ST. PERPETUA AND HER COMPANIONS & ORANGE RICOTTA COOKIES
Antonio Ridolfi, 1857
St. Perpetua was born sometime around 181 A.D. in Carthage (modern-day Tunisia) in the Roman Province of Africa. A married Roman noblewoman with an infant son, she was martyred at the age of 22 with five companions around the year 203 on an unknown date. They are honored on March 7, in the Roman Catholic, Anglican (including Episcopal) and Lutheran Churches and on February 1 in the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches.
St. Perpetua wrote of their experiences in prison, and then a close witness wrote of their deaths in the arena. These writings were edited and published in a work called, The Passion of St. Perpetua, St. Felicitas, and their Companions. Ancient manuscripts in both Latin and Greek survived the ages, as well many later copies and translations. St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) referred to this passion often in his own written works but also warned readers not to treasure this story more than the Passion of Jesus Christ in the gospels.
St. Perpetua’s experiences are compelling and similar to Jesus’s experiences, especially the inconsistency of Roman bureaucracy and the furor of the crowd. The main difference is these people died for Jesus whereas Jesus died for all people.
For a long period in history, the Roman Empire was strong and somewhat helpful to their citizens. But they often bumbled their dealings with Christians. Their policy changed depending on who was emperor and whether or not he was distracted by the battle with his successor. Each emperor had a different personal god. And whenever a new emperor defeated the last one, he’d demand that his subjects worship and make sacrifices to this new god. Most people did so with a shrug and a here-we-go-again attitude.
But Christians were like, no. That is against God’s law.
Each succeeding emperor handled Christians differently. Some let them do their thing because they worked hard, paid their taxes, and were obedient to the civil laws. Others regularly rounded them up and sold them into slavery. Others killed them outright. But they could not contain Christianity. It wasn’t until during the life time of St. Nicholas of Myra in the year 324, that Emperor Constantine decreed an end to the persecution of Christians.
The emperor of Perpetua’s time, Septimus Severus, was wishy-washy. At first, he did nothing to Christians. But then, in the year 202, he decreed that it was forbidden for anyone else to convert to Christianity. And that’s where Perpetua and her fellow catechumens come in.
Perpetua; two other citizens; Saturninus and Secundulus, and two slaves; Revocatus and Felicitas were arrested for preparing to be baptized as Christians. Their teacher, Saturus, turned himself in to the authorities so he could stand together with his students.
At first, they were held in a comfortable place, in which people tried to convince them to give up on Christ and just make the sacrifice to the emperor’s god already. Perpetua’s father was vehement in his argument, but to no avail. There’s no mention of Perpetua’s husband. Some historians believe he was a silent member of their group, others believe he distanced himself from Perpetua’s public shame.
Because the law stated that if you were already a Christian, you could practice Christianity, there was a priest available to baptize the group in water. And he was allowed to do so.
The ridiculous inconsistency was the group was then punished for converting because of the emperor’s decree that they were no longer allowed to do so. They were to be an example unto death in an effort to stop the spread of Christianity, unless, of course, they conveniently recanted. Which they didn’t.
When they were transferred to the dungeon, Perpetua wasn’t allowed to bring her baby.
Deacons, who ministered to and cared for them as best they could throughout their imprisonment, bribed the guards so that the group could spend some time outside the dungeon in a more open part of the prison and receive visitors:
Then going out of the dungeon, all attended to their own wants. I suckled my child, which was now enfeebled with hunger. In my anxiety for him, I addressed my mother and comforted my brother, and commended to their care my son. I was languishing because I had seen them languishing on my account. Such solicitude I suffered for many days, and I obtained for my infant to remain in the dungeon with me; and forthwith I grew stronger and was relieved from distress and anxiety about my infant; and the dungeon became to me as it were a palace, so that I preferred being there to being elsewhere. — Passion of Perpetua, Chapter 1
One night, Perpetua had a vision in which she saw herself climbing a golden ladder with dangers on either side plus a dragon underneath. Her teacher, Saturus climbed ahead of her and told her to be careful as she climbed:
And I went up, and I saw an immense extent of garden, and in the midst of the garden a white-haired man sitting in the dress of a shepherd, of a large stature, milking sheep: and standing around were many white-robbed ones. And he raised his head, and looked upon me, and said to me, “Thou are welcome, daughter.” And he called me, and from the cheese as he was milking, he gave me as it were a little cake, and I received it with folded hands; and I ate it, and all who stood around said, “Amen.” And at the sound of their voices I was awakened, still tasting a sweetness which I cannot describe. — Passion of Perpetua, Chapter 1
She realized their imprisonment would end in a passion and death, and also Saturus would die before her and lead the way to heaven.
A few days later, her father visited again and appealed to her to renounce Christ and make the offering to the emperor’s god saying among other things:
“Have pity on your father; if I am worthy to be called a father by you . . . do not delivery me up to the scorn of men. Have regard to your brothers, have regard to your mother and aunt, have regard to your son, who will not be able to live after you. Lay aside your courage, and do not bring us all to destruction, for none of us will speak in freedom if you should suffer anything.”
And I grieved over the grey hairs of my father, that he alone of all my family would not rejoice over my passion, and I comforted him saying ‘On that scaffold, whatever God wills shall happen. For know that we are not placed in our power, but in that of God! — Passion of Perpetua, Chapter 2
A few days later the local administrator had the prisoners taken to the town hall where a large group gathered to watch the proceedings. Perpetua’s father tried again to convince her to give up and just make the offering to the Emperor’s god.
She refused. And when asked by the judge if she was a Christian, she replied, “I am a Christian.”
Her father was publicly beaten. When he left, he took her baby with him. Perpetua and the rest of the group were condemned to death by wild beast in the arena and returned to the dungeon.
Perpetua asked her deacon, Pomponius, to ask her father to bring her baby to her. Her father refused. However, before she could fret, it came to her that:
God willed it that the child no longer desired the breast, nor did my breast cause me uneasiness, lest I should be tormented by care for my babe and the pain of my breasts at once. — Passion of Perpetua, Chapter 2
She relaxed in knowing that her child would survive, safe and cared for by her mother and brother.
A few days later, she had another vision, in which she saw her brother who had died at age seven due to cancer on his face. She saw him disfigured and as ill as he was before he died. And she saw that he was thirsty but too short to reach over a high ledge to a pool of clear water no matter how hard he tried.
Perpetua took this as a sign to pray for her brother’s soul and she did so for several days.
Then, another vision showed her brother, cleansed and healthy with only a scar on his face. The pool was lower so he was able to dip a goblet into the water and drink as much as he wanted. Afterwards, she saw him run off to play like a typical child.
This is believed to be one of the earliest written witnesses showing that it’s good and helpful to pray for the souls of the dead, especially those who died in torment.
That same day Perpetua and the rest of the group were shackled and transferred to the soldiers’ camp in preparation for the games in the arena in celebration of the emperor’s birthday.
In the camp prison, she wrote about another vision in which her teacher brought her to the arena to fight, not wild beasts, but a large soldier. She was helped by many people who dressed her for battle. As they did so, she transformed into a strong, male soldier. A certain man in purple robes, who looked like a gladiator trainer, came to the center and announced that if she won the fight, she would receive the branch he held. She fought the soldier and smashed his face into the ground.
And the people began to shout, and my backers to exult. And I drew near to the trainer and took the branch; and he kissed me, and said to me, Daughter, peace be with you! And I began to go gloriously to the Sanavivarian gate (of the arena).
Then I awoke, and perceived that I was not to fight with beasts, but against the devil. Still, I knew that victory was awaiting me.
This so far, I have completed several days before the exhibition, but what passes at the exhibition itself let who will write. — Passion of Perpetua, Chapter 3
Not only did this vision show her again that she was going to her death, it also showed her how important her death would be in the battle with evil.
The rest of the manuscript was completed by a witness who reported Saturus also had a vision which showed them entering heaven as a group in glory and vast welcome. (Some historians believe it was actually Felicitas who spoke to the witness of this vision, but the editor changed it so that a man from the group would have some special attention.)
Secundulus died in prison before they were sent to the arena. He’s remembered as one of Perpetua’s companions and a martyr, nonetheless.
Felicitas suffered great distress because she was in her eighth month of pregnancy and believed she would be separated from her fellows because it was against the law to publicly punish pregnant women. The others grieved also at the thought that they wouldn’t all go to God together. So they prayed until Felicitas went into labor, three days before the games.
It was a difficult birth and she cried out. An attendant told her that her childbirth pain was nothing compared to what would happen to her if she didn’t sacrifice to the emperor’s god. Felicitas replied:
Now it is I that suffer what I suffer; but then there will be another in me, who will suffer for me, because I also am about to suffer for Him. — Passion of Perpetua, Chapter 5
She then gave birth to a healthy daughter, whom she placed in the gentle care of a Christian couple to raise as their own.
Although the prison guards were worried that the group would escape with the help of some “magic,” they treated the Christians humanely because they were not criminals. They even allowed them a last meal with their family and friends from the outside.
The scene was so jovial that many of the large party in attendance forgot that the group would die the next day. Saturus, set them straight:
Tomorrow is not enough for you to behold with pleasure that which you hate. Friends today, enemies tomorrow. Yet note our faces diligently, that you may recognize them on that day of judgment. — Passion of Perpetua, Chapter 5
The next day, Perpetua entered the arena with her eyes cast down so none could see how radiant they were. Felicitas entered with joy that she had safely delivered her daughter and was able to share in the battle. Revocatus, Saturninus, and Saturus called out to the crowd that they would be punished some day for taking part in this martyrdom.
Then the group turned to the judge and said:
Thou judgest us, but God will judge thee. — Passion of Perpetua, Chapter 6
The crowd demanded that the games begin.
Saturninus and Revocatus fought a bear and a leopard. The wild boar, released to attack Saturus, turned on his handler. The three men made it to the other side of the arena.
Perpetua and Felicitas were attacked by a savage cow in order to mock their motherhood. They were both tossed by the horns and landed hard on the ground. Perpetua sat up and retied her tunic for modesty’s sake and:
bound up her disheveled hair; for it was not becoming for a martyr to suffer disheveled hair, least she should appear to be mourning her glory. So she rose up; and when she saw Felicitas crushed, she gave her her hand, and lifted her up. — Passion of Perpetua, Chapter 6
They regrouped on the other side of the arena where Perpetua seemed to come out of a trance having no memory of what just occurred. Her brother and another catechumen were seated nearby and told her. She looked down at her wounds and then said to them:
Stand fast in the faith, and love one another, all of you, and be not offended at my sufferings. — Passion of Perpetua, Chapter 6
The crowd who initially indicated the women had suffered enough, riled back up and shouted for the games to continue.
Saturus was then thrown to the leopard and was killed with one bite. The rest were called out to the middle of the arena by the crowd so that they could better see their deaths upon the sword:
. . . but first they kissed one another, that they might consummate their martyrdom with a kiss of peace. The rest, indeed, immoveable and in silence, received the sword-thrust; much more Saturus, who also had first ascended the ladder, and first gave up his spirit, for he also was waiting for Perpetua.
But Perpetua, that she might taste some pain, being pierced between the ribs, cried out loudly, and she herself placed the wavering right hand of the youthful gladiator to her throat.
Possibly such a woman could not have been slain unless she herself had willed it, because she was feared by the impure spirit. — Passion of Perpetua, Chapter 6
O God the King of saints, you strengthened your servants Perpetua and Felicitas and their companions to make a good confession, staunchly resisting, for the cause of Christ, the claims of human affection, and encouraging one another in their time of trial: Grant that we who cherish their blessed memory may share their pure and steadfast faith, and win with them the palm of victory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. — Collect, HOLY WOMAN, HOLY MEN: CELEBRATING THE SAINTS
For More Info:
10 EARLY CHRISTIAN SAINTS: POLYCARP, PERPETUA AND FELICITAS, CYRIAN, EUSEBIUS, ANTONY, ATHANASIUS, CHRYSOSTOM, JEROME, PATRICK AND BENEDICT, Editors: Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Cox
STARS IN A DARK WORLD: STORIES OF THE SAINTS AND HOLY DAYS OF THE LITURGY by Father John-Julian, OJN
BRIGHTEST AND BEST: A COMPANION TO THE LESSER FEASTS AND FASTS by Sam Portaro
ALL SAINTS: DAILY REFLECTIONS ON SAINTS, PROPHETS, AND WITNESSES FOR OUR TIME by Robert Ellsberg
LIVES OF THE SAINTS: FROM MARY AND ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI TO JOHN XXIII AND MOTHER TERESA by Richard P. McBrien
St. Perpetua is now one of my favorite saints, with whom I recently had a helpful “conversation” in prayer. But I cannot really relate any of my life experiences to hers as my faith has never been so tested.
And even in motherhood, my son was not wrenched from my bosom as a nursing infant, he left for college as a young adult.
So I offer instead these words on flavoring and sprinkles in the following recipe. Lemon has always been my go-to baking flavor because it’s a family tradition and is yummy. Lemon is also clean, invigorating and perfect for spring. But, we’re not quite there yet. In its abundance and joyfulness, orange is the cheer we need right now. Orange reminds us of the celebration of Christmas embedded within the promise of Easter.
Also, as shown in the Stigmata and Death of St. Francis of Assisi and Bereavement Elixir, orange helps replete during and after periods of grief and depression. Or winter. The vibrancy of orange reminds us that when the sunshine of spring finally beams upon us, it’ll be as warm as a hug.
But, if it’s spring already where you live, or if you just like lemon better, swap it out. My grocery store didn’t have orange sugar sprinkles, but they did have orange Tiggers.
In honor of St. Perpetua and her Companions, I offer this version of the tiny, sweetness-filled, cheese cake she received from the Shepherd in her vision.
ORANGE RICOTTA COOKIES
½ cup (1 stick) softened butter
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 tablespoon vanilla
8 oz fresh ricotta
2 ¼ cups flour
¼ teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons baking powder
2 cups powered sugar
3 tablespoons orange juice
½ teaspoon orange extract
In a mixing bowl, blend butter and sugar. Add orange juice, vanilla, ricotta, and eggs. Mix together.
In another bowl, combine flour, salt, and baking powder. Stir with fork.
Slowly add the dry mix to the liquid mixture to form a sticky dough.
Place in refrigerator to rest for 30 minutes.
Combine powdered sugar, orange juice, and orange extract. Beat. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Drop small spoonfuls of dough onto parchment paper placed on cookie sheets.
Bake for 12-15 minutes or until bottoms brown, or edges slightly brown.
Remove tray from oven. Quickly spread icing on each cookie while cookies are hot so the icing melts down each one. Shake sprinkles (or arrange your trinity of Tiggers) quickly and carefully onto the melting icing before it hardens.
Transfer cookies to cooling rack and then to platter or into containers to share.
Makes about 50 cookies.
(Originally posted on 3/7/2015 to Saints and Recipes on Blogger.)