I have read various martyrdom stories to my children but few have had the impact as the story of Saints Felicity and Perpetua. The girls were weeping (especially my seven-year old, Julia) by the time I got half way through the story and even my son had a hard time keeping his usual stoic expression. I imagine that there are several reasons for this: unlike many saints’ lives, we have Perpetua’s first person account of their imprisonment; the details of their martyrdom are vivid and horrific; and both women were young mothers (Felicity was about to give birth and Perpetua was still nursing). My daughters were so worried about the babies! Perpetua’s anxiety for her nursing child is palpable as she explains how her baby boy was brought to her in prison: “I was very unusually distressed by my anxiety for my infant ... I suckled my child, which was now enfeebled with hunger. In my anxiety for it, 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 strong 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.” My daughters’ concern, and I daresay that of most women, is echoed by that of our Christian heroine. She is not just a Christian, but a Christian mother. To me, her desire, her deep need to hold and nurse her infant child--a need which greatly unsettled her--underscores her humanity. And I wonder at how, once her baby son is with her, her “dungeon” became a “palace”! Without love and tenderness, without gratitude, a mother’s life can feel like a dungeon, okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic...like a prison camp, where there is nothing but anxiety and work. But when she was handed her son, she was so happy, so grateful, that it was as if she were in heaven. She didn’t worry about the future, but was content. How many times have I become anxious about problems that were looming (and none of them as extreme as execution!), only to be reminded, “Sufficient unto the day (is the evil thereof).” Worrying about the future deprives us of the joys that the present moment offers us. Our freedom is here in the present, not in the future. Our children are here with us now to love and be loved. So maybe the next time you are feeling low or fearful, grab hold of one (or all) of your children and transform your prison into a palace!
Another quick thought regarding these glorious examples of mother martyrs: do not forsake your prayer life. It was through prayer that both Felicity and Perpetua received the peace they needed in order to march happily to their martyrdom. We may not be all called to give up our lives for the Lord, but we are all called to love Him, and how can can we love Him if we do not know Him and how can we know Him, if we do not talk to Him?
Sts. Perpetua and Felicity died in the year 203; they and their companions in martyrdom have been honored for many centuries, throughout the Christian world. The first part of their story--their arrest and their time in prison--was written by Perpetua herself; the final part--the account of their martyrdom--was written by an eye witness to their deaths who may well have been the great Tertullian. For the full text, which has been called one of the "great hagiological treasures," go to http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/tertullian24.html
Below is a dish that Felicity and Perpetua as North Africans from Carthage, which was then part of the Roman Empire and is today in Tunisia, might well have enjoyed:
Tagine chicken with apricots and almonds
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon ground ginger
• 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
• 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
• 1 1/4 teaspoons salt
• 3 tablespoons plus 1/4 cup olive oil
• 1 (3-lb) chicken, cut into 6 pieces, wings and backbone discarded or 2-3lbs. of boneless chicken breasts
• 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
• 1 medium red onion, halved, then sliced 1/4 inch thick
• 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
• 5 fresh cilantro
• 5 sprigs fresh flat-leaf parsley
• 1 1/2 cups water
• 2 tablespoons mild honey
• 1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick
• 1/2 cup dried Turkish apricots, separated into halves
• 1/3 cup whole blanched almonds
Stir together ground cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, pepper, 1 teaspoon salt, and 2 tablespoons oil in a large bowl. Add chicken and turn to coat well.
Heat butter and 1 tablespoon oil in base of tagine (or in skillet), uncovered, over moderate heat until hot but not smoking, then brown half of chicken, skin sides down, turning over once, 8 to 12 minutes. Transfer to a plate. Brown remaining chicken in same manner, adding any spice mixture left in bowl.
Add onion and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt to tagine and cook, uncovered, stirring frequently, until soft, about 8 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, 3 minutes. Tie cilantro and parsley into a bundle with kitchen string and add to tagine along with 1/2 cup water, chicken, and any juices accumulated on plate. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, 30 minutes. (If using boneless chicken breasts, reduce the time to about 20 minutes.)
While chicken cooks, bring honey, remaining cup water, cinnamon stick, and apricots to a boil in a 1- to 2-quart heavy saucepan, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until apricots are very tender (add more water if necessary). Once apricots are tender, simmer until liquid is reduced to a glaze, 10 to 15 minutes.
While apricots cook, heat remaining 1/4 cup oil in a small skillet over moderate heat and cook almonds, stirring occasionally, until just golden, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain.
Ten minutes before chicken is done, add apricot mixture to tagine. Discard herbs and cinnamon stick, then serve chicken sprinkled with almonds on top.