by St. Cyprian
Well do you remind me, dearest Donatus, for by the favorable harvest for repose receives the annually recurring respite of the wearying year. The place too benefits the time, and the delightful appearance of the gardens harmonizes with the gentle breezes of a soothing autumn in delighting and animating the senses. Here it is delightful to pass the day in conversation and by diligent discussions to train the understanding of the heart in the divine precepts. And that no profane critic may impede our talk and no unrestrained clamor of a noisy household annoy us, let us seek out this spot. The neighboring thickets furnish seclusion, where the wandering slips of vines, with their pendent interlacing creep over the burden-carrying reeds, and the leafy covering has made a vine-covered portico. Well do we bring our ears to attention here, and as we look upon the trees and the vines, we delight our eyes by the pleasing view, and otherwise instruct the soul by what we hear and nourish it by what we see.
And yet now your only pleasure and your only concern is with conversation, and, overlooking the enticements of the pleasures of sight, you have fixed your eyes upon me with that countenance and with that attention by which you are altogether a listener and with this affection with which you love me.
But of whatever nature or however much that is which comes into your heart from us, (the poor mediocrity of my meager talent produces a very sparing harvest, and does not grow heavy with stalks for a copious rich deposit), nevertheless I shall approach my task as well as I can; for the subject-matter of my talk is quite to my liking. In courts of justice, in public assembly before the rostrum let an opulent eloquence be displayed with unrestrained ambition, but when speech is concerned with the Lord God, the pure sincerity of speech depends not on the force of eloquence for the arguments in support of faith but on facts. Therefore, receive not eloquent words, but forceful ones, not decked out with cultivated rhetoric to entice a popular audience, but simple words of unvarnished truth for the proclaiming of God's mercy. Receive what is felt before it is learned, and what is gathered not after a long study with much delay, but what is drawn in by a quickening act of divine grace.
While I was lying in darkness and in the obscure night, and while, ignorant of my real life, I was tossing about on the sea of a restless world wavering and doubtful in my wandering steps, a stranger to the truth and the light, I thought it indeed difficult and hard (to believe)
according to the character of mine at the time that divine mercy was promised for my salvation, so that anyone might be born again and quickened unto a new life by the laver of the saving water, he might put off what he had been before, and, although the structure of the body remained, he might change himself in soul and mind. 'How,' I said, 'is such a conversion possible, that the innate which has grown hard in the corruption of natural material or when acquired has become inveterate by the affliction of old age should suddenly and swiftly be put aside? These things, deep and profound, have been thoroughly rooted within us. When does he learn thrift, who has become accustomed to lavish banquets and extravagant feasts? And when does he who, conspicuous in costly raiment, has shone in gold and purple, dispose himself to ordinary and simple clothing? He who has been delighted by the fasces and public honors cannot become a private and inglorious citizen. He who has been attended by crowds of clients or has been honored by a crowded assemblage of an officious throng thinks it a punishment to be alone. Of necessity, as in the past, wine-bibbing ever entices with its tenacious allurements, pride puffs up, anger inflames, covetousness disturbs, cruelty stimulates, ambition delights, lust plunges into ruin.'
This I often said to myself. For as I myself was held enlivened by the very many errors of my previous life, of which I believe that I could not divest myself, so I was disposed to give in to my clinging vices, and in my despair of better things I indulged my sins as if now proper and belonging to me. But afterwards, when the stain of my past life had been washed away by the aid of the water of regeneration, a light from above poured itself upon my chastened and pure heart; afterwards when I had drunk of the Spirit from heaven a second birth restored me into a new man; immediately in a marvelous manner doubtful matters clarified themselves, the closed opened, the shadowy shone with light, what seemed impossible was able to be accomplished, so that it was possible to acknowledge that what formerly was born of the flesh and lived submissive to sins was earthly, and what the Holy Spirit already was animating began to be of God. Surely you know and recognize alike with myself what was taken from us and what was contributed by the death of sins and by that life of virtues. You yourself know; I do not proclaim it. Boasting to one's own praise is odious, although that cannot be a matter of boasting but an expression of gratitude, which is not ascribed to the virtue of man but is proclaimed as of God's munificence, so that now not to sin begins to be of faith, and what was done in sin before to be of human error. Our power is of God, I say, all of it is of God. From Him we have life; from Him we have prosperity; by the vigor received and conceived of Him, while still in this world, we have foreknowledge of what is to be. But let fear be the guardian of innocence, so that the Lord, who of His mercy has flowed into our hearts with the silent approach of celestial tenderness, may be kept in the guest-chamber of a heart that gives delight by its righteous action, lest the security we have received beget carelessness, and the old enemy creep upon us anew.
But if you hold to the way of innocence, to the way of justice, with the firmness of your step unbroken, if depending upon God with all your strength and your whole heart you only be what you began to be, so much power is given you in the way of freedom to act as there is an increase in spiritual grace. For there is no measure or moderation in receiving of God's munificence, as is the custom with earthly benefits. For the Spirit flowing forth bountifully is shut in by no boundaries, and is checked within the spaces of definite limits by no restraining barriers. It spreads out continually; it overflows abundantly, provided only our hearts are athirst and open for it. According as we bring to it a capacious faith, to this extent do we draw from it overflowing grace. From this source is the power given with modest chastity, with a sound mind, with a pure voice to extinguish the virus of poisons within the marrow of the grieving, to cleanse the stain of foolish souls by restoring health, to bind peace to the hostile, rest to the violent, gentleness to the unruly, by dire threats to force those unclean and vagrant spirits to confess, who have forced their way within men to destroy them, to force them with heavy blows to withdraw, to stretch them out struggling, wailing, groaning with an increase of expanding punishment, to beat them with scourges, and to roast them with fire. There the matter is carried on but is not seen; the blows are hidden but the punishment is manifest. Thus since we have already begun to be, the spirit which we have received possesses its own freedom of action; since we have not yet changed our body and members, our still carnal view is obscured by the cloud of this world. How great is this domination of the mind, how great is its force, not only that it itself is withdrawn from pernicious contacts of the world, so that as one cleansed and pure it is seized by no stain of an attacking enemy, but that it becomes greater and stronger in its might, so that it rules with imperial right over every army of an attacking adversary.
But in order that the characteristics of the divine munificence may shine forth when the truth has been revealed, I shall give you light to recognize it, by wiping away the cloud of evil I shall reveal the darkness of a hidden world. For a little consider that you are being transported to the loftiest peak of a high mountain, that from this you are viewing the appearance of things that lie below you and with your eyes directed in different directions you yourself free from earthly contacts gaze upon the turmoils of the world. Presently you also will have pity on the world, and taking account of yourself and with more gratitude to God you will rejoice with greater joy that you have escaped from it. Observe the roads blocked by robbers, the seas beset by pirates, wars spread everywhere with the bloody horrors of camps. The world is soaked with mutual blood, and when individuals commit homicide, it is a crime; it is called a virtue when it is done in the name of the state. Impunity is acquired for crimes not by reason of innocence but by the magnitude of the cruelty.
Now if you turn your eyes and face toward the cities themselves, you will find a multitude sadder than any solitude. A gladitorial combat is being prepared that blood may delight the lust of cruel eyes. The body is filled up with stronger foods, and the robust mass of flesh grows fat with bulging muscles, so that fattened for punishment it may perish more dearly. Man is killed for the pleasure of man, and to be able to kill is a skill, is an employment, is an art. Crime is not only committed but is taught. What can be called more inhuman, what more repulsive? It is a training that one may be able to kill, and that he kills is a glory. What is this, I ask you, of what nature is it, where those offer themselves to wild beasts, whom no one has condemned, in the prime of life, of a rather beautiful appearance, in costly garments? While still alive they adorn themselves for a voluntary death, wretched they even glory in their wicked deeds. They fight with beasts not because they are convincts but because they are mad. Fathers look upon their own sons; a brother is in the arena and his sister near by, and, although the more elaborate preparation of the exhibition increases the price of the spectacle, oh shame! the mother also pays this price that she may be present at her own sorrows. And at such impious and terrible spectacles they do not realize that with their eyes they are parricides.
Turn your gaze away from this to the no less objectionable contaminations of a different kind of spectacle. In the theaters also you will behold what will cause you both grief and shame. It is the tragic buskin to relate in verse the crimes of former times. The ancient horror of parricide and incest is unfolded in acting expressed in the model of the truth, lest, as time goes by, what was once committed disappear. Every age is reminded by what it hears that what has been done can be done again.
Transgressions never die from the passage of the ages; crime is never erased by time; vice is never buried in oblivion. Then in the mimes by the teaching of infamies one delights either to recall what he has done at home or to hear what he can do. Adultery is learned as it is seen, and, while evil with public authority panders to vices, the matron who perchance had gone forth to the spectacle chaste returned from the spectacle unchaste. Then further how great a collapse of morals, what a stimulus to base deeds, what a nourishing of vices, to be polluted by the gestures of actors, to behold the elaborate endurance of incestuous abominations contrary to the convenant and law of our birth. Men emasculate themselves; all the honor and vigor of their sex are enfeebled by the disgrace of an enervated body, and he gives more pleasure there who best breaks down the man into woman. He grows into praise from crime, and he is judged the more skillful, the more degraded he is. Oh shame! Such a one is looked upon, and freely so. What cannot one in such a state suggest? He rouses the senses; he flatters the affections; he drives out the stronger conscience of a good heart; nor is there lacking the authority of a seductive vice, that ruin may creep upon men with less notice. They depict Venus as unchaste, Mars as an adulterer, and that famous Jupiter of theirs no more a chieftain in dominion than in vice, burning with earthly love in the midst of his own thunderbolts, now shining white in the plumage of a swan, now pouring down in a golden shower, now plunging forth with ministering birds for the raping of young boys. Ask now whether he who looks upon this can be healthy minded or chaste. One imitates the gods whom he venerates. For these poor wretches sins become even religious acts.
Or, if you should be able, standing on that lofty watchtower, to direct your eyes into secret places, to unfasten the locked doors of sleeping chambers and to open these hidden recesses to the perception of sight, you would behold that being carried on by the unchaste which a chaste countenance could not behold; you would see what it is a crime even to see; you would see what those demented with the fury of vices deny that they have done and hasten to do. Men with frenzied lusts rush against men.
Things are done which cannot even give pleasure to those who do them. I
lie if he who is such does not accuse others of the same; the depraved defames the depraved, and believes that he while conscious of his guilt has escaped, as if consciousness were not sufficient condemnation. The same persons are accusers in public and the defendants in secret, both their own critics and the guilty. They condemn abroad what they commit at home, which, after they have committed it, they accuse; a daring acting directly with vice and an impudence in harmony with the shameless. Do not marvel at such things as they speak. Whatever sin is committed with the voice is less than that by the mouth.
But viewing the treacherous highways, the manifold battles scattered over the whole earth, the exhibition either bloody or vile, the infamies of lust offered for sale in brothels or enclosed within domestic walls, whose daring is greater in proportion to the secrecy of the sin, the forum perhaps may seem to you to be devoid of all this, that it is free of harassing outrages and is unpolluted by contacts with evil. Turn your sight in that direction. There you will find more things to abhor; from these you will the more turn aside your eyes. Although the laws are engraved on twelve tables, and the statutes are published on bronze set up in public, there is sin in the midst of the laws themselves, there is wickedness in the midst of the statutes, and innocence is not preserved where it is defended. The madness of those who oppose each other rages, and among the togas peace is disrupted and the forum roars madly with law suits. There the spear and the sword and the executioner are close at hand, the claw that tears, the rack that stretches, the fire that burns, for the one body of man more tortures than it has limbs. Who in such cases gives assistance? One's patron? But he is in collusion and deceives. The judge? But he sells his sentence. He who sits to punish crimes commits them, and in order that the defendant may perish in innocence, the judge becomes guilty. Everywhere transgressions flourish, and in every direction by the multiform nature of sinning the pernicious poison acts through wicked minds. One counterfeits a will, another by a capital fraud gives false testimony; on the one hand children are cheated of their inheritance, on the other strangers are endowed with property; an enemy makes a charge, a calumniator attacks, a witness defames. On both sides the venal impudence of the hired voice proceeds to the falsification of charges, while in the meantime the guilty perish not with the innocent.
There is no fear of the laws, of the inquisitor, no dread of the judge; what can be bought is not feared. Now it is a crime for an innocent man to be among the guilty; whoever does not imitate the evil gives offense.
The laws have come to terms with sins, and what is public begins to be allowed. What shame of events can there be here, what integrity, when those to condemn the wicked are absent, and only those to be condemned meet with you.
But perchance we may seem to select the worst examples, and to lead your eyes through them with a view to disragement, whose sad and revolting sight offends the faced gaze of the better conscience. Presently I shall show you those examples which worldly opinion considers good. among those also you will see things to be shunned. As for that you think to be honors, what you consider the fasces, that affluence in riches, what power in camp, the sight of people among the magistrates, power in the license of rulers, all this is the hidden virus of enticing evils, and the happy appearance of smiling wickedness, but the treacherous disception of hidden calamity.
It is like a certain kind of poison, when after sweetness has been spread in its lethal juices and its flavor medicated with cunning to deceive what is consumed seems an ordinary draught, but when the stuff has been swallowed, the destruction which has been drained creeps over you. Surely you see that man who, conspicuous by his rather brilliant cloak seems to himself to be brilliant in purple. With what baseness he has brought this, that he may be brilliant. What acts of contempt did he first endure on the part of the haughty; what proud gates as a courtier did he besiege early in the morning; how many insulting steps of arrogant men, pressed into the throng of clients, first precede, so that afterwards attendants in solemn array might precede him also with salutations, submissive not to the man but to his power. For he has not merited to be cherished for his character but for his fasces. Finally you may see the wretched exits of these men, when the time-serving sycophant has departed, when the deserting follower has defiled the bare side of him now a private citizen. Then the injuries of a mutilated home strike the conscience; then the losses of a bankrupted family-estate are known, which the favor of the mob was bought, and the people's breath was sought with fleeting and empty entreaties. Surely foolish and empty expense, to have wished to make ready by the pleasure of a disappointing spectacle that which the people did not accept and the magistrate lost.
But those also whom you consider rich, as they add forest to forest, and extend the infinite boundless country-side ever wider, excluding the poor from its limits, and who possess the greatest heap of silver and gold, and mighty sum of money either in sturdy ramparts or buried stores, these too fearful in the midst of riches are distraught by the anxiety of vague thought, lest the robber lay them waste, lest the murderer attack, lest the hostile envy of some wealthier neighbor disturb him with malicious law-suits. Neither food nor sleep is had in peace; he sighs at the banquet, although he drinks from a jeweled cup, and when the excessively soft couch hides his body enervated by feasting within its deep folds, he lies awake in the midst of the down, and the wretch does not understand that these gilded things are his torments, that he is held bound by gold, and is possessed by riches rather than possesses them, and--oh detestable blindness of minds, and profound darkness of insane cupidity--when he can unburden himself and relieve himself of his load, he continues to brood still more over his troublesome fortunes; he continues to cling stubbornly to his punishing hoards. From these there is no largess for his dependents, there is no sharing with the needy, and they call it their money, which they guard with solicitous care locked up at home as if it were another's, out of which they impart nothing to friends, nothing to their children, and in short nothing to themselves; they possess it only for this purpose, that another may not possess it, and--how great is the diversity of names!--they call those things good of which they make no use except for evil ends.
Or do you think that even those are safe, that those at least are secure with firm stability midst chaplets of honor and great wealth, whom as they are resplendent with the splendor of a royal court a guard of vigilant arms surrounds? They have greater fear than others. He is forced to fear just he is feared. Sublimity exacts punishments in like measure of the more powerful, although hedged in by a band of satellites he guards his side surrounded and protected by numerous retinue. Just as he does not allow his subjects to be secure, so it is necessary that he also not be secure. Their own power terrifies the very ones whom it advises be the source of terror. It smiles that it may rage; it cajoles that it may deceive; it raises up, that it may cast down. With a certain usury of mischief the fuller the sum total of dignity and honor, the greater is the interest in punishments which is exacted.
Therefore, there is one peaceful and trustworthy tranquillity, one solid and firm security, if one withdraws from the whirlpools of a disturbing world and takes anchor in the harbor of the port of salvation. He raises his eyes from earth to heaven, and now admitted to the gift of God and being next to God in mind, whatever to others seems sublime and great in human affairs, he boasts to lie beneath his consciousness. Nothing can he now seek from the world, desire from the world, who is greater than the world.
How stable, how unshaken is that protection, how heavenly is that safeguard with its perennial blessings to be released from the snares of the entangling world, to be purged of the dregs of earth for the light of immortality. He would see what a crafty destruction on the part of an attacking enemy formerly proceeded against us. We are compelled to cherish more what we are to be, when it is permitted us to know and to condemn what we were. Nor for this is there need of a price either in the way of bribery or labor, that man's highest dignity or power may be achieved with elaborate effort. It is both a free and easy gift from God.
As the sun radiates of its own accord, the ray gives light, the spring waters, the shower moistens, so the heavenly Spirit infuses itself. When the soul gazing upon heaven recognizes its Author, higher than the sun and more sublime than all this earthly power, it begins to be that which it believes itself to be.
Do you, whom already the heavenly warfare has designated for the spiritual camp, only keep uncorrupted and chastened in religious virtues. See that you observe either constant prayer or reading. Speak now with God; let God now speak with you. Let Him instruct in His precepts; let Him dispose you in them. Whom He shall make rich, no one will make poor. There can be no want, when once the celestial food has filled the breast. Now ceilings enriched with gold and houses decorated with slabs of precious marble will seem of no account when you realize that you are to be cherished more, that you rather are to be adorned, that this house is of more importance for you, where God dwells in a temple, in which the Holy Spirit begins to live. Let us embellish this house with the colors of innocence; let us illuminate it with the light of justice. This house will never fall into ruin by the decay of age, nor will it be disfigured by the tarnishing of the color and gold of its walls. Whatever has been falsely beautified is destined to perish, and what possesses no reality of possession offers no stable confidence to those who possess it. This abides in a beauty perpetually vivid, in complete honor, in everlasting splendor. It can neither be destroyed nor blotted out. It can only be fashioned for the better, when the body returns.
These things, dearest Donatus, in the meantime are in brief. For although what is profitably heard delights the patience easy by reason of its goodness, the mind strong in the Lord, a sound faith, and nothing is so pleasing to your ears as what is pleasing to the Lord, yet we ought to temper our speech, being at once close and likely to speak to each other frequently, and since now is the quiet of a holiday and a time of leisure, whatever is left of the day as the sun slopes toward evening, let us spend this time in gladness, and let not even the hour of repast be void of heavenly grace. Let a temperate repast resound with psalms, and as you have a retentive memory and a musical voice, approach this task as is your custom. You sustain your dearest friends the more, if we listen to something spiritual, if the sweetness of religion delights our ears.