Lives of the Saints
THASCIUS CYPRIAN was a native of Carthage his father being one of the principal
senators of that city. He made great improvements in philosophy and all the liberal
arts, applied himself to the study of oratory and eloquence with great success, and
was made public professor of rhetoric at Carthage. This employment was anciently
most honorable, and all this time he lived suitably to the rank of his birth in great
pomp and plenty, in honor and power, wearing a splendid attire, and never stirring
abroad without a pompous retinue, and a crowd of clients and followers waiting upon
fasces, which were the Roman emblem of the supreme magistracy; but he deplores
that he was then a slave to vice and evil habits. The far greater part of his life he
passed in the errors of paganism, and he was upon the borders of old age when he
was rescued from the darkness of idolatry and the servitude of vice and errors.
There resided at Carthage a holy old priest whose name was Cecilius. With him
Cyprian contracted an acquaintance, and by his discourses on the excellency of the
Christian religion he began to relish exceedingly its divine truths and the sanctity of
its precepts; but still his carnal heart made strong efforts in favor of the world and his
passions. He describes, in his book to Donatus, the struggle which he felt within
himself, as follows: "I lay," says he, "in darkness, and I floated on the boisterous sea
of this world a stranger to the light, and uncertain where to fix my feet. I then
thought what I was told of a second birth, and the method of salvation by it,
propounded by the divine goodness, extremely hard and impracticable I could not
conceive how a man could receive the principles of a new life from the sacred laver of
regeneration, cease to be what he was before, become quite a new person, and
though still retaining the same bodily constitution, put off the old man, and be
entirely renewed in the spirit of his mind. For how (thought I with myself) is so great
an alteration possible or practicable? How shall I do to leave off on a sudden, and in
an instant, radicated customs, in which I am grown old? How can one who remains
still in the midst of those objects which have so long struck and charmed his senses,
strip himself of all his former inclinations and inveterate habits? These, time and
continuance have made natural to me, and they are closely rivetted in the very frame
of my being. When is it known that a person is transformed into an example of
constant frugality and sobriety, who has been always accustomed to sumptuous and
dainty fare, to live in plenty, and to indulge his appetites without restraint? How
rarely does a man become content with plain apparel and unornamented dress, who
hath been used to sparkle in gold and jewels, and embroidered garments! The man of
ambitious views, who pleases himself, and glories in the ensigns of power and
authority, can never love an inglorious private life. In like manner, there is almost a
necessity, that wine should engage, that pride should swell, that anger should
inflame, that greediness of gain should devour, that ambition should amuse and
please, and that lust should tyrannize over a man who hath long indulged such
inclinations. These, and such as these, were frequently my soliloquies; for as I was
deeply entangled and ensnared in the errors of my former life, which I judged it
impossible for me ever to disengage myself from, I gave way to the solicitation of my
usual vices, added strength to them by indulgence, and, despairing of any possible
cure, hugged the chain which was become natural to me, so that I looked upon it as a
part of myself. But as soon as the life-giving waters of baptism had washed out the
spots of my soul, my heart had received the light of the heavenly truth, the Spirit of
God had descended upon me, and I was thence become a new creature, presently all
my difficulties were surprisingly cleared, my doubts were resolved and all my former
darkness was dispelled. Things appeared easy to me, which before I looked upon as
difficult and discouraging; I was convinced that I was able to do and suffer all that
which heretofore had seemed impossible. I then saw that the earthly principle which I
derived from my first birth, exposed me to sin and death; but that the new principle
which I had received from the Spirit of God, in his spiritual birth, gave me new ideas
and inclinations, and directed all my views to God." He goes on professing all this to
have been in him the pure gift and mercy of God, and ascribing it wholly to the power
of his grace; which, he adds, we are bound continually to ask with earnestness and
humility, as by it alone we are enabled to will and to do.
Cecilius, the holy priest, was the happy instrument in the hands of God, of his
conversion; and Cyprian ever after reverenced him as his father and guardian angel,
and, to express his gratitude, would from that time be called Thascius Cecilius
Cyprian, joining the name of his benefactor (whom he acknowledged under God the
author of his spiritual life) with his own. Cecilius had, in return, the greatest
confidence in his virtue, and on his deathbed recommended his wife and children to
his care and protection; for he had been married before he was raised to the
priesthood. Cecilius left behind him the most excellent character for all good qualities
and Cyprian became, as it were, the heir of his piety, says Pontius. This author takes
notice that the fervent convert set himself with great eagerness to read the holy
scriptures, and to inform himself of all those lessons which would be of use to him, in
his great design of obtaining God's favor. Finding the sacred oracles very copious in
the commendation of purity and continence, he made a resolution to practice those
virtues for the more easy attainment of true perfection. Soon after his baptism, he
sold his whole estate, and gave almost all the money, and whatever else he
possessed, for the support of the poor, by which, says Pontius he gained two points
of principal importance, renouncing and despising all secular views (than which
nothing is more fatal to all the true interests of piety and religion), and fulfilling the
law of charity, which God himself prefers to all sacrifices. With the study of the holy
scriptures, St. Cyprian joined that of their best expositors, and in a short time became
acquainted with the most approved ecclesiastical writers. He was particularly
delighted with the writings of his countryman Tertullian, scarce passed a day without
reading something in them, and when he called for them, used to say, "Reach hither
my master," as Saint Jerome relates. But though he admired his genius, and the
variety of his learning, he was upon his guard not to imitate any of his faults or
errors. St. Cyprian led a retired penitential life, and by the fervor of conversion made
such wonderful progress in the exercises of a virtuous life, that, whilst he was yet in
the rank of the Neophytes or persons lately baptized, at the earnest request of the
people, he was raised to the priesthood; his extraordinary merit being judged
sufficient reason for dispensing in the rule laid down by St. Paul against admitting
Neophytes to holy orders.
During the short time that he served the church in the sacerdotal functions, he did
many great things; and, within less than a year after, Donatus, bishop of Carthage,
dying, the clergy and people conspired to demand that he should be raised to that
high dignity in the church. At the first news of this motion, the humble servant of
Christ fled, judging himself unfit for so weighty an employment, and begging that
some more worthy person and one of his seniors, might be chosen to that dignity. His
declining it made the people keener in their desires, as it showed him to be the more
worthy. A great multitude beset his house, and guarded all the ways that led to it, so
that he could not make his escape from them. He attempted to get out at a window,
but finding it in vain, he yielded, and showed himself to the people, who were
impatiently waiting for him, divided between hope and fear. He was received with
great joy, and consecrated with the unanimous approbation of the bishops of the
province in the year 248, as bishop Pearson and Tillemont prove. Five priests with
some of the people opposed his election, alleging that he was yet a novice in the
church. St. Cyprian treated these persons as if they had been his best friends, and
expressed so much goodness toward them, that every body admired him for it. In the
discharge of the episcopal functions he showed abundance of piety, charity, goodness,
and courage mixed with vigor and steadiness. His very aspect was reverend and
gracious beyond what can be expressed, says Pontius and no one could look him in
the face without a secret awe upon his spirits; his countenance had a happy mixture
in it of cheerfulness and gravity; his brow was neither too contracted nor too open,
but equally removed from both extremes of gaiety and severity, so that a person who
beheld him might doubt whether he should love or respect him most; only this was
certain, that he deserved the highest degrees both of respect and love. His dress was
of a piece with his countenance, neither affectedly sordid nor pompous. How careful
he was of the poor when he was bishop, may be judged from his tenderness for them
whilst he was only a catechumen.  
The church enjoyed peace under the reign of Philip for above a year after St. Cyprian's
promotion to the see of Carthage. But Decius who was sent by that emperor to
chastise certain rebels in Pannonia was proclaimed emperor by them, and advancing
toward Italy, gained a great victory over Philip's forces, who was killed by his soldiers
at Verona, and his son at Rome in 249. Decius began his reign by raising a bloody
persecution against the church. The cruel edict reached Carthage in the beginning of
the year 250. It was no sooner made public but the idolaters, in a kind of sedition,
ran to the marketplace, confusedly crying, "Cyprian to the lions; Cyprian to the wild
beasts." The saint was publicly proscribed by the name of "Cecilius Cyprian, bishop of
the Christians"; and every one was commanded not to hide or conceal his goods. By
his remarkable conversion and great zeal, his name was so odious to them, that in
derision they called him Coprianus alluding to a Greek word which signifies dung. He
was often sought for by the persecutors on this occasion. St. Cyprian consulted God,
according to his custom, what he ought to do. It is the part of a hireling to fly when
the flock is left destitute in time of danger. But there were at that time many weak
ones among the faithful at Carthage, as appeared by the great number of those that
soon after fell; the havoc which the enemy made there would probably have been
much greater if providence had not preserved Saint Cyprian that by his active zeal and
authority he might maintain discipline, and repair the ruins caused by the persecution.
In order to procure to his flock all necessary support and comfort during the storm,
the holy bishop was persuaded that the precept of flying from one city to another held
good in his case; and during his deliberation he was favored with a vision, in which
Christ commanded him to consult his own safety by a prudent retreat, as Pontius
testifies in his life and as St. Cyprian himself assures us. The clergy of Rome who by
severe glances reflected upon his flight, as if by it he had in some measure forsaken
the flock, were not apprised of his motives, or of these circumstances. Moreover, by
his staying at Carthage, the heathens would have been provoked to fall more severely
upon the whole church.
During his recess, though absent in body, yet he was with his flock in spirit, supplying
the want of his presence by frequent letters, pious counsels, admonitions, reproofs,
exhortations, and hearty prayers to heaven for the welfare and prosperity of his
church. He exhorted them to continual prayer to God, saying: "What hath moved me
more particularly to write to you in this manner, was an admonition which I received
in a vision from heaven, saying unto me, 'Ask, and you shall have.'" He assured them
that the Christians, by falling into sloth and a relaxation of manners during the long
peace, had deserved this scourge for their trial and amendment; and that this storm
had been discovered by God, before it happened, to a devout person at Carthage, by
a vision of the enemy under the figure of a net-fencer (a kind of gladiator) watching
to destroy the faithful, because they did not stand upon their guard. In the same
epistle the saint mentions another revelation of God, which he himself, though the
last of all his servants, as he styles himself, had received concerning the end of the
persecution, and the restoration of the peace of the church. St. Cyprian during his
absence committed the care of his church to certain vicars, of whom some were
bishops, as Caldonius and Herculanus; some priests, as Rogatian, Numidicus, and
Tertullus. By frequent letters he warned and exhorted his flock, encouraged the
confessors in the prisons, and took care that priests in turns should visit them, and
offer the sacrifice of the altar and give them the holy communion every day in their
dungeons. Two affairs at that time gave him much disturbance, the schism of Novatus
and Felicissimus, and a controversy about the absolution of the lapsed.
Felicissimus, a turbulent clerk of Carthage, had with five priests opposed the election
and ordination of St. Cyprian. During the retreat of that holy pastor, Novatus, a priest
of Carthage, formed an open schism. He was a man of an unquiet disposition,
covetous, presumptuous, a lover of novelty, and suspected by the bishops in point of
faith. He had robbed the widows and orphans, misapplied the revenues of the church,
and suffered his aged father to perish with hunger in a certain village, without so
much as taking care to bury him. For these and other reasons the brethren were very
urgent to have him deposed and excommunicated. The time of his trial was near at
hand, when the persecution beginning, no assemblies could be held. In order to
prevent his condemnation, he separated himself from his bishop, persuading some
others to do the same, and pretending to ordain Felicissimus for his deacon, a man
like himself, who had been convicted of several frauds and robberies, they were joined
in their schism by five other priests, and held their assemblies upon a mountain.
Some among the lapsed and confessors, who were angry at St. Cyprian's severity
toward the former, adhered to them; for Novatus received without any canonical
penance, all apostates that desired to return to the communion of the church. St.
Cyprian, finding other remedies only served to make the schismatics more insolent,
sent a commission to the bishops and priests, whom he had appointed to act in his
stead to declare the ringleaders among them excommunicated; which was done
according to his orders. About the beginning of the year 261, St. Cyprian wrote to his
flock exhorting them to beware of being misled by the schism, which he calls more
dangerous than the persecutions of the pagans. "There is," says he, "one God, and
one Christ, and but one episcopal chair, originally founded on Peter, by our Lord's
authority. There cannot therefore be erected another altar, or another priesthood.
Whatever any man in his rage or rashness shall appoint, in defiance of the divine
institution, must be a spurious, profane, and sacrilegious ordinance." Novatian and
Novatus having kindled a schism at Rome against pope Cornelius, St. Cyprian wrote
his excellent book, On the Unity of the church, in which he more fully explains the
same principles, which overthrow all schisms and heresies which can arise in the
church. The case of the absolution of the lapsed who returned penitent to the church,
gave more exercise to the zeal of our holy pastor than the schism itself.
Virtue which had stood the fiercest persecutions, is often seen to melt at the first ray
of prosperity; so dangerous are its flattering blandishments. St. Cyprian complains in
many parts of his works, that the peace which the church had enjoyed had enervated
in some Christians the watchfulness and spirit of their holy profession, and had
opened a door to many converts who had not the true spirit of our faith; from which
sources, a sensible relaxation was discoverable in the manners of many. Their virtue
therefore being put to the test, in the persecution raised by Decius, many wanted
courage to stand the trial. The lapsed, whether apostates who had sacrificed to idols,
or Libellatici who, without sacrificing, had purchased for money certificates that they
had offered sacrifice, were not admitted to assist at the holy mysteries, before they
had gone through a most rigorous course of public penance, consisting of four
degrees, and of several years' continuance, as is prescribed for much less heinous
sins than that of apostasy, in the canonical epistle of St. Gregory Thaumaturgus,
written about that time. When, during this penitential term, absolution was given in
danger of death, if the penitent recovered he was obliged to accomplish his course as
to the austerities enjoined him. Relaxations of these penances, called indulgences,
were granted on certain extraordinary occasions, as on account of the uncommon
fervor of a penitent, of which several instances occur in ecclesiastical antiquity; also
on occasion of a new violent persecution being raised in the church.
Thus St. Cyprian, in 252, when the persecution of Gallus began to threaten the church
decreed "that all the penitents should receive the peace of the church who professed
themselves ready to enter the lists afresh, there to abide the utmost heat of battle,
and manfully to fight for the name of the Lord, and for their own salvation." For the
reasons of which indulgence he alleged that it was necessary "to make a general
rendezvous of Christ's soldiers within his camp, who are desirous to have arms put
into their hands and seem eager for the engagement. So long as we had peaceable
times, there was reason for a longer continuance of penitents under a state of
mortification; yet so as to relax it in the case of sickness and danger. Now the living
have as much need of communions as the dying then had, unless we would leave
those naked and defenseless, whom we are exhorting and encouraging to fight our
Lord's battle; whereas we should rather support and strengthen them with the body
and blood of Christ. The design of the Eucharist being to be a defense and security for
those who partake of it, we should fortify them whose safety we are concerned for
with the armor of our Lord's banquet. How shall they be able to die for Christ if we
deny them the blood of Christ? How shall we fit them for drinking the cup of
martyrdom, if we will not first admit them to the cup of the Lord?" It was also
customary to grant indulgences to penitents who brought tickets from some martyr
going to execution, or from some confessor in prison for the faith, containing a
request in their behalf, which the bishop and his clergy examined, and often ratified.
This practice was established in Africa in Tertullian's time, in Egypt, in the days of St.
Dionysius of Alexandria, in Asia, as appears from the Acts of St. Pionius, and in other
places. In St. Cyprian's time this custom degenerated in Africa into a great abuse by
the multitude of such tickets, and their often being given in too peremptory terms,
and without examination or discernment, to the great prejudice of souls, and the
relaxation of the discipline of penance.
St. Cyprian being informed of the mischief which threatened his flock in June, 250,
severely condemned it by three letters which he dispatched together, one to the
martyrs and confessors, the second to the priests and deacons, and a third to his
people. In the first he expresses the utmost concern to the confessors that they had
not been better instructed by his priests in the rules of the gospel than they appeared
to have been, and that by their recommendation "some priests had presumed to make
oblations for the lapsed, and to admit them to the holy Eucharist; that is, indeed, to
profane the body of our Lord. And as a further aggravation," says he, "they have
admitted these sinners to communion before any submission made by them to
penitential discipline, before any confession made of their heinous and crying sin, and
before any imposition of hands made by the bishop and his clergy unto penance. Such
priests, instead of approving themselves the true shepherds of the sheep, become as
bad to them as butchers and murderers. For a mischievous condescension is, in effect,
a cheat; nor are those who have fallen raised by such helps, but rather cast down,
and pushed upon destruction." He adds, "I beseech you, with all possible
earnestness, to set before your eyes the examples of your predecessors, and to
consider how careful other martyrs, who are gone before you, were in making such
grants; duly weigh the reasonableness and justice of the petitions which you hand to
me. I again entreat you. that you see the persons, acquaint yourselves with their
circumstances, and be assured that their humiliation comes very near the just
measure of a legitimate and full satisfaction." The saint's letter to the priests is a
much more severe rebuke, that some of their order (whom he threatens to restrain
from offering, that is, to suspend), forgetting the rules of the gospel, as well as the
rank which they held in the church, rashly and hastily admitted penitents to
communion upon the tickets of confessors, "though," says he, "they have not
performed their penance, made no humble confession of their sin, nor received the
imposition of hands from the bishop and his clergy; the holy Eucharist is administered
to them, in defiance of the scripture, which saith Whoever shall eat or drink
unworthily shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord" (1 Cor. 11:27). Fleury
remarks that St. Cyprian here does not take the word exomologesis, with Tertullian,
for the whole course of penance, but for a part of it, according to the Greek word,
namely, confession, which was made either publicly or privately, after penance was
ended, before receiving reconciliation by the imposition of hands. The holy bishop, in
his letter to his people, recommends to them to restrain by their advice, the
forwardness of such confessors within the limits prescribed by the gospel. He,
however, dispenses in case of sickness or other extreme danger, and allows such,
with tickets from the martyrs, to be reconciled, "when they have made the humble
confession of their sin before any priest or deacon, whom they can procure to attend
them." Lucian, and certain others among the confessors at Carthage, wrote an
imperious letter to St. Cyprian upon this subject, but the holy pastor strenuously
maintained his point.
The see of Rome being then vacant, St. Cyprian wrote concerning this affair to the
clergy of that church, who, by an excellent answer, confirmed the same law of holy
penance, and discipline of the church. They were by that time well satisfied of the
just reasons St. Cyprian had for his retreat; and condemn overhasty absolutions. "God
forbid," say they, "that ever the Roman church should be so easy and compliant, or
have so little regard to the interests of religion, as to relax the severity and rigor of
its discipline. The remedy too hastily applied can do those that are fallen no sort of
service; but through a mistaken compassion, would fester the wound received by the
first offense, and to their greater destruction, deprive the unhappy souls of the
advantages they might reap from a true repentance. For how is it possible that the
medicinal grace of forgiveness should have its effect, if he who hath the dispensation
of it, becomes fond of increasing the danger, by contracting the time which should be
allowed for the removal of it, by a legitimate and proper penance? If he chooses only
to skin over the wound, and will not allow due time for the operation of his medicines,
nor for closing it by surer and slower degrees? This, if we would speak out plainly is
not to cure, but to kill. Let penitents knock at the doors of the church; but let them
not proceed to violence, nor to break them open. Let their tears and lamentations
coming from the very bottom of their hearts, plead their cause for them, and speak
their shame and sorrow for their sin. Nay, if they have really a just horror of their
guilt, and would have the deep and dangerous wounds of their consciences handled
skillfully, they should even ask with shame. Let them ask, agreeably to the rules of
the gospel, with modesty and humility. The mercies of God may be considered; but
then his justice should also be remembered. He hath prepared a heaven, but he hath
prepared a hell too," &c. A letter also which the confessors at Rome wrote out of
prison to those in Africa (much extolled in this and St. Cyprian's letters, though not
now extant), contributed very much to the support of discipline.
Saint Cyprian writes of a certain priest named Gaius, who admitted the lapsed to
communion, and of such others, "Let them be suspended from their monthly
dividend." For the revenues of the clergy then consisted chiefly of the oblations of the
faithful, which were divided every month into four parts one of which was assigned to
the bishop, and one to his clergy, so that the bishop's share equaled that of all his
clergy together. The other two parts were allowed to the poor and the expenses of
oratories or churches. The Roman clergy tell St. Cyprian, in another letter, that they
hoped the impatience, of the lapsed would wear off with time; "and then they will be
thankful," say they, "that they have been kept in hand for a season, till their cure
could be depended on." The schimatics Novatus and Felicissimus supported the cause
of the lapsed, and the rebellious clergy and confessors; but Novatus retired to Rome
in the beginning of the year 251 where St. Cornelius was chosen pope in June that
same year. St. Cyprian congratulated with him upon his election, and they joined their
forces against the double schism kindled both at Rome and in Africa.
At the end of the year 250 the persecution was considerably abated at Carthage upon
the expiration of the proconsul's annual authority. It ceased by the death of the two
Decii, father and son, who perished together by the treachery of Gallus, their general,
as they were fighting against the Carpi, a Scythian nation, near Abrutum in Mysia,
part of Scythia, in November, 251, the elder Decius having reigned about two years
and six months. St. Cyprian was returned to Carthage in April that same year, after an
exile which he calls of two years, though it seems only to have continued about
fourteen months as Tillemont observes. Soon after his return he held a numerous
council at Carthage, in which the schismatics were condemned, and it was ordered
that the lapsed should remain in a course of penance. St. Cyprian granted them
afterward a plenary indulgence in the second council which he held at Carthage soon
after Easter the following year, the persecution of Gallus then beginning to threaten
the church, as has been already mentioned, our saint is thought to have read in the
first of these councils his treatise, On the Lapsed which he published soon after he
came out of his retreat.
Visions continued very frequent in the church in that age, as the learned Mr. Dodwell
has proved, tracing the evidences of this prophetic spirit through almost every writer,
from the apostolic age to this period namely, from the works of Hermas, Clemens
Romanus, Ignatius, Polycarp, Quadratus, Justin, Melito, Tertullian, Origen, Dionysius
Alexandrinus, &c. St. Cyprian mentions several visions with which God had favored
him and many other persons. He assures us that he received from God an express
order to fly and be concealed when he was proscribed or outlawed in the reign of
Decius. Pontius, in his life, tells us that it was purely owing to his fear of offending
God, which induced him rather to obey the commands of God than to be crowned with
martyrdom against the will of God, to whom in every thing he was entirely devoted.
He so firmly depended on the truth of those admonitions which he received from
heaven, that he was persuaded he should commit a sin by suffering, if he had not
then concealed himself, when our Lord commanded him to do so. This historian
observes that he was preserved by a merciful Providence, lest his weak flock should
have been totally dispersed, and the discipline of penance enervated in it by the
persecutions, first of the heathens and afterward of the lapsed. During which dangers
this skillful manager bound up the wounds of the brethren, and by his watchfulness,
defeated the stratagems by which the cunning enemy sought to impose upon those
that were found not to be upon their guard. Such circumstances render the vision
more credible at those times when miraculous powers were frequent.
St. Cyprian, in his eleventh epistle to his priests and deacons, mentions several other
visions; one by which he was moved to exhort them to continual prayer. "I received,"
says he, "an admonition from heaven, in a vision, saying, Ask, and you shall receive.
Next, my people were directed in the same vision to ask for certain persons; but they
could not agree in asking, which exceedingly displeased him who had said, Ask, and
you shall receive; because it is written, God maketh men to be of one mind in a
house." He subjoins the vision of the net-fencer, representing the devil threatening
the people, which pointed out the impending persecution of Decius; and gives an
account of a third vision, in which it was shown him that this persecution was drawing
towards an end, in the following words: "To the least of all his servants, who hath
many sins to account for and in all respects is unworthy of such a condescension,
God, in his infinite mercy hath been pleased to give the following direction, saying,
'Bid him be secure and easy, for settled times are and, as to the intervening delay of
them, there is reason for it seeing there are some yet remaining to be proved in this
trial.' Even as to the point of spare diet, we have some intimation from above, with a
manifest view of preventing any declensions in the vigor of heavenly virtue through
the allurements of the world and of disengaging the mind from the weight and
encumbrance of satiety, that it might more easily and expeditely watch for prayer."
The English editor observes that this letter was wrote in 250, when there was no
human appearance of times growing more peaceable. The departure of the Decii from
Rome soon after, upon their expedition, made some abatement in the persecution,
and their unexpected death put an end to it. The event proved the author to be
neither an enthusiast nor an impostor, who depended with great assurance upon
these visions, especially those which promised peace to the church, of which he writes
again, "Let us animate one another, and endeavor to make all possible improvements
in virtue, that, when our Lord shall mercifully vouchsafe that peace to the church
which he hath promised, we may return to her new men," &c. When some of the
lapsed had wrote to St. Cyprian, humbly and modestly begging penance and
reconciliation the holy bishop said of them, "The Lord is my witness how much I
congratulate with them for this regular and Christian conduct, who hath been pleased
also to reveal to me how highly acceptable it is in his sight." He speaks of several
other divine revelations which he received; he was often directed by them in
promoting persons to holy orders and in other occurrences. He was forewarned by God
of the revival of the persecutions under Gallus; of which he wrote to pope Cornelius
as follows: "A storm is coming, and a furious enemy will speedily declare himself
against us; the struggle will not be like the late one (that under Decius), but more
sharp and insupportable. This we have had frequently revealed to us from above, and
the merciful providence of God doth often remind us of it; through whose assistance
and compassion for us, we trust that he who, in times of peace, hath foretold to his
soldiers the approaching battle, will crown them with victory when engaged in it. Upon
these revelations he, by a plenary indulgence, admitted the lapsed, who had entered
upon a course of penance, to the benefit of reconciliation and communion.
In the beginning of this persecution, in July, 252, pope Cornelius made a glorious
confession of his faith at Rome, and was banished to Centumcellae. St. Cyprian
congratulated him hereupon by a letter, in which he foretells both his and his own
approaching martyrdom. "Since it hath pleased God," says he, "to advertise me of our
approaching trial, I cease not to endeavor by exhorting my people to prepare for it,
and to join with me in continual watchfulness, fasting and prayer. Let us cry to God
continually, and deprecate his wrath; for this is our heavenly armor, which will enable
us to stand our ground with constancy and courage. Let us agree in remembering each
other at this time of peril and distress -and, whichsoever of us shall first be favored
by our Lord with a removal hence, let our affection still persevere before the Lord for
our brethren, in never-ceasing prayers for them." These two great saints lived in the
closest and most constant union together; we have eight letters of St. Cyprian to that
holy person besides a synodal epistle; and it appears by these that he wrote to him
many others. After the martyrdom of St. Cornelius, which happened the same year,
252, on the 14th of September, St. Cyprian wrote a letter of congratulation to his
successor, St. Lucius, who was no sooner elected than banished. Being recalled, he
died about five months after his election, on the 4th of March, attaining to a "glorious
martyrdom," as Saint Cyprian assures us.
The pestilence, which broke out first in Ethiopia, in the reign of Decius, and ravaged
successively all the provinces of the empire fell most heavily of all upon Africa. It
grew more violent under Gallus; afterward destroyed the armies of Valerian in Persia,
and seemed to redouble its virulence in the reign of Gallien. It is mentioned also
under Claudius II, in 270, though its chief havoc is confined to the space of twelve
years, from 250 to 262. St. Cyprian describes this distemper, that it began by a
sinking of the strength, with colliquative evacuations, and grievous inflammations of
the larynx and parts adjacent, these symptoms were followed with an inward heat of
the bowels, convulsions of the stomach, violent retchings and vomitings, fiery redness
of the eyes, and mortifications in several parts, which required amputations of limbs;
a weakness contracted in the whole frame rendered the body almost incapable of
motion; a dullness of hearing or a dimness of sight also came upon the patients. This
fatal contagious distemper swept away daily vast numbers, seizing whole families one
after another, without sparing one individual person in them. All, in this dreadful
juncture, were in the utmost consternation, every one striving to shift for himself, and
got to the greatest distance from the infection. The heathens deserted and exposed
their nearest friends, turning the dying patients out of the doors, as if they could shut
death out with them. Living carcasses rather than men lay destitute up and down the
streets, begging the assistance of passengers. Yet many were intent upon an
unnatural and cruel plunder of the goods of others.
St. Cyprian, in this time of desolation, assembled the Christians at Carthage, and
spoke to them strongly on the duty and advantages of mercy and charity, teaching
them that they ought to extend their care not only to their own people, but also to
their enemies and persecutors. The faithful readily offered themselves to follow his
directions. Their services were severally distributed; the rich contributed large alms in
money; the poor gave only their personal labor and attendance having nothing else to
bestow. Every one was ambitious to engage in a service wherein they might so
eminently approve themselves to God the Father, and Christ the Judge of all, and in
which they had at their head so great a leader and commander as their good bishop.
How much the poor and necessitous were, not only during this pestilence, but at all
times, the objects of our saint's most tender care, appears from the concern he
expressed for them, and the orders he frequently gave about them in his epistles,
even during his absence. It was one of his usual sayings: "Let not that sleep in thy
coffers which may be profitable to the poor. That which a man must of necessity part
with, some time or other, it is wisdom for him to distribute so, that God may
everlastingly reward him."
All orders of men shared the good bishop's attention, but the clergy above the rest.
So solicitous was he that they should be wholly taken up in the spiritual function of
their charge, that he reckoned it among the great disorders which had crept into the
church during the long continuance of peace before Decius, that some bishops,
"neglecting their high trust entered upon the management of secular affairs." In the
town of Furnis, one Geminius Victor had, in his last will appointed Geminius
Faustinus, a priest of that church, his executor. The sixth among the apostolic canons
(framed in various synods during the three first centuries) and other synodal decrees
of the earliest ages forbade any bishop, priest, or deacon to engage himself in secular
business, under pain of being deposed. Bishop Fell observes that the Roman laws
made it penal for any one to refuse the office of executor or guardian, when offered.
Wherefore, in this case, the synods inflicted the penalty on him who should appoint a
bishop, priest, or deacon, either executor or guardian, forbidding "any remembrance of
him to be made at the Eucharist (or mass), or any oblation to be made for him after
his death. The reason of which was, that the clergy should not be distracted from
their holy ministrations - that they might attend their altar and their sacrifices
without interruption, and fix all their attendance upon religious duties," as Saint
Cyprian says. Wherefore he ordered "that the name of the said Victor should not be
mentioned at the altar - that no oblation should be made for his repose, nor the
customary prayers of the church be offered up on his behalf," as was usually done for
the faithful departed. St. Cyprian hoped, by this instance of severity, to prevent any
person from calling down to a lower employment the priests and ministers of God,
whose whole time and care should be devoted to his altar.
In the persecution of Gallus, some priests, who celebrated the holy Eucharist early in
the morning, made use of water only in the chalice, for fear of being discovered by the
scent of the wine. This abuse St. Cyprian condemned and confuted. He mentions the
sign of the cross used at baptism, and on other occasions, and says, "A Christian is
fortified by the defensive sign of the cross." Several cities in Numidia having been
distressed by an incursion of barbarians, who were not subject to the Romans, a great
number of Christians of both sexes were carried into captivity by them. Upon this
accident, eight bishops wrote to St. Cyprian, imploring his assistance for the
redemption of the prisoners. St. Cyprian shed many tears upon reading these letters,
and was particularly concerned on account of the danger to which the virgins were
exposed. At his recommendation the clergy and people of Carthage raised a sum
amounting to a hundred thousand sestertii, that is, about seven hundred and
eighty-one pounds English. This money Saint Cyprian sent to those bishops, charging
them to have recourse to him again upon all such occasions.
About the year 255 began the controversy concerning the validity of baptism given by
heretics. St. Cyprian having been consulted by eighteen bishops of Numidia
concerning that point, answered, that such a baptism is null, and to be reiterated;
which decree he soon after confirmed in a synod of seventy two bishops, which he
held at Carthage. The pretended reasons for this mistaken notion he sums up in his
epistle to Jubaianus. In what manner St. Stephen maintained the tradition of the
church upon this head, has been related in the life of that holy pope and martyr. What
the behavior of St. Cyprian would have been, had he seen the controversy determined
by the decision of the church cannot be doubted from the principles which he himself
lays down. Nor did he question the superior authority of St. Stephen; though in a
point which he thought to belong merely to discipline, not to faith, he thought he
might maintain the custom which he found established at Carthage by a predecessor
named Agrippinus. Neither was he unacquainted with the dignity of the Roman see,
which he calls "The chair of Peter, the principal church, the origin of the sacerdotal
unity; whither perfidy cannot find access." If he for some time betrayed a warmth in
this controversy, how much he repented of it appears by the book which he afterward
wrote on patience; and, if he offended, this was effaced by his perfect charity and
glorious martyrdom, as St. Austin frequently repeats.
Whilst this controversy was carried on, the church enjoyed some tranquillity. For
Gallus did not reign full two years, being slain by his own troops. Emilianus, who had
revolted against him, met with the like fate after four months, and Valerian, who next
steps into the throne, was favorable to the Christians, till, through the instigation of
Macrianus, his general, he raised a most bloody persecution in 257, which raged three
years and a half, till that emperor was taken prisoner by the Persians. St. Cyprian so
effectually encouraged his flock to martyrdom, that many who had fallen under Decius
and been by an indulgence reconciled by St. Cyprian, upon the approach of the
persecution of Gallus, in it courageously suffered martyrdom; whose example is made
use of to confound the harshness of Novatian in rejecting such penitents, in the work
of a learned contemporary writer against that heresiarch which has sometimes been
ascribed to St. Cyprian. Indefatigable was the zeal of our holy bishop in exhorting the
confessors, and in procuring them all possible succor. He was also careful in devoutly
honoring the memory of the martyrs, after their triumphs, by sacrifices of thanksgiving
to God on their annual festivals. For this purpose, in his retirement, during the first of
these persecutions, he sent this charge to the clergy at Carthage: "As to those
confessors who die in prison, observe the days on which they depart this life, that
they may be commemorated with honor, as those of the martyrs era. We offer up here
the usual sacrifices and oblations in commemoration of them." He says, in another
letter to his clergy, speaking of certain martyrs, "We constantly offer sacrifices for
them, upon the yearly return of those days, wherein we celebrate the memorial of the
martyrs' sufferings."
The saint describes in his epistles the wonderful constancy with which the martyrs
endured the most unheard-of torments. They were scourged, beaten, racked, and
roasted; their flesh was pulled off with burning pincers, some were beheaded with
swords, others were run through with spears; often more instruments of torment were
employed about the same man than his body had limbs. They were plundered and
stripped, chained and imprisoned, thrown to wild beasts, or burnt at slakes. When the
persecutors had run over all their old methods of tortures and executions, they
studied to invent others more barbarous. They not only varied, but repeated the
torments, and where one ended another began. This cruelty they added to all the
rest, that they tortured them without leaving them hopes of dying soon, stopping
them in their journey to heaven. Many were purposely kept upon the rack, that they
might die piecemeal, and that their pains might be lingering; no intervals or times of
respite were given them, that the sense of their torments might be without
intermission unless some chanced to give their executioners the slip, by expiring in
the midst of their pains. All this did but render the faith and patience of the martyrs
more illustrious, and make them more earnestly long for heaven. They tired out their
tormentors, overcame the sharpest engines of execution, and smiled at the busy
officers that were raking in their wounds; when their flesh was wearied and
consumed, their virtue and fidelity to God were unconquerable. The multitude beheld
with admiration these heavenly conflicts, and stood astonished to hear the servants
of Christ in the midst of all this, with unshaken souls, making a free and bold
confession of him, destitute of any external succor, but armed with a divine power
and the shield of faith. The holy bishop ceased not to prepare his people for the
combat, by having this saying often in his mouth, "All present evils are to be endured
for the hope of good things to come." He was preserved, by a special providence,
during two such violent storms that he might be the support of a weak flock and the
father of many fervent penitents and holy martyrs. The third storm, in which he was
involved, was the eighth general persecution raised by Valerian in the fourth year of
his reign, of Christ 257.
In that very year St. Cyprian was apprehended at Carthage, and on the 30th of August
presented before Aspasius Paternus, the proconsul of Africa, in the council-chamber.
This magistrate said to him: "The most sacred emperors Valerian and Gallien have
done me the honor to command me by their letter, that I oblige all who follow not the
Roman worship immediately to conform to it. What is your name and quality?" Cyprian
said, "I am a Christian and a bishop. I know no other gods besides the one true God,
who made heaven and earth, and the sea, and all that is therein. This God we
Christians serve; his mercies we implore both day and night for ourselves, for all men
and for the safety of these very emperors." When the proconsul further asked him if
he persevered in that resolution. He replied that "A purpose, so well-founded, and a
will which hath once devoted itself to God, can never be altered." The proconsul said,
"Go then into banishment to the city Curubis." The martyr answered, "I will go." The
proconsul said: "The emperors have done me the honor to write to me to find out not
only bishops, but also priests. I would therefore know what priests live in this city."
Cyprian answered: "The Roman laws wisely forbid us to become informers; and I
cannot discover them. But they may be found at home." The proconsul said, "I will
find them." He added, "I have orders also to forbid the holding of your assemblies in
any place or entering into the cemeteries. Whoever observes not this wholesome
ordinance, shall be put to death." To which Cyprian made answer, "Then obey your
orders." The proconsul having commanded that he should be banished to Curubis, the
saint arrived there on the 13th or 14th of September. Curubis was a small town fifty
miles from Carthage, situated in a peninsula upon the coast of the Lybian sea not far
from Pentapolis. The place was pleasant and healthy, in a good air, and though
situated in a desert country, green meadows and the convenience of fresh water
(scarce and valuable things in many parts of Africa) were not wanting. The saint was
attended by his deacon Pontius, and some others; and met with kind and courteous
usage. He was favored with a vision the night after his arrival, by which God
forewarned him of his approaching martyrdom, and which Pontius gives in the very
words in which St. Cyprian related it. "Before I went to sleep," said he, "there
appeared to me a young man of a very uncommon stature, who led me to the palace,
and placed me before the tribunal of the proconsul, who, as soon as he cast his eyes
upon me, began to write a sentence in a pocket-book. The young man who stood
behind him, and read it, signified to me by signs the substance of it; for, stretching
out his hands at full length so as to represent a sword, he made a cross stroke over
one hand with the other, imitating the action of beheading a person, so that no words
could have made the thing more intelligible. I immediately apprehended that this was
to be the death which was prepared for me, and I addressed myself to the proconsul
for a short reprieve, till I could settle my affairs. He wrote again in his pocket-book;
and I guessed that he granted my request of a reprieve till the morrow, by the
evenness of his countenance, and the openness of his brow. This the young man
intimated to me by twisting his fingers one behind another." This says bishop Fell,
was a known mark of the thing in question being postponed; as bending the thumb
was a mark of condemnation and holding it straight a token of acquittal. The reprieve
of a day signified a year; and the bishop suffered on the same day in the following
year. This warning he took for a divine promise of the honor of martyrdom. The
reasons of his desiring a reprieve was for settling the affairs of his church, and, for an
opportunity of expressing, by a last effort, his tenderness for the poor, upon whom he
accordingly bestowed almost all he was then possessed of. Pontius doubts not but
God granted him this respite because he desired it for these purposes.
A messenger arrived about that time from Rome, sent by pope Xystus, to advertise
St. Cyprian that new and very bloody edicts were speedily expected. No sooner were
they published but St. Xystus was immediately sacrificed, on the 6th of August, 258,
somewhat above a month before St. Cyprian our saint received from Rome information
of his martyrdom, and that the order which Valerian (who was set out upon his
Persian expedition) sent to the senate, imported "that bishops, priests, and deacons
should forthwith suffer." From that time St. Cyprian lived in the daily expectation of
executioners arriving to take off the heads of such as were marked out for victims.
Meanwhile divers persons of the first rank and quality, even several pagans, met
together, and endeavored to persuade him to secrete himself, with offers of a
commodious and safe retirement. But he had so set his affections upon things above,
that he utterly neglected all lower interests. He took all opportunities of encouraging
the servants of God, and spoke with most ardent affection upon religious subjects,
always wishing the moment of his martyrdom might overtake him whilst he was
discoursing upon God. He prepared himself for it by those exercises of compunction
and penance, the spirit of which he so excellently expressed in his treatise, On the
Lapsed, and by which he studied to purify his soul more and more, that it might
appear without spot or stain before the God of infinite sanctity. He devoted his time
to penance, and made heavenly contemplation the favorite employment of his
retirement, by which he raised his soul to God by the most inflamed love, and longing
desires and prayers to be united to him for evermore according to the maxim which he
lays down in the close of his book On Mortality, where he says, "To this delightful
society of the blessed, and to Christ who is at the head of it, let us hasten, my
brethren, upon the wings of desire, and of a holy love. Let God and Christ be
witnesses that this is the main bent of our wishes, and the sum of our most ardent
hopes. Then our rewards will be proportioned to the earnestness of our present
desires, if they proceed from his love.
Our saint was still at Curubis when Galerius Maximus succeeded Paternus in the
government of Africa. The new proconsul recalled St. Cyprian to Carthage, that he
might more readily come at him as soon as he should receive the new edicts which he
expected from Rome. The bishop, by his order, resided at his own gardens or
country-house near the city, which he had sold for the benefit of the poor when he
was baptized, but which afterward fell again into his hands. He desired to give this
estate again, with the rest of his fortune, to the poor; but could not do it at the
dangerous season for fear of expasperating the persecutors. The sanguinary order
reached Carthage about the middle of August, whilst the proconsul was at Utica,
which shared with Carthage the honor of being his residence for part of the year.
Maximus dispatched a guard to conduct him to Utica; but St. Cyprian being desirous
to suffer in the midst of his own flock, stepped aside, and took shelter in a more
private place, till the proconsul being returned to Carthage, he showed himself again
in his own gardens. Galerius, upon notice given him, sent the prince (that is, the chief
of those who served under the magister Officiorum) with another officer, to seize him
by surprise. But nothing could happen suddenly or unexpectedly to the blessed man,
who was always ready and prepared for any event. He, therefore, came forth with all
imaginable cheerfulness and courage, and all the marks of an undaunted mind. The
officers putting him into a chariot betwixt them, carried him to a country seat at
Sextas, where the proconsul was retired for his health, six miles from Carthage. The
proconsul not being then ready, deferred the trial till the next day, and the martyr
was conducted back to the house of the chief officer that had apprehended him,
situated in the street of Saturn, between the streets of Venus and Salus. Upon the
rumor the Thascius was taken, the city was alarmed; the very pagans flocked
together, and testified their compassion, for he had been well known among them;
and they remembered the excess of his charity towards all in the late instance of the
public distress and pestilence. The multitude that was gathered together was very
great, in proportion to the extent of the city of Carthage, which was inferior to none
but Rome for the number of its inhabitants. St. Cyprian was guarded that night by the
chief of the officers in a courteous manner, and his friends were allowed to sup with
him. The next morning, which the conscience of the blessed martyr, says Pontius,
rendered a day of joy to him, he was conducted by a strong guard to the praetorium
or court of the proconsul, about a furlong from the officer's house where he had
passed the night. The proconsul not being yet sitting, he had leave to go out of the
crowd, and to be in a more private place, where the seat he got was accidentally
covered with a linen cloth, as if it were to be a symbol of his episcopal dignity, says
the deacon Pontius; by which it appears that bishops had then such a badge of
distinction, at least at the public divine service. One of the guards who had formerly
been a Christian, observing that the sweat ran down the martyr's body, by the length
and hurry of his walk, offered to wipe it off, and to give him dry linen in exchange for
that he had on, which was wet, linen garments being common in hot countries. This
was the soldier's pretence; his meaning was get into his possession some of the holy
man 's garments and sweat, as Pontius observes. The bishop excusing himself,
replied, "We seek to cure complaints, which perhaps this very day will put a final
period." By this time the proconsul was come out, and being seated on his tribune he
ordered the martyr to be brought before him, and said, "Art thou Thascius Cyprian?"
The martyr answered, "I am." PROCONSUL: "Art thou the person who hath been
bishop and father to men of ungodly minds?" CYPRIAN: "I have been their bishop."
PROCONSUL: "The most sacred emperors have commanded thee to conform to the
ceremonies of the Roman religion." CYPRIAN: "I cannot." PROCONSUL: "Consider
better of thy own safety." CYPRIAN: "Obey you orders. In so manifestly just a case,
their is no need of consideration." Upon this the proconsul consulted with his friends,
and coming to the resolution to condemn him said, "Long hast thou lived with an
irreligious heart, and hast joined great numbers with thee in an unnatural conspiracy
against the Roman deities, and their holy rites; nor have our sacred and most pious
emperors Valerian and Gallien always august, nor the most noble Caesar Valerian,
been able to reclaim thee to their ceremonies. Since thou hast been a ringleader in
crimes of such a heinous nature, thou shalt be made an example to those, whom thou
hast seduced to join with thee; and discipline shall be established in thy blood." Then
he read the following sentence written in a tablet, "I will that Thascius Cyprian be
beheaded." To which Cyprian subjoined, "Blessed be God for it." The Christians who
were present in crowds, said, "Let us be beheaded with him," and they made a great
uproar.
When the martyr went out of the court, a great number of soldiers attended him, and
he was guarded by centurions and tribunes marching on each side of him. They led
him into the country, into a large plain, thick set with high trees; and many climbed
up to the top of them, the better to see him at a distance by reason of the crowd. St.
Cyprian being arrived at the place appointed, took off his mantle, fell upon his knees,
and prostrated himself before God. Then he put off his Dalmaltic, which he gave to
the deacons and remained in a linen vestment or shirt expecting the executioner, to
whom he ordered a sum of twenty-five golden denarii, amounting to about six pounds
English, to be given. He himself bound the napkin over his eyes and he desired a
priest and a deacon to tie his hands. The Christians spread before him napkins and
handkerchiefs to receive his body. His head was struck off on the 14th of September,
258. For fear of the insults of the heathens, the faithful conveyed his body for the
present into an adjoining field and they deterred it in the night with great solemnity
on the Mappalian way. Two churches were afterward erected to his memory, the one
on this place of his burial, called the Mappalia the other on the spot where he
suffered called Mensa Cypriana or Cyprian's Table because there he was made a
sacrifice to God. Both are mentioned by Victor. The proconsol Galerius Maximus died a
few days after him, but in a very different manner. In the Liberian Calendar, and that
published by F. Fronto his festival is placed on the 14th of September, but, since the
fifth age, has been joined with that of St. Cornelius on the 16th. Certain ambassadors
of Charlemagne returning from Aaron king of Persia, through Africa, obtained leave of
the Mahometan king of that country to open the tomb of St. Cyprian (which they found
entirely neglected) and to carry his relics into France, which they deposited at Arles,
in 806, according to Ado, or in 802, according to Agobard. Leidrarde, archbishop of
Lyons, with the king's consent, removed them to Lyons, and deposited them behind
the altar of St. John Baptist; a poem upon this translation was written by Leidrarde's
successor, Agobard. Charles the Bald caused them to be translated to Compiègne,
and lodged with those of Saint Cornelius, in the great abbey which he built and which
is called St. Corneille. Part of the relics of SS. Cornelius and Cyprian is kept in a
shrine in the collegiate church of Rosnay near Oudenarde in Flanders.
It is a maxim of our holy faith, which St. Cyprian strongly inculcates, that we must
follow the saints now in desire, if we hope to reign with them hereafter: "We have
solemnly renounced the world," said he, "and therefore whilst we continue in it,
should behave like strangers and pilgrims. We should welcome that happy day (of our
death) which is to fix us, every one in our proper habitation, to rescue us from the
embarrassments and snares of this world, and remove us to the kingdom of heaven.
Who amongst us if he had been long a sojourner in a foreign land, would not desire a
return to his native country? What person, when he had begun to sail thither, would
not wish for a prosperous wind to carry him to his desired home with expedition, that
he might the sooner embrace his friends and relations? We must count paradise our
country. There friends, and parents, and brethren, and children without number, wait
for us, and long to congratulate our happy arrival. They are in secure possession of
their own felicity, and yet are solicitous for ours. How great will be our common joy,
upon the transports of our meeting together in those blessed abodes! How
unutterable must be the pleasures of that kingdom which have no allay or
intermission, having eternity added to the highest degrees of bliss! There we shall
meet with the glorious choir of the apostles; with the goodly company of the
prophets; with an innumerable multitude of holy martyrs; there we shall be blessed
with the sight of those triumphant virgins who have subdued the inordinate lusts of
the flesh; and there we shall behold the rewards of those who, by feeding the hungry
and succoring the afflicted, have with their earthly treasure purchased to themselves
a treasure in heaven.
We have his life written by Pontius, his deacon an eye-witness to his principal
actions, also twofold genuine copies of extracts from the Presidial Acts of his two
examinations, and of his martyrdom. The saint's pistles furnish us with ample
memoirs. See his life compiled b Tillemont, t. 3; find best by Dom Maran, the Maurist
monks prefixed to the edition of this father's works, prepared by Baluze before his
death, but published by Maran in 1726. The Cyprianic annals of Bishop Pearson, and
some of Dodwell's issertations, printed in the Oxford edition, are of great service.
Maran has corrected several mistakes, particularly relating to the  chism of Novatus,
into which Pearson, Tillemont, and all who had wrote before him, had been led. See
also the life of St. Cyprian compiled in French by M. Lombert, who printed a French
translation of all his works in 1672. Another elegant translation of the same was
printed at Rouen in 1716, with learned remarks. See Suysken the Bollandist, t 3 Sept.
19l.
[1] Butler's Lives of the Saints.
St Cyprian Martyr