Dreams and Prayers by Michele Stepto

The crime of the early Christians, for which they were condemned to die, was refusing to offer sacrifice in the Roman way for the well-being of the emperors. At their hearings they were always given a final chance to perform the statutory rites. Some must have done so to escape death, and of them we hear nothing, but those avid for martyrdom refused, and when they were then asked, “Are you Christian?” they joyfully replied that they were. In this way, they stepped onto the path Jesus had taken.

Such was the case with Vibia Perpetua, a young Carthaginian who left a written account of the days and nights leading up to her martyrdom. It was the beginning of the third century, and Christians of longstanding, of which there were many in the colony, were allowed to continue in the practice of their faith. But those newmade were persecuted severely, their deaths in the arena furnishing a continuing spectacle for caesar and citizen alike. Perpetua was taken with three other novices, including her slave Felicitas. All had been preparing for baptism, which they now received from their teacher Saturus, who followed them into prison and later shared their fate.

When she entered prison, Perpetua was nursing her first child, and in the weeks before her hearing the child stayed sometimes with her and sometimes with Perpetua's grieving parents, passing fretfully between them. But after she had publicly declared her refusal to sacrifice according to Roman custom, the child suddenly weaned itself and Perpetua’s milk dried up. God had willed this, she believed, so that she might walk the last steps of her life in the flesh with an untroubled spirit.

Soon after she had given up the child, while at prayer one day, she found herself calling out the name of her dead brother, Dinocrates, and that night she dreamed of him. Dinocrates had died at the age of seven of a cancer in his face, and in her dream she saw him coming up out of a dark hole, his face still horribly disfigured, surrounded by others who were dry and dirty and ashen, like him. An untraversable chasm lay between the two. On his side of it, the lad stood next to a basin of water, the rim of which was high above his head, so that he was unable to stretch up and drink. Perpetua awoke from the dream knowing that her brother was suffering, and knowing that she could help him.

She prayed for him night and day, and during this time she and her fellow martyrs, those who would die with her, were transferred to the military prison from which they would be taken to fight the beasts on the emperor’s birthday. She and Saturus and the others were put in chains, and she dreamed that her brother was well-clothed and clean, his cancer now a simple scar across his face. On the other side of the chasm, the basin of water came up only to his waist, so that he could lean over and drink with ease. And in the basin was a golden cup also filled with water, from which Dinocrates drank and drank without emptying it. Perpetua awoke, knowing she had delivered her brother from punishment in the next world.

On the night before her martyrdom, she dreamed that she was in a crowded amphitheater, being stripped and oiled for combat. She had become a man for this final trial, and her opponent, she understood now, would not be wild beasts but the Devil himself. It was the last dream she recorded. Let others tell of my death, she ended. And others did, recounting how the next day she was thrown by a crazed heifer, chosen because it was of her sex, and how afterwards her throat was cut, the usual fate of martyrs who failed to die outright in the ring. At some point, she helped Felicitas to her feet. At another, she pulled her tunic over her knees and called for a clip to put up her hair, which had come loose in the struggle, because she did not wish to seem disheveled and grief-stricken on a day of such glorious victory. She is said to have guided the executioner’s knife to her throat.

Her fellow martyr Saturus, who preceded her that day into death, also told of his dreams in the weeks leading up to the contest. In one of them he recounted greeting Perpetua in heaven and crying out, “Perpetua, your wish is granted.” To which she replied, “I thank God for it. For as much joy as I felt alive in the flesh, I am even more joyous now.”