Perpetua wrote her own story in her own hand, describing how she advocated for better prison accommodations while she and her companions waited to be martyred. She was a young woman of noble birth, with an infant son, yet her courage for Christ, and her embracing of the cross continues to encourage us today.
Perpetua’s visions had a great impact on the martyrs who came after her, as well as our understanding of life after death. Her first vision is described in Part One. Today are the rest of Perpetua’s visions.
Perpetua’s four visions prophetically portray her future, reveal her final earthly task, and prepare her for her final earthly ordeal.
Her first vision was the Lord’s response to her prayer, at the request of her brother. Would they be martyred, “a passion,” or miraculously released, “a deliverance?” God made it clear their deliverance would be in the form of a passion, for they would be delivered from this life into the next.
Second and Third Visions, Power of Prayer
Perpetua’s second two visions concern her dead brother, first suffering in death in a way similar to the rich man in Jesus’s description of Hades, Luke 16:19-31. Perpetua, now an angelic intercessor with connection to Christ, pleads her brother’s case in prayer and is reassured of his release to heaven. This companion vision underscores the power now thought to be available to spiritual nobility, previously unattainable.
Fourth Vision, Victory of the Cross Over Death
Perpetua’s fourth vision depicts her victorious battle with the devil as portrayed by a dirty “Egyptian.” Her translation from woman to angel makes it possible for her to become a man once stripped, as a mighty gladiator ready for battle, and yet still be addressed as “Daughter” before entering “with glory to the . . . Gate of Life.” She is roundly victorious when she crushes her opponent’s head with her feet, just as she stepped on the serpent’s head.
The day of her battle confirms her prophetic vision.
- She is at first stripped naked and even flogged just as Christ was flogged in response to the angry crowd.
- She has the boldness and courage of a gladiator, even to the death.
- She retains her dignity and modesty as a noble Lady, and as spiritual Daughter.
- Her death releases her to enter the true Gate of Life.
Both Sarturus and Felicitas, also included in this account, have made the transition from earthly ties to heavenly destiny. Their martyrdom is their testimony. Sarturus’s vision includes himself and Perpetua as equals in heaven, receiving the same honors and refreshment, Perpetua even talking with heavenly notables in Greek, perhaps a reference to discussing theology and philosophy. Felicitas, once delivered of her baby, joyfully faces the arena for she knows her infant is in good hands, and she will die in community with her friends, not “among strangers and malefactors.” Together they will enter the Gate of Life, be welcomed by Christ and those of their community already martyred, and receive their glorious crowns. She knows her suffering will be carried by “another” within her, referencing Christ. Celebrating the Love Feast affirms their communion with heaven and each other.
Both Perpetua and Sarturus were clearly biblically literate, particularly in New Testament imagery, and the narrator also included snippets of appropriate scriptural quotes throughout his account. This speaks to the foundational perspective they had of heaven being more real than earth. They were no longer tied to the world around them. For Perpetua and Felicitas, the physical entanglement of their infants represented their only anchors to earth, and once responsibly dispensed with, they were both joyfully released to enter into “real” life in heaven. They lived that reality physically through egalitarian fellowship, the Love Feast, and speaking in the dialect of scripture.
“The Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes and be killed and on the third day be raised.”
Then he said to them all, “If any wish to come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.
For what does it profit them if they gain the whole world but lose or forfeit themselves?Jesus, Luke 9:22-25 (NRSV)
I find this perspective personally affirming, for my own lived reality is more in heaven than on earth, and I also “speak in scripture.” But, I find it challenging as well. My anchor holds strong in the earth through my children, relationships, and work. I am hoping that revoking all earthly ties in order to have this heavenly communion and spiritual power is not necessary today. Without the pressure of persecution, I believe this level of spiritual connection between believers can coexist with other earthly connections.
More fascinating to me is Perpetua’s full defection from earthbound gender roles to embrace both equality with her brothers and sisters in Christ, and her nobility as an emissary to and from heaven. As such, she expected and received visions; she prayed for what Jesus said could not happen (moving someone from Hades to heaven) and it happened; she felt no pain in the arena; she guided the gladiator’s sword to her throat, expecting her martyrdom to bring her life and glory. She was nourished with food from heaven.
Of more personal impact to my life of faith is being convinced of my own spiritual status in heaven, as noble, as a person who is not bound by gendered roles, whose identity is in Christ, powerful in prayer, bold in proclamation, courageous through ordeals, and compassionate yet firm in faith.