When I was a kid, I wanted to be two things: a virgin martyr and a nun.
(I was a weird kid.)
For most people I’ve asked, to fulfill their childhood dreams, all they need to do is be successful in careers that they have college degrees in, hit a big break, or complete what they’ve spent hundreds of hours working at a skill for. To fulfill mine, all I have to do is wait until my husband dies, join a convent, have reconstructive hymen surgery, and preach Jesus nonstop to whoever it is that eventually won’t be able to take it anymore and will just quiet me down, already.
At least, I used to think that way.
Today is the feast of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, who were martyred in about the year 203 in Carthage. They were both young women (St. Perpetua was a new mother and was a noblewoman; St. Felicity was pregnant until just before she was martyred, and she was a slave) who fell in love with Jesus and sacrificed their entire lives in order to be public believers.
I think about this a lot more than I did when I was a little girl, because when I was younger I was just full of zeal. If God wanted me to be a martyr, I would, no question. But it was all zeal, no reality. These days, I think more and more about martyrdom, and about how it just really flies so flagrantly in the face of reason. People, for the most part, who are mentally well, do not want to die. We are built to survive; it is in our DNA to thrive and want to live. It is a sickness when we do not.
And yet, they exist: men and women, scores of them, who have died (and who continue to die) for a God they have encountered so deeply – they must have! – with an experience that is strong enough as to override that immensely deep desire to just survive. “Big M” martyrs.
But back to Perpetua and Felicity.
A few things: they were both mothers. Perpetua’s baby was an infant and she was still nursing; Felicity had just given birth when they went to their deaths to be gored at the games. No mother I know (and I am a mother, too, so I include myself here) would willingly leave her child – especially her brand new, days old child – for a reason like this. Their whole selves, any shred of reason they would have had in their bodies must have been calling out to them to stop, for the sake of their children, and take back their belief. And yet, they kept on.
They entrusted their children to those who would carry on their faith for them, when they could not survive on the Earth to do so. And that is another death for them, too – to have to die to their desire to be with their children.
Jesus knew this. He said it when He spoke,
“Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mothers or fathers or children or lands for My sake and the Gospel’s sake, will fail to receive a hundredfold in the present age…and to receive eternal life in the age to come.” (Mark 10:29-30)
In short, it has to be God, above all. Above all.
In the end, the women were beaten, scourged in front of a crowd and gorged by a wild cow. When they didn’t die from that, they were killed by the sword. Perpetua’s executioner was new at it, and couldn’t stop shaking enough to get a good angle, and so Perpetua took his hand and guided him through it.
So I ask myself, would I still be willing to die for Him? I hope so. (Yep, still weird.) But even if most of us are not called to be martyred for Him the way many people still are, paying with their entire lives to believe, we are called to continue to hold God above all we have in our lives.
And so we are called to a different kind of martyrdom, “Little m” martyrdom: that kind of non-bodily dying that is still incredibly painful. Lost friendships because of faith. Exclusion. Marriages torn apart. People who don’t understand you, who no longer want to talk to you, associate with you, think about you. It happens, and it’s painful. Is it on the same level of those in so many countries around the world who are being decimated for being Christian? No.
But it will be rewarded, too. The last part of the Mark quote: “…[none of these] will fail to receive a hundredfold in the present age, and to receive eternal life in the age to come.”
God is not the kind to take everything and keep it selfishly, requiring every exact ounce and returning nothing. He gives back. Immeasurably. More than we could ever give Him.