“… Only observe a discipline uncorrupted and chastened in the virtues of religion.” Saint Cyprian of Carthage
Bishop Cyprian led an African church in a time of great crisis. First, there was a period of brutal persecutions from the Roman government. He was criticized for going into hiding rather than stepping forward to become a martyr as many in his parish did. Then, he had to argue with false teachers who wanted to close the doors of repentance to backsliders who wanted to come back to the faith. A plague arose in the land and killed believers and pagans alike. This shook the faith of many Christians who thought they and their families would be spared from such suffering. After a period of relative calm, another persecution arose in which Cyprian would face the executioner’s axe. In the midst of these difficulties, the saint encouraged a friend to practice a sober minded and pure path as a Christian.
It is easy for us to dismiss the need for such a walk of faith in this day and age. Many of us succumb to the idea of “Getting our praise on” Sunday mornings, or as we listen to our favorite Gospel songs on the radio. We sweep our sins under a rug since, “The Lord knows our hearts,” and didn’t mean to sin. If a brother or sister of the faith (or even minister) dare give us a mild rebuke of our faults, they are not to “judge” us because “all have sinned.” As long as we go to church, tithe, and love others; a disciplined spiritual life doesn’t seem to be necessary.
I believe that the Christian life called for by St. Cyprian is even more critical to us today than it was in first century Carthage. To proclaim Christ before Constantine was an invitation to exile, torture, or death. The courageous either hid and found ways to encourage people to remain faithful to Christ, or they boldly faced swords and wild beast. A life of purity and sobriety gave our ancestors of the faith the strength and wisdom to do both.
Today, Satan persecutes us with a more vicious torturer than any Roman official could send on us. Complacency lulls our spirits to believe that we are walking in the narrow path of salvation when we are actually on a broad boulevard of destruction. When we relegate worship to exuberant praise, can we hear the quiet voice that God uses to speak to us as he did Elijah? How can we parts of the body of Christ heal from our sin sickness if we are unwilling to confess where the body is gathered? Are we so holy that we cannot accept a word of correction from those who have made the journey before us and are walking with us? “Oh, those are the traditions of men. We don’t need to do all of that. God is not through with me yet.” Instead of finding answers in prayer, the Bible, and ancient Christian writings to correct our backslidings, it is easier to make excuses for improper actions, words, and (especially) thoughts. And since we do not face life threatening persecutions, being complacent in our Christian walk has captured far too many of us and misleading us to be no better than those who do not practice the faith at all. Indeed, we are worse because we, supposedly, know better.
Not everyone is called to monasticism. But, we are all called to spend time with ourselves and God in prayer as Jesus did. All of us are called to observe times of God’s presence in our lives as the apostles did in the book of Acts. The writings of early church fathers and mothers are available and are not hard for us to comprehend. And the call to repentance given by our Lord back then is essential to our self-denial, taking up of our crosses, and following Him today. Let us not be lulled by complacency in these times of ease. But, let us struggle all the more against our sinister enemy who wants nothing more than for us to let our guards down.