Cyprian’s Plague: On Mortality (Part 3)
Rev. Edward A. Scott
Pastor of Bethel Lutheran Church (LCMS), Hobe Sound, Florida
As we face unprecedented circumstances in our daily lives, I am reminded that unprecedented circumstances are a part of every generation. We can always find people and situations where lessons were learned that can help us today. Nearly 1800 years ago, Cyprian, an early Christian bishop, faced a plague (epidemic) with horrifying death tolls. In three parts I will tell his story to see what we can learn from it. I hope you find the reading of his story as helpful as I did the writing of it. Read and reflect!
Despair and Death: A Response
The Roman Empire had been fraying around the edges for many years and was now displaying cracks in its veneer. Simply stated, the great empire was in a long, slow decline. Money problems, climate issues, political factions, government corruption, lack of clarity regarding succession of the emperor (who was next in line) and disease (propagated by the expansion of cities and population density) were taking their toll. It is prescient that the onset of this plague coincided with the 1,000th birthday of the city of Rome in A.D. 248. Deadly disease and imminent downfall dovetailed together and introduced a decade of further deterioration.
As we have seen, while the Roman Empire was weakening, a young man in his prime was rising to prominence in the Christian community. Cyprian was everything the empire was not — young, fresh-faced, enthusiastic, nimble of mind, steadfast of spirit. Young Cyprian was baptized (probably in A.D. 246), ordained priest, and chosen Bishop of Carthage (about 248) in short order. In Rome, Emperor Decius rose to power in 249, and began persecuting Christian persecutions in a futile effort to reinstate the old and proven Roman values (scapegoating is a proven method of deflection). Decius was killed in a military battle in 251, which brought (a temporary) end to the persecutions.
Bishop Cyprian was ministering to people who lived every moment of every day in fear of either persecution or pestilence. Even though we have no vaccine yet in our experience of Covid-19, even though our testing capacities are insufficient, even though we have no proven therapeutic drugs, our level of trauma does not begin to approach what gripped the world in A.D. 250. Today, we have knowledge and techniques (distancing, quarantine, masks, etc.) that far surpass the tools available 1800 years ago. We have modern conveniences to ease our journey. We know about disease transmission and we have doctors on television who provide us daily updates. We are confident that modern medical science, given time, is advanced enough to create drugs that will ease symptoms, we are confident that there will be a vaccine, even if it takes longer to develop than we would like (Cyprian would counsel patience). In other words, a degree of hope and anticipation is built into our journey through the valley of Covid-19. By contrast, the operative words in Cyprian’s day were despair and death.
Today, we also have people who devote their careers to disaster readiness and response. They research and train diligently to guide us through all kinds of calamities, ranging from natural disasters to catastrophic weather events to pandemics and everything in between. Their years of study have led them to identify a 10/80/10 principle as a predictor of human behavior. They tell us that, faced with disaster, 10% of the population will respond with “clarity, determination, and action.” They will be the cool, calm, and collected people among us; they will make a positive difference by their presence and their actions. These people are not necessarily the ones chosen by the people before the crisis — elected, hired, or appointed. They may not be the medical leaders. Mostly, they are regular people who rise to the occasion. We might call them heroes. The next group, the 80%, are the herd, the majority of the people who do not know what to do when disaster strikes. They may seem dazed or confused. Rather than take initiative they wait for someone, usually government or authority figures, or the first 10% to tell them what to do. They follow the leader. They are us. The final 10% are the destructive minority — people who will do all the wrong things. They “act in negative, destructive, or counterproductive ways…. they… make costly mistakes… and make it harder for everyone else.” It is not hard to identify people from each of these three groups active in our country right now. In my estimation, worst case scenarios are most likely to unfold when the chosen (elected, appointed) leadership in the time of any disaster demonstrates behavior consistent with the destructive 10% or the herd mentality of the 80% rather than bringing the skills and determination of the heroic 10% to bear. Bad leadership is harmful leadership.1
It is disappointing that spiritual leadership and religious institutions have been sidelined in the planned, formal response to this pandemic. We have politics and science represented on the President’s Task Force. But we do not have the balance of faith accompanied by a soothing and strong spiritual voice. I think it would have been beneficial to appoint ecumenically balanced and well-grounded religious voices to the President’s Task Force. Possible reasons that religious representation has not been sought are varied, but beyond the scope of this paper. And while it may seem that I am veering considerably from Cyprian’s story, rather I am leading into the final chapter. During Cyprian’s Plague his leadership and voice was respected and crucial. Political and scientific solutions were largely unavailable and useless. With no civic or medical weapons to respond to the plague, the populace was left to flounder. But Cyprian the Bishop restored perennially underestimated values and virtues: inspiration, hope, faith, patience, persistence, and love. 1800 years later, not surprisingly, it is Cyprian’s voice that still speaks to us from the miasma of that deadly, long ago pandemic.
The Metamorphosis of Cyprian
I can only imagine that, in real time, Cyprian the Man, Cyprian the Pastor, Cyprian the Bishop, must have felt totally inadequate in the face of the adversities before him. There was nothing concrete anyone could be sure of in a world run amok, no single security blanket to throw over an unrelenting, unyielding plague. Perennial questions arose: How do you bring words of comfort or inspiration in the face of dire, intransigent disease and death? What can you say when thousands are dying each day with no end in sight? Where is God? Does God care? In all the years I spent working with dying and death, I learned that when the crisis is big, words always seem small. Yes, words are important. Yes, words have meaning. But they feel small in the face of any tidal wave of suffering and death. Yes, words help, but they take root slowly.
And, yes, the words Cyprian wrote to counsel his flock helped then, and still counsel us today.
While Emperor Decius was trying unsuccessfully to consolidate and retain his power, by contrast, Cyprian was among the 10% who stepped up. His biographer, Pontius the Deacon, described Cyprian the Man and Pastor as he metamorphosed into Cyprian the Bishop:
… by the judgment of God, and the favor of the people, Cyprian was chosen to the office of the priesthood, and the degree of the… episcopate (office of bishop) while he was still… a novice. Although still in the early days of his faith, and in the untaught season of his spiritual life, a generous disposition so shone forth in him, that although not yet resplendent with the glitter of office, but only of hope, he gave promise of entire trustworthiness for the priesthood that was coming upon him….2
In fact, Cyprian thought himself unworthy of the honor of the episcopate (office of bishop), and voiced his protest, which only made the people more certain of his worthiness (humility). Essentially, Pontius the Deacon points out, Cyprian entered the office, NOT clad in a glittering record — that is equipped with an impressive resume and string of ecclesiastical successes — but as a redeemed sinner, wearing only the garments of forgiveness, hope and trustworthiness. Pontius reveals Cyprian’s persona as the people beheld him:
So much sanctity and grace beamed from his face that it confounded the minds of the beholders. His countenance was grave and joyous. Neither was his severity gloomy, nor his affability excessive, but a mingled tempering of both; so that it might be doubted whether he most deserved to be revered or to be loved, except that he deserved both to be revered and loved…. The pride of the world did not inflame him, nor yet did excessive penury (poverty)make him sordid (covetous).3
The Glory of Fortitude
Cyprian had donated his financial wealth to the poor when he converted. Now, as Bishop Cyprian, he could offer nothing material — not medicine, not miracles, nor cessation of the pandemic. What he could offer was presence, balance, prayer, hope, and pastoral guidance. In Part 2, we saw Bishop Cyprian challenge the people of God to be their best selves, clarifying that the plague “searches out the righteousness of each person,” to see whether the “healthy tend the sick” (pagan or Christian, kindred or neighbor), whether they suppress their worst inclinations to save themselves. He understood that the plague was a refinery for faith — able to quell greed, breed humility, and foster Christian love. Cyprian saw the big picture. He knew that death was not the real enemy, that death could be faced, that dying, or being willing to die, in acts of love was the greatest gift a human being could offer. He no doubt wrote with the words of Jesus on his mind: “This is the best way to love: Put your life on the line for your friends” (John 15:13 [The Message]). Or, stated more traditionally, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down your life for your friends” (John 15:13 [NRSV]).
Cyprian understood that fear paralyzes; it renders capable people incapable, functional people broken and unresponsive. So Cyprian goaded his people to act meaningfully, constructively — to serve one another with compassion.4 The movement of God’s love in and between people, Cyprian perceived, would lift them above their fear of death and prepare the way for the “the glory of fortitude” to arrive. Contemporary writer Anne Lamott encountered “the glory of fortitude” in her life and described it thus: “Courage is fear that has said its prayers…. God isn’t there to take away our suffering or our pain, but to fill it with his presence.”5 Cyprian helped the Christians name the enemy: FEAR. And its conqueror: LOVE.
It is true that in every generation, almost no one takes Jesus words (to lay down one’s life) seriously. Likely, many laughed at Cyprian’s counsel as well. But that does not make the words less true. Granted, endurance doesn’t seem like much help when death is everywhere. Yet, Bishop Cyprian commended it unflinchingly:
Righteous [people] have ever possessed… endurance. The apostles maintained this discipline … not to murmur in adversity, but to accept bravely and PATIENTLY whatever things happen in the world….6
Bishop Cyprian recounted times when Old Testament folk murmured against God, and God countered, “Let their murmuring cease and they will live.” Endurance is a byproduct of trust and patience, which led Cyprian to his next insight:
We must not murmur in adversity…, but we must bear with PATIENCE and COURAGE whatever happens in this world, since it is written, “The sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; a contrite and humbled heart God does not despise.”7
In other words, when people most feel like they are alone, there God is. Adversity offers a reason for listening, not for murmuring. When people are most vulnerable and needy, God is free to intercede with minimal human impediment. There has yet to live a generation of human beings that initially understands this. People have to learn this truth gradually, as they live it. Thankfully, there is always a handful of people whose living and dying will not let the integrity, the excellence of sacrificial living (and dying) fade into total obscurity. These few are among the helpful 10%.
At the same time, Bishop Cyprian would not allow his people to evade caring for the sick by saying they were preparing for martyrdom. Caring for the sick is simply what Christian people do. It is a sacrifice. And it is also a duty. So, to the Christians who said that they were ‘saving’ themselves for martyrdom’ (like a virgin saves herself for her wedding night), and focused on ‘preserving their own life’ for the sake of the greater cause to come, Cyprian responded plainly. He would have none of it:
…Some say, “This, then, is a source of sorrow to me in the present mortality (plague), that I, who had been prepar[ing] for confession, and had dedicated myself… with my whole heart and all my courage to the endurance of suffering, am [being] deprived of my martyrdom, since I am being hindered by death (from the plague).” [Cyprian replied], “Martyrdom is not in your power; but in the giving of (the choice) of God, [so you] cannot say that you have lost what you do not know you would deserve to receive.8
Martyrdom, Cyprian declared, making a proper and important distinction, is not a person’s choice, but God’s. It is a calling, not a career path. Furthermore, if a person cannot sacrifice when an opportunity presents in the here and now, how can today’s abdication (or deflection) of Christian service be considered a good confession on the road to martyrdom? Self-preservation wears many masks. Self-preservation now will lead to self-preservation later.
Interestingly enough, when the persecutions of Decius began in 248, Cyprian chose to go into hiding rather than allow himself to be arrested and martyred. Some were critical of his choice, seeing him as more fearful than faithful. What kind of a bishop hides from persecution while his flock is exposed? But, at that point in time, Cyprian felt that he could guide his flock better from his hiding place than from his grave. When asked to account for his actions after the persecutions subsided, he produced his writings as evidence of his continuous pastoral presence.9 He was out of the sight and reach of his would-be persecutors, but never out of the lives and the hearts of his people.
White Crown, Red Crown
In one of his many preserved letters Cyprian writes words of encouragement and praise to those facing possible martyrdom, praising their “brave hearts and persevering faith.” He says of the ones already martyred that they did not “yield to their torments, rather the torments yielded to them.” Bishop Cyprian understood that there are times and seasons in Christian history when martyrdom affords the best witness:
How blessed is this church of ours, so honored and illuminated by God and ennobled in these our days by the glorious blood of martyrs! In earlier times [the church] shone white with the good deeds of our brethren, and now it is adorned with the red blood of martyrs. It counts both lilies (white) and roses (red) among its garlands. Let each of us, then, strive for the highest degree of glory, whichever be the honor for which he is destined; may all Christians be found worthy of either the pure white crown of a holy life or the royal red crown of martyrdom.10
Cyprian distinguished between the baptism of water — “the pure white crown of a holy life” and the baptism of blood — “the royal red crown of martyrdom.” The former he calls a lily, the latter a rose. Both are vital callings, both are different. And the second cannot exist absent the first. A martyr is not better than any other Christian any more than a lily is more beautiful than a rose. Both are flowers, whose elegance adorns the befitting person in the proper season. In “On Mortality,” Cyprian made it clear that the call to martyrdom is not a personal choice, like a special ops unit requiring nothing more than a godly disposition and special training. “God,” Cyprian clarifies, “does not ask for our blood, but for our faith.”11 The grace we are given is the grace we grow into.
When we discussed Cyprian’s baptism, we noted that the catalyst for his conversion was his life of unhealthy excess. He recognized that his unfulfilled yearning was slowly consuming him. We can only imagine what he meant. What is not left to our imagination is the awareness that Cyprian’s baptism was a life changing endeavor. As he rose up from the waters of baptism, he was lifted out of the mire that had weighed him down, and a torrent of godly gifts were unleashed. As he exercised his gifts, they developed and he became a blessing to the people he served despite the magnitude of the present mortality surrounding him — persecution, schism, and pestilence. He wore the “pure white crown of a holy life” with perseverance and earnestness.
Cyprian Attains the Red Crown
In A.D. 253 Valerian became the new Roman Emperor, and he vigorously renewed the persecution of Christians initiated by Decius. In 257, Cyprian, no longer in hiding, was arrested, imprisoned, and exiled to the city of Curubis. In 258 he was brought back to Carthage to stand trial. His trial and martyrdom drew quite a crowd — curiosity seekers to be sure, but also admirers, both Christian and pagan who found themselves moved by his generous spirit and pastoral concern for all people. The proceedings of his trial have been preserved:
Proconsul Galerius Maximus: Are you Thacius Cyprian?
Maximus: Have you posed as bishop to these sacreligious people?
Cyprian: I have.
Maximus: Your emperors have ordered you to perform the religious rites (to Roman gods)…
Cyprian: I will not.
Maximus: Reconsider your decision…
Cyprian: Follow your orders. In such a just cause, there is no need for deliberation.
Galerius Maximus consulted briefly with his council, then:
Maximus: You have lived a long time as an impious man and have drawn many into your wicked conspiracy. You have been the enemy of the Roman gods and their sacred rites. The venerable Roman emperors, the Augusti, Valerian and Gallenius, and the most noble Caesar Valerian have been unable to bring you back to the observance of their holy ceremonies. You have been arrested as the author and leader of these heinous crimes, and shall be made an example to your followers. Your teaching shall be sealed with your blood. Thacius Cyprian you are to be executed by beheading.
Cyprian: Thanks be to God!
When they heard the sentence, the watching crowd shouted, “Behead us along with him!”
Bishop Cyprian was escorted to the place of execution, removed his bishop’s robe himself, and prostrated himself before God in prayer. As a gesture of forgiveness, he thoughtfully asked his followers to pay his executioner 25 gold coins. His hands were too shaky to tie his own blindfold, so his followers helped. They also bound his hands. Cyprian waited for the sword to fall. 12
The Bishop of Carthage blossomed into his immortality, his “abiding and perpetual security” on September 14, 258.13 His feast day is September 16th.
About five years after writing “On Mortality,” and the year before his martyrdom (A.D. 257), a more spiritually evolved Cyprian wrote a treatise called “Exhortation to Martyrdom” to offer solace to the faithful during the time of active persecution, encouraging all baptized to be prepared for the second baptism, the “red crown of glory.” In it he calls martyrdom a “baptism greater in grace”:
a baptism in which God and his Christ exult —
a baptism after which no one sins anymore —
a baptism which completes the increase of our faith —
a baptism which, as we withdraw from the world,
immediately joins us with God.
In the baptism of water is received the remission of sins,
in the baptism of blood the crown of virtues.
This thing is to be embraced and longed for,
and to be sought after with all entreaties of our prayers,
so that we who are God’s servants may also be his friends.14
Those aforementioned who train for disaster readiness, speak of the absolute importance of a focal point. Crisis is disorienting and chaotic. Identifying and maintaining a focal point helps minimize fear and disorientation. A martyr has a focal point — the cross. Jesus shed his blood for humanity on the cross; martyrdom similarly entitles an individual to shed his (her) blood for the glory of God. In this treatise Cyprian praises martyrdom as the highest calling: the baptism of blood is the baptism of angels, a baptism which completes faith, a baptism after which no one sins again… the crown of virtues.
The Harbor of Home
Cyprian still knew, however, that martyrdom was an occasional calling. He was also quite transparent in the opening paragraphs of “On Mortality.” There he identified Simeon as his paradigm — his model for living in the present mortality, whatever it might be — plague, persecution, bereavement…, Simeon was Cyprian’s portrait of a good death, his trailblazer to immortality (see Luke 2:22-36).
Simeon had lived a long life. He had seen it all. He had known the heavy hand of Roman oppression, the methodic exploitation of God’s people, faithlessness among the faithful, endless waiting, messianic promises that seemed to fade into the hazy dust cloud of history. He had struggled with his own impatience and allowed God to slowly recast his spirit until he attained the perfect joy of patience. Simeon learned to wait, to observe, to watch, to listen. He was not sure who he was waiting for, he didn’t know when the Expected One would arrive. His vision was failing, the physical strength was draining from his body. Prayer and will-power were his dietary staples. His spirit lived, and he waited. Patiently.
We don’t know how long Simeon waited. All we can say is that he lived in the suspended state of mind and heart that God calls promise. Finally, on the eighth day after the birth of an infant named Jesus, the unknowing Simeon felt prompted to go the temple courtyard. And it happened! Mary and Joseph walked into the courtyard carrying their infant son and two young pigeons for sacrifice. On this day, Jesus was to be circumcised and consecrated to God. Certainly parents and children came every day to the temple, carrying pigeons for sacrifice. But his time was different. Simeon’s spirit quickened, his senses were suddenly sharp. He rushed directly to the startled Mary and Joseph, took the child in his arms, and pronounced the babe special. Cyprian explained what this encounter meant to Simeon:
It is written that “the just man lives by faith.” If you are a just man and live by faith, why do you, who are destined to be with Christ…, not rejoice that you are called to Christ…. Certainly Simeon, the man who was truly just, who with full faith kept the commands of God, when it had been pledged him from heaven that he should not die before he had seen the Christ, and when Christ had come as an infant into the temple with his mother, he knew in spirit that Christ was now born… [He knew this was the one] foretold to him; and when Simeon saw him, he knew [it was his time] to die. Therefore, rejoicing, concerning his now approaching death, and secure of his immediate summons, he received the child into his arms, and blessing the Lord, he exclaimed and said, “Now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation… ,” … assuredly proving and bearing witness that the servants of God [receive] peace….15
Death in the kingdom of heaven carries an important meaning. It is about completion. It is about perfection. It is about submission. For the one who has learned to allow life to unfold, to see beyond the daily emergencies to the underlying peace that the world cannot give, death becomes a companion, an accomplice, a steppingstone to God, a doorway to eternity. Cyprian spoke to all the people of his present mortality, and to all of us who live in our Twenty-first Century present mortality with patience and wonder:
[Like Simeon] the servants of God do have peace…. [Like Simeon, we are] free, [we receive] tranquil repose…. When we are withdrawn from the storms of this world, we attain the harbor of our home and ETERNAL SECURITY, when [we have] accomplished this death we come to immortality. For that is our peace, that is our sure tranquility, that is our steadfast, … abiding, and everlasting security.16
“On Mortality” teaches us that death is real. Yet it is conquerable. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, echoes Cyprian and Simeon when he writes:
We don’t have to deny the reality of death. In fact, there couldn’t be anything worse than denying the reality of death, because that is encouraging people to live out a lie. What we can say is that God is never at the end of his resources when we are at the end of ours. When we face death, God says, ‘I’m on the other side of it.” … Our horizons [are] bounded by death, God’s are not.17
This is our big takeaway from “On Mortality.” Bishop Cyprian wades into the sea of death and doom and applies soaring, hopeful, comforting words to living a godly life and dying a godly death: freedom, tranquil repose (rest), withdrawal from the storms of this world (even a deadly pandemic), the harbor (haven) of home, eternal security. Just on the other side of this sea of death is immortality — our peace, our faithful tranquility, our steadfast, abiding, and perpetual security. Along the road we learn “the glory of fortitude.” Simeon, Cyprian declared, was “secure of his summons.” Simeon knew he would die, and he was glad. The whirlwinds of the world had not distracted him from the perfect joy of his longsuffering patience. Death is a safe harbor in a tempestuous world, an accomplishment, not just for Simeon, but for all of the faithful, principally the Christians in Carthage.
Whatever “present mortality” is staring us down in any generation, in the omnipresent kingdom of heaven, death inevitably blossoms into “immortality and perpetual security.” Contemplate Cyprian’s parting words in “On Mortality”:
Meanwhile [in our present mortality], …we should reflect constantly that we have renounced the world, [that] we are living here as guests and strangers. Let us embrace the day which [will] assign each of us to our [heavenly] home, which [as we are] being rescued from here and released from the snares of the world, restores us to paradise and the kingdom. What man, after having been abroad, would not hasten to return to his own country? We regard paradise as our country…, so why do we not hasten and run, so that we can behold our country….? [There is] pleasure in the heavenly kingdom without fear of death; and [our present mortality leads to] a lofty and perpetual happiness within eternity…. Let us hasten with eager desire; let us pray that being with [deceased] loved ones may befall us speedily…. May God behold… our eager desire. May the Lord Christ look upon the resolution of our mind and faith, [and give us] the larger rewards of his glory…. Amen.18
So Cyprian ends “On Mortality.” So ought we to live in our present mortality. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s (Romans 14:8).
- For the above information on the 10/80/10 Principle, see Ben Sherwood, The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2010).
- Pontius the Deacon, “The Life and Passion of Cyprian,” in The Complete Works of Saint Cyprian of Carthage, ed. Phillip Campbell, Christian Roman Empire Series, vol. 10 (Merchantville, NJ, Evolution Publishing, 2013), 6.
- Pontius, “The Life and Passion of Cyprian,” 6.
- For a fine sermon on the paralysis of fear, see the Easter sermon by Peter Gomes in his book, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 72ff.
- Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Anchor, 2000), 239, 241.
- Cyprian, “On Mortality,” 121.
- Cyprian, “On Mortality,” 121.
- Cyprian, “On Mortality,” 123.
- Mike Aquilina, The Fathers of the Church (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 2006), 102.
- Cyprian, Epistle 10, in CSEL, vol. 3, 491-92, 494-95.
- Cyprian, “On Mortality,” 124.
- The above exchange and information are compiled from Benedictine Daily Prayer: A Short Breviary, ed. Maxwell Johnson (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015), 1920-21, and Liturgy of the Hours, vol. 4 (New York: Catholic Book Publishing, 1975), 1408-1409.
- Cyprian, “On Mortality,” 118.
- Cyprian, “Exhortation to Martyrdom [To Fortunatus],” in The Complete Works of Cyprian of Carthage, 172.
- Cyprian, “On Mortality,” 118.
- Cyprian, “On Mortality,” 118.
- Rowan Williams, The Sign and the Sacrifice: The Meaning of the Cross and Resurrection (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2017), 90.
- Cyprian, “On Mortality,” 127.