13 September 2009

'Luminary of Carthage, God-inspired Adornment of Confessors'—St Cyprian of Carthage

Today, 31 August on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Hieromartyr Cyprian of Carthage (c. 200-258). Fr John McGuckin calls St Cyprian ‘one of the most important of the early Latin theologian-bishops’ (‘Cyprian of Carthage’, The SCM Press A-Z of Patristic Theology, by Fr John A. McGuckin [London: SCM, 2005], p. 92). Fr Georges Florovsky writes, ‘The historical influence of St Cyprian was continuous and powerful’ (‘The Boundaries of the Church’, Ecumenism I: A Doctrinal Approach, Vol. 13 in The Collected Works of George Florovsky [Vaduz: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1989], p. 36). Charles Williams calls him the ‘incarnation of . . . common sense’ in his ecclesiastical response to problems of discipline, and quotes Charles Cruttwell as crediting St Cyprian with the ‘laying of the ecclesiastical framework’ of ‘the idea of Order as the basis of the universe’ (The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church [Vancouver: Regent, 2002], pp. 41, 98). Here is the account of St Cyprian’s life in Fr Jerome Sanderson’s paper, ‘African Pillars of the Church’ (An Unbroken Circle: Linking Ancient African Christianity to the African-American Experience, ed. Fr Paisius Altschul [St Louis, MO: Brotherhood of St Moses the Black, 2007], p. 18):

At about this time there was a great leader in Carthage, named Cyprian. He had studied rhetoric and philosophy in school and become a well-known teacher of these subjects. In his forty-sixth year, after his conversion by a priest named Caelilius, he became a Christian. His zeal was so great that within a few years he was made bishop of Carthage. During his bishopric, St Cyprian guided the African church through the ravages of a deadly plague that took a great toll on the Roman Empire. He also strengthened and supported his flock during the Valerian persecutions. He was a prolific writer, with a very melodic and sweet style. In 258 AD, the persecution of the Church gained great momentum. Cyprian formed what was called the ‘Underground Church’—the Catacomb Church in Carthage. The Roman authorities ceaselessly persecuted and hunted him. Constantly in flight, he ministered to his flock wherever he could. At one point, when asksed why he didn’t simply give himself up, he replied, ‘The white rose of labor can be as sweet as the red rose of martyrdom.’ When he was finally caught and condemned to execution by beheading, St Cyprian’s only words were ‘Thank you, Father.’ He was possessed of such a noble spirit that he gave the executioner twenty-five pieces of gold and then joyfully placed his head on the block for beheading.

St Nicholas (Velimirović) writes that when he was baptised, St Cyprian ‘gave himself to an unceasing study of the Holy Scriptures and the perfecting of his character’, adding that he was ordained priest and consecrated bishop for his ‘rare virtues’ (The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 3, trans. Mother Maria [Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986], p. 262). He adds, ‘He wrote a number of learned books, guided by the Spirit of God, writing especially strongly against idolatry, Judaism and the Novatian heresy. His writings on virginity, martyrdom, alms, patience, prayer to God and so forth are beautiful and gentle’ (Prologue, p. 262). According to Fr McGuckin:

His theology was learned on the job and demonstrates a lively mind seeking to acquaint himself with the full character of his new religion. So, apart from some works of general apologia for Christianity (To Donatus and To Demetrian), we have specific treatises: The Lord’s Prayer, Works and Almsgiving, The Dress of Virgins, and To Quirinius, which is a collection of Scripture passages (using ancient traditional formularies) that can be used to demonstrate various points in preaching. His bitter experiences of disunity led him to write to very influential volumes, The Lapsed and The Unity of the Catholic Church. The latter work would become a classic in the constuction of a catholic theology of the church (or ecclesiology). His letters are priceless historical resources for understanding church life in the early third century. (Fr McGuckin, p. 93)

Here is a passage from St Cyprian’s 1st Epistle, ‘To Donatus’ (from the ANF series, here):

5. But if you keep the way of innocence, the way of righteousness, if you walk with a firm and steady step, if, depending on God with your whole strength and with your whole heart, you only be what you have begun to be, liberty and power to do is given you in proportion to the increase of your spiritual grace. For there is not, as is the case with earthly benefits, any measure or stint in the dispensing of the heavenly gift. The Spirit freely flowing forth is restrained by no limits, is checked by no closed barriers within certain bounded spaces; it flows perpetually, it is exuberant in its affluence. Let our heart only be athirst, and be ready to receive: in the degree in which we bring to it a capacious faith, in that measure we draw from it an overflowing grace. Thence is given power, with modest chastity, with a sound mind, with a simple voice, with unblemished virtue, that is able to quench the virus of poisons for the healing of the sick, to purge out the stains of foolish souls by restored health, to bid peace to those that are at enmity, repose to the violent, gentleness to the unruly,—by startling threats to force to avow themselves the impure and vagrant spirits that have betaken themselves into the bodies of men whom they purpose to destroy, to drive them with heavy blows to come out of them, to stretch them out struggling, howling, groaning with increase of constantly renewing pain, to beat them with scourges, to roast them with fire: the matter is carried on there, but is not seen; the strokes inflicted are hidden, but the penalty is manifest. Thus, in respect of what we have already begun to be, the Spirit that we have received possesses its own liberty of action; while in that we have not yet changed our body and members, the carnal view is still darkened by the clouds of this world. How great is this empire of the mind, and what a power it has, not alone that itself is withdrawn from the mischievous associations of the world, as one who is purged and pure can suffer no stain of a hostile irruption, but that it becomes still greater and stronger in its might, so that it can rule over all the imperious host of the attacking adversary with its sway!

Here are the Troparion and Kontakion for St Cyprian, in the 8th and 1st Tones, respectively (The Great Horologion, trans. Holy Transfiguration Monastery [Boston: HTM, 1997], pp. 594, 95):

Guide of Orthodoxy, teacher of piety and holiness, luminary of Carthage, God-inspired adornment of confessors, O wise Cyprian, by thy teachings thou hast enlightened all, O harp of the Spirit. Intercede with Christ God that our souls be saved.

We honour thee, O Cyprian, as a true shepherd who with thy sacred words and divinely-wise doctrines hast shown us the bound’ry-stones marking out the one Church of Christ. Even unto death didst thou bear witness with courage; wherefore, we extol thee as a hierarch and Martyr. Entreat that we all be saved.

In conclusion, here is the ‘Hymn of Praise’ for St Cyprian in the Prologue:

Adornment of the Church, pride of Carthage,
Before and after the death of Cyprian the priest,
In word and deed, the faithful, he instructed
The pure and chaste ones, especially praising:
Chastity, says he, is the sanctity of the organs,
From the chains of passions, it is freedom
And the source of purity; the adornment of morality.
The dignity of the body and the cord of modesty,
The peace of a home, chastity is the crown of harmony,
Chastity is silence, the absence of anxiety.
When from the body, the spirit of man withdraws,
And into the realm of its own, it enters,
And of the inner world, perceives the luxury,
Then, the body to interfere, it does not allow
With insane passions, with various desires,
From worries deprived with empty luxury,
Luxury to us, an adorned woman does not proclaim
Rather an impure soul and its sinfulness.
O golden freedom, from desires of vanity,
Precious treasure of only a saint!
Chastity is freedom, chastity is silence,
From the Son of God both are gifts.
O Son of God O Good Lord
Grant us the glory of chastity and freedom.

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