If for no other reason than the horrible spectacle of it all, one should become familiar with the gruesome tale of Pertetua and her companions, Martyrs at Carthage in AD 202.
If you are interested at all in the gory details, you can read James Kiefer’s wonderful hagiography, HERE. Or feel free to save it for later. It is not for the faint of heart or anyone who has dined recently.
I’ve always been of a split mind when it comes to stories like these. On the one hand, it seems that such tales both glorify violence tend to identify suffering and death with victory in ways that are not becoming for the Church. On the other hand, however, they always seem to highlight the kind of mutual encouragement and hope-in-suffering that speaks to me of the very heart of the Gospel. These texts are genuinely helpful and potentially harmful at the same time.
Maybe it is here, then, that we see the importance of these stories for the lived experience of contemporary readers. The ambivalence that we feel towards the tales of the martyrs is somehow the essence of our lives of faith – simultaneously brutally visceral and gracefully transcendent. Yet somehow there is still just one life for us, just as there was only one life for Perpetua. Violence pain and death are a path that we neither choose nor avoid. Similarly encouragement, grace and victory are not ours to control. Our life is what it is. Our life is filled with all of these categories and more besides.
What we do control, however, is the way that we tell our own stories and those of others. The fact that the story of the companions is so clearly one of pain and suffering, but is framed, even by Perpetua herself, as one of life and victory is a choice on the part of the storyteller to proclaim the Gospel. Moreover, it provides generations to come with the kind of tools that they will need to craft their own narratives of hope even when life hands them (as it did with Perpetua and her companions) and endless string of absurdly violent and deadly events.