By Barb Arland-Fye
As a 12-year-old, I scared myself senseless reading a book about 50 saints for girls while babysitting my younger brothers. Forty years later, I’m reading again about early Christian martyrs — and it isn’t any easier than the first time around.
The reading is for Church History class, which I am taking as part of the Master of Pastoral Theology Program, a collaborative effort of St. Ambrose University and the Diocese of Davenport. My classmates are deacon candidates and some of their spouses, several deacons and other individuals. Our assignment for last week’s class was to write a short reflection paper on a reading or readings pertaining to the early Church.
I chose to reflect on The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas and The Acts of Thecla. I was particularly drawn to Perpetua’s story, recounted in her own diary in third-century Carthage. A catechumen during a time of horrific persecution, she also was a young, married woman still nursing her infant. She had family and position, yet she was willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of her newfound Christian faith.
As a mother and a Christian I imagined myself in her situation, but doubted I could have responded as she had. While I was struck by her devotion to her child, her courage, her faith and her anticipation of the Kingdom of God, I still wondered about the wisdom of her choice.
I realize that her faith journey was far removed from mine and that of most Christians living today in the United States. She and Felicitas, a slave and new mother also willing to die for her Christian faith, were scourged, humiliated in the amphitheater, attacked by a wild heifer and executed by sword.
The story’s editor states a desire to inspire other Christians in their faith, but I can’t help wonder whether these young mothers couldn’t have served a higher purpose by living and nurturing their children in the Christian faith, even if they had to do so underground as Christians in some countries do today.
“The Acts of Thecla” left me with additional questions about the obligations of faith. Thecla had a conversion experience while listening from the window of her family’s home to Paul the Apostle evangelizing in a neighboring house church. She gave up her engagement to a powerful man in the community and incurred the wrath of both her fiancé and her mother to pursue Christianity. Is that a way to illustrate that Christians face tough choices, I wondered.
By the grace of God, her execution failed. During the ordeal and afterward, she was taken under wing by a queen still grieving the loss of her own daughter. The story of the two women’s relationship reminded me of the story of Ruth and Naomi and the bond of love they forged.
Beyond the message I received from each of these stories — to remain steadfast in faith — I took away another message: that God intends for us to have companions on the journey of faith.
My companions on this journey include my classmates in the Master of Pastoral Theology program. I wish they would have been with me when I read that saints’ book for girls!