composer of this document included in it Perpetua’s journal from when she was in prison before her martyrdom. Thus, we get a first-hand account of the life of martyrs before martyrdom. Of the visits and bribes of fellow believers, the pleas of pagan family members to renounce Christianity, the transfers of cells, the trial. This alone makes Perpetua’s journal special.

The first of the two main things that makes it special is that it is by a woman. Very often people say, ‘Well, if you’re going to talk patristics, talk matristics as well.’ Or something like that. Well, that would be nice — it would give us an insight into how women in early Christianity thought about things. But the field of matristics includes Perpetua, Egeria (who wrote a semi-pilgrimage travelogue), and a few bits of sayings from the Desert Mothers — oh, and (apparently) a Syriac nun’s life.

So, while I really don’t care if something is by a woman in and of itself (I care if it is interesting in other ways as well, generally), in a field where so few documents are by women, Perpetua stands out. She also stands out as a Roman, since the only other female Latin writers I know of are Sulpicia (an elegiac poet), Egeria, and female imperial correspondants in the realm of epistolography. So Perpetua is special simply by showing us something of the life and thoughtworld of women in the reign of Septimius Severus.

And what a thoughtworld it is! Perpetua is also special because of her visions. People generally assume this document and Perpetua are part of the New Prophecy that spread West to Carthage (where Perpetua died) from Asia Minor — eventually, this movement within mainstream, ‘catholic’, ‘proto-orthodox’ Christianity was condemned as the Phrygian heresy or — it’s more popular name — Montanism. The editor seems to be certainly favourable towards the ‘Montanist’ position, saying that just as the Lord gave words to men of old — prophets and apostles — so He can give a new word to people today.

Mind you, we must always be cautious of these appellations. If we read a quick snap of what ‘Montanism’ is from a dictionary of heresies, we may have completely mislabelled the variety we find in Perpetua’s passion. Furthermore, even if the editor is ‘Montanist’, Perpetua may not be. Having visions does not make one a Montanist; ask the patriarch Jacob or St Peter or St Paul or various Desert Fathers or St Hildegard or St Bernard or any number of modern charismatic Anglicans (of course, some of this latter group may basically be Montanists without knowing it).

The visions/dreams are themselves interesting, the whole Montanist question aside. I am especially fond of the first. It’s so good, I’m going to break a rule and quote it in full:

I see a bronze ladder of great size, reaching all the way to heaven, and so narrow that people could only climb up one at a time. And on the sides of the ladder were fixed all kinds of iron things. There were swords there and lances and hooks and cutlasses and javelins, so that if anybody climbed up carelessly or without looking up, he would be mangled and his flesh would get caught on the iron things. (4.4) And just below the ladder there was a huge snake, asleep. He was lying in wait for people climbing up, and he was terrifying them so they wouldn’t climb up. (4.5) But Saturus climbed up first – he had turned himself in voluntarily for our sake (because he is the one who had instructed us), and then, when we were picked up, he hadn’t been there.5 (4.6) And he reached the top of the ladder and turned around and said to me, ‘Perpetua, I’m waiting for you. But see that that snake doesn’t bite you.’ And I said, ‘It will not harm me – in the name of Jesus Christ.’ (4.7) And from beneath the ladder, it stuck its head out slowly, as if it was afraid of me. And I stepped on its head, as if I was stepping on the first rung, and I climbed up. (4.8) And I saw a vast expanse of garden, and in the middle of it sat a white-haired old man dressed like a shepherd – a big man – milking sheep. And standing around him were many thousands in white robes. (4.9) And he raised his head and looked at me and said to me, ‘Welcome, child.’ And he called me and gave me as it were a morsel of the cheese which he was milking. And I took it with hands joined and I ate. And all those standing round said ‘Amen’.

Two things strike me most about this vision: the ladder and the cheese. I cannot read this ladder imagery without thinking first of Jacob’s Ladder from Genesis, where the patriarch saw the angels of God ascending and descending. As well, we have ascent imagery in later ascetic and mystical texts such as the Syriac Liber Graduum and St John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent. When I think ladders, I am also reminded of Andrew Louth’s book The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, wherein he discusses the Neo-Platonic images of ascent that were very influential in Origen and Evagrius, in particular.

The cheese seems eucharistic to me.

Perpetua’s other visions are interesting as well. They seem strikingly real, like the sort of weird dreams actual people have. And unlike St Hildegard, Perpetua does not give us a long, involved exegesis of her dreams. We are left to see in them what we will. This I like.

The Passion of Perpetua is interesting and short. I recommend you read it.


Nikolaos, Part II

The Council of Nikaia, St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus. My photo.

Re-post from 2008.

That night Nikolaos drifted to sleep in his prison cell to the sounds of the night life of Nikaia. He was awakened after what seemed to be a most refreshing — but brief — nap by a Light flooding the chamber. He opened his eyes, and the yellow sandstone seemed to glitter as gold. A sourceless radiance was filling the room. His mortal eyes had trouble adjusting, but he thought he saw a figure. No, two figures.

In an instant, Nikolaos was prostrate on the ground. He had indeed seen a Figure, a most glorious Figure, dazzling in brilliant raiment. Konstantinos paled by comparison. All earthly things, all creation, paled in comparison of the One Who Himself was Light.

“Woe to me!” he cried aloud at this Vision of the Magnificence. “For I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell amongst a people of unclean lips! And I have seen the Lord Himself!”

And then the Figure laughed. Not a patronising laugh. Not a laugh of mockery. The laugh of an old Friend, glad to see His comrade. “Nikolaos, faithful servant, you may look upon me.”

Nikolaos, living by faith alone, dared to look upon the glory of the Anointed. He seemed to be the Source of the Light, although not as light radiates from a flame. Nikolaos could never properly put it into words in the years to come, and whenever friends would say him, “Father Nikolaos, tell us about the time you saw Jesus and His Mother,” he would decline comment. But His face was kind, His eyes ageless, brown and timeless like a slice from the heart of an ancient oak tree. He was smiling down upon Nikolaos, his very teeth radiant and pale like the moon.

“Nikolaos,” said a feminine voice to the left of the Anointed, “you may rise.”

Nikolaos stood, and only glanced briefly at the Mother of his Lord. She smiled at him with kind eyes. But was impossible not to look at the One she accompanied. And this was how the Virgin would have it.

“Your zeal for My Name and My honour is like Elijah’s, Nikolaos. If all overseers of My Assembly had such zeal and respect, then you would not all be here in Nikaia arguing about Me!” The Anointed smiled a sad smile.

“My Son and I have brought you gifts,” Holy Mary said. “Here is the stola of an overseer, for we confirm you as an overseer in the Assembly.”

Nikolaos took his eyes off the Anointed Jesus only long enough to receive the gift. “Thank you,” he uttered.

“And here is the book of the Good News, telling the story of my dwelling upon earth. For as overseer, you have done well in the task of bringing this Good News to the people; you have upheld the virtue of your office, and shall continue to do so,” the Glorious One handed Nikolaos a golden Book.

When the guards came to wake Nikolaos in the morning, he was found clutching these two objects to his breast as he slept; his office as overseer and his understanding of the Anointed confirmed, he was allowed to rejoin the gathering.

Nikolaos sighed a little, for he knew that, between the vision of the Majesty and that miracle involving the money for the poor girls, he would become a celebrity in no time. His name would live forever, and all he really wanted was for the Name of Jesus, the Divine, Eternal Word to live forever. He chuckled to himself, thinking they might even slap the word holy in front of his name.

The Cult of the Cross & Christ the King Sunday

Tomorrow is Christ the King Sunday.  Rick Dugan has a good meditation on the topic over at St. George the Dragonslayer.  The image of Christ as the King he is was one easily taken up by the Anglo-Saxon world, reflected in many pieces of literature, such as Andreas where Christ is portrayed as a King and the Apostles his thegns.

One piece of devotional poetry that comes from the earliest days of English writing and is preserved for us in the tenth-century Vercelli Book, a manuscript containing various pieces of Old English literature.  It describes a dream the narrator had wherein he beheld the Rood (ie. Cross), and the Rood spoke to him, relating in dramatic verse and forceful power the scene of Christ’s crucifixion.  There is a translation of the whole poem here.  Read it; it’s worth the time, trust me.

For our purposes, I’ll quote the following from that translation:

The young hero stripped himself–he, God Almighty–
strong and stout-minded. He mounted high gallows,
bold before many, when he would loose mankind.
I shook when that Man clasped me. I dared, still, not bow to earth,
fall to earth’s fields, but had to stand fast.
Rood was I reared. I lifted a mighty King,
Lord of the heavens, dared not to bend.
With dark nails they drove me through: on me those sores are seen,
open malice-wounds. I dared not scathe anyone.
They mocked us both, we two together. All wet with blood I was,
poured out from that Man’s side, after ghost he gave up.
Much have I born on that hill
of fierce fate. I saw the God of hosts
harshly stretched out. Darknesses had
wound round with clouds the corpse of the Wielder,
bright radiance; a shadow went forth,
dark under heaven. All creation wept,
King’s fall lamented. Christ was on rood.

And this, later on:

Death he tasted there, yet God rose again
by his great might, a help unto men.
He then rose to heaven. Again sets out hither
into this Middle-Earth, seeking mankind
on Doomsday, the Lord himself,
Almighty God, and with him his angels,
when he will deem–he holds power of doom–
everyone here as he will have earned
for himself earlier in this brief life.

This is a clear, unequivocal statement of the Kingship of Jesus.  Jesus is King.  He truly reigns on high, perfectly indivisible from the Father as true God.  Each age and culture tries to cast him into its own image of the ideal leader — we smile at the Dream of the Rood and Christ’s thegns and grimace at Thomas Bradwardine (d. 1349) when he says that God can do whatever He pleases since He is a Lord — and what we have to realise is that Christ is unlike any earthly ruler.

Christ is the King who laid down His life for His subjects.

His crown is of thorns.

His throne is the seat of his own execution.

He calls us to obedience and to follow his own example of self-giving love and endless charity.  We are to give of ourselves for others, give our lives for life.  We are to be humble.  We are to turn the other cheek.  We are not to consider our own esteem as something to be grasped.  If we live walking in His path, then we shall see Him when He comes to “deem . . . everyone here”.  He is King and, unlike any modern monarch, demands complete and utter obedience — an obedience, a service, that is perfect freedom.

So, “worship the King, all glorious above.”  He is seated on a sapphire throne today; let us remember the glory of the Cross of yesterday.