Perpetua, a Christian noblewoman in the third century, was punished for her faith by being sentenced to death in the Roman arena. After she was mauled by a cow and about to be struck to death by a sword, she asked permission to be able to pin her hair back in place. Loose hair signified a state of mourning, but according to her, this day was “bled over with joy.”
Similarly, her partner in death, Felicitas, a Christian slave who had been eight months pregnant, gave birth on the eve of her martyrdom, while in prison. During her labor, the guards asked her how she expected to face the beasts in the arena, to which she replied, “Now my sufferings are only mine. But when I face the beasts there will be another who will live in me, and will suffer for me since I shall be suffering for him.”
For these two women of the faith, who offered each other “the kiss of peace” before death, the language of solidarity remained close—solidarity with Christ and solidarity with each other.
How does such faith form? How did Christians facing harrowing situations maintain their faith under such pressure? How does one maintain joy in suffering, forgiveness in persecution, and the abandonment of wealth for an ecclesial movement among the forgotten poor? In a world in which violent games were normalized and which people found entertaining, how did these women dare to become witnesses to something different?
When we consider the relative affluence and freedom of religious expression of the church in the United States, we recognize that our ecclesial context is certainly different than the church of the Roman Empire before Constantine. But the church today needs a re-contextualization of the same formation that shaped Perpetua and Felicitas and their companions. We live in a time of chaos.
What would it take for a people of faith to dare to become tangible witnesses to something different?
The answer is multifaceted, but it certainly partially rests in the language of solidarity. Solidarity is a primary (though not the only) role of a spiritual mentor. Mentors embody an alternative reality and a willingness to instruct, train, and pass along their unique way of seeing and living in the world. Tertullian, in chapter 39 of his Apology, stresses that “Christians are made, not born.” As Christians, we are trained and disciplined in such a way that our lives no longer look like those around us; our habits, reflexes, and posture in the world better reflect the life of Christ. To achieve this new way of living, each catechumen in the early church (a catechumen was one who had Christian training but had not yet been baptized) was paired with a catechist (an already baptized believer), who was tasked with showing the catechumen the Way of Life.
In his book The Patient Ferment, Alan Kreider works through “how . . . patient endurance move[s] from the realm of ideas to the embodied world of habitus [the reflexes of corporeal knowledge and a system of dispositions].” Kreider notes four key aspects that shaped formative Christian behavior:
1) Repeated phrases. The recitation of prayers, scriptures, and stories passed in oral form from the community.
2) Preparation. Tertullian placed an emphasis on fasting and other ascetic practices as a training not only for practicing God’s presence but for the spirit and body to be able to endure prison. Likewise, in nonviolent movements against injustice (from Gandhi to the American Civil Rights Movement), a key emphasis is placed on prayer and preparation. For instance, nonviolent resistance trainings were hosted at First Baptist Church in Nashville to train local students for the eventual lunch counter sit-in movement of 1960. They were led by their mentor and trainer, James Lawson.
3) Liturgy. Often during the week, Christians gathered to build verbal and bodily habits—singing, the agape meal (Eucharist), the kiss of peace.
4) Role Models. While each of the above is clearly outlined in the story of the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas, I want to take a moment to point out another character: Saturus. Saturus was their catechist, their spiritual leader who encouraged them in their faith. After Perpetua and Felicitas went to prison, Saturus, by his own will, joined them. He was the first person to move toward suffering and death, and is said today to be the “builder of our strength.” At their last meal, re-imagined as an agape meal, Saturus turned to the witnesses and said, “Friends today, enemies tomorrow. Yet note our faces diligently, that you may recognize them on that day of judgment.” His unwavering support, words of encouragement, and vision of an alternative reality called the kingdom of God was only solidified through a movement of solidarity—his very presence with Perpetua and Felicitas. And many who watched came to believe.
The apostle Paul tells the church in Corinth not to seek their own good but the good of many: ”Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). This is the kind of mentor the church needs now. For the church to make any noticeable difference in the world today, we need people who are willing to move in solidarity with others; to build up the Christian community in a visible act of presence. Solidarity with the victims of war; solidarity with our black and brown brothers and sisters; solidarity with our planet. When we make their pains our pains, their joys our joys, their sufferings our sufferings, Christ and the kingdom of God are revealed.
The ones who take on this task are the ones I long to follow. They are the yeast that gives rise to the whole batch of dough. They are the ones I seek. They are the ones whose faithfulness transforms my unfaithfulness.