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All of a sudden the prison became for me a palace

From the diary of Perpetua and Felicity, martyred in Carthage 7 March, 203

Perpetua is a young catechumen, arrested in 203 in proconsular Africa, probably in Thiburbo Minus, and then tried and executed in Carthage. Of noble origin and well educated – she wrote the diary herself in prison – she is 22 years of age with a baby son. Her family of origin, despairing at her capture, is pagan, apart from one of her brothers, and her father tries in every possible way to withdraw her profession of faith. Next to her is the prisoner Felicity, of humble origin, perhaps a slave, who gives birth behind bars. When her father takes Perpetua’s child, that she is caring for in prison, away from her, she accepts it because even here she sees the hand of God: “since God wills it I no longer desire a womb”. Before her torture Perpetua has a vision, full of biblical references, and obtains from the prison guards a final collective meal with the catechumens which becomes an agape meal. The passion of Felicity is one of the first written by a female hand, with passion, dignity and courage. We here include a few excerpts taken from ““E fui fatta maschio”. La donna nella chiesa primitiva” by Clementina Mazzucco (published by Le Lettere, 1989).

It was just in those few days that we were baptized and the Spirit suggested to me to ask the water nothing less than the strength to resist in the flesh. After a few days we were closed up in prison and I felt terrified because I had never felt such darkness.

What a terrible day! A suffocating heat caused by overcrowding, extortion by the soldiers. And finally I tormented myself with my preoccupation for my child, there.

At that time, the holy deacons who assisted us, paying a bribe, enabled us to be transferred for a few hours to a better part of the prison, where we could find some relief.

Then leaving the (underground) prison everyone was able to look after themselves: I breastfed the child now on the point of starvation; preoccupied as I was for him, I spoke to my mother, encouraged my brother, entrusted my son. I tormented myself precisely because I saw them in anguish because of me.

I put up with these preoccupations for many days and got permission that my child should remain with me in prison; in no time he recovered and I was released from the pain and preoccupation for my child and all of a sudden the prison became a palace, so much so that I wanted to be there more than anywhere else. (…)

The day before the contest I see this in a vision. The deacon Pomponio had come to the door of the prison and was knocking loudly.

I went out to meet him and opened it to him: he was dressed in a white tunic without a belt and he had interlaced sandals on.

And he said to me: “Perpetua we are waiting for you: come on”. He took me by the hand and we began to walk through harsh and meandering places.

With difficulty and out of breath we finally reached the amphitheatre and he led me into the middle of the arena. And he said to me: “Don’t be frightened: I am here with you and I am fighting with you”. And he left.

And I saw an immense crowd in silent expectation; and as I knew I had been condemned to the wild beasts I was surprised that they had not let the wild beasts out.

And an Egyptian of a horrible appearance with his helpers came out to fight with me. Young people of attractive appearance, my helpers and sustainers, are also coming towards me.

And I was stripped and turned into a man. And my helpers began to rub me with oil, as is the custom for fights: opposite me I see the Egyptian rolling about in the dust.

And a man of huge size, higher even than the peak of the amphitheatre, came out: he was dressed in a tunic without a belt, with in the middle of his chest a strip of purple between two nails and he had interlaced sandals thickened with gold and silver; and he was carrying a rod like a manager of gladiators and a green branch with golden apples.

And he asked for silence and he said: “This Egyptian if he wins over her, will kill by the sword; if she wins over him, she will receive this branch”. And he retired.

And we approached each other and began to Exchange first blows; he wanted to grab my feet, but I kicked his face.

And I was swept up into the air and began to hit him like someone whose feet don’t touch the ground. And noticing a brief pause, I joined my hands together in order to entwine my fingers and grab his head, and he fell face down; and I tread on his head.

And the crowd began to cheer and my helpers to sing psalms. And I approached the manager of the gladiators and received a branch.

And he kissed me and said to me: “Daughter, peace be with you”. And he sent me in triumph to the Sanavivaria Gate.

And I woke up and understood that it was not against the wild beasts but against the devil that I would fight; but I knew that victory was mine.

This is what I did up to the day before the fight; regarding the unfolding of the fight itself, others can describe it, if they wish. (…)

With regards to Felicity the Lord also conceded to her a similar grace.

As she was already 8 months pregnant (in fact she was arrested already pregnant), as the day of the spectacle drew closer she was in great distress, fearing that it (the martyrdom) might be postponed due to her pregnancy (it is in fact illegal for pregnant women to be tortured) and to have to shed her innocent and holy blood later amongst other criminals.

But her companions in martyrdom were also profoundly saddened at the prospect of leaving such a valid companion, who had travelled almost the entire journey with them, alone on the road of their same hope.

So they directed their prayer to the Lord uniting their groans in unison two days before the fight.

Immediately after the prayer her birth pains began. And since she moaned suffering the natural difficulties of an eighth month birth, one of the attendants of the jail said to her: “If you are moaning like this now what will you do when you are exposed to the wild beasts, which you actually held in contempt when you refused to sacrifice?”

And she replied: “Now I am the one to suffer what I am suffering; there, there will be someone else who will suffer for me, because I too suffer for him”.

In this way she gave birth to a little girl who a sister raised as her own daughter.

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