Argument. — The argument of the present epistle is nearly the same as that of the two preceding, except that he exhorts in this to diligent prayer.
1. Cyprian to the presbyters and deacons, his brethren, greeting. Although I know, brethren beloved, that from the fear which we all of us owe to God, you also are instantly urgent in continual petitions anti earnest prayers to Him, still I myself remind your religious anxiety, that in order to appease and entreat the Lord, we must lament not only in words, but also with fastings and with tears, and with every kind of urgency. For we must perceive and confess that the so disordered ruin arising from that affliction, which has in a great measure laid waste, and is even still laying waste, our flock, has visited us according to our sins, in that we do not keep the way of the Lord, nor observe the heavenly commandments given to us for our salvation. Our Lord did the will of His Father, and we do not do the will of our Lord; eager about our patrimony and our gain, seeking to satisfy our pride, yielding ourselves wholly to emulation and to strife, careless of simplicity and faith, renouncing the world in words only, and not in deeds, every one of us pleasing himself, and displeasing all others,–therefore we are smitten as we deserve, since it is written: “And that servant, which knoweth his master’s will, and has not obeyed his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.” But what stripes, what blows, do we not deserve, when even confessors, who ought to be an example of virtuous life to others, do not maintain discipline? Therefore, while an inflated and immodest boastfulness about their own confession excessively elates some, tortures come upon them, and tortures without any cessation of the tormentor, without any end of condetonation, without any comfort of death,–tortures which do not easily let them pass to the crown, but wrench them on the rack until they cause them to abandon their faith, unless some one taken away by the divine compassion should depart in the very midst of the torments, gaining glory not by the cessation of his torture, but by the quickness of his death:
2. These things we suffer by our own fault and our own deserving, even as the divine judgment has forewarned us, saying, “If they forsake my law and walk not in my judgments, if they profane my statutes and keep not my commandments, then will I visit their transgressions with the rod, and their iniquities with stripes.” It is for this reason that we feel the rods and the stripes, because we neither please God with good deeds nor atone for our sins. Let us of our inmost heart and of our entire mind ask for God’s mercy, because He Himself also adds, saying, “Nevertheless my loving-kindness will I not scatter away from them.” Let us ask, and we shall receive; and if there be delay and tardiness in our receiving, since we have grievously offended, let us knock, because “to him that knocketh also it shall be opened,” if only our prayers, our groanings, and our tears, knock at the door; and with these we must be urgent and persevering, even although prayer be offered with one mind.
3. For,–which the more induced and constrained me to write this letter to you,–you ought to know (since the Lord has condescended to show and to reveal it) that it was said in a vision, “Ask, and ye shall obtain.” Then, afterwards, that the attending people were bidden to pray for certain persons pointed out to them, but that in their petitions there were dissonant voices, and wills disagreeing, and that this excessively displeased Him who had said, “Ask, and ye shall obtain,” because the disagreement of the people was out of harmony, and there was not a consent of the brethren one and simple, and a united concord; since it is written, “God who maketh men to be of one mind in a house;” and we read in the Acts of the Apostles, “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul.” And the Lord has bidden us with His own voice, saying, “This is my command, that ye love one another.” And again, “I say unto you, that if two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that you shall ask, it shall be done for you of my Father which is in heaven.” But if two of one mind can do so much, what might be effected if the unanimity prevailed among all? But if, according to the peace which our Lord gave us, there were agreement among all brethren, we should before this have obtained from the divine mercy what we seek; nor should we be wavering so long in this peril of our salvation and our faith. Yes, truly, and these evils would not have come upon the brethren, if the brotherhood had been animated with one spirit.
4. For there also was shown that there sate the father of a family, a young man also being seated at his right hand, who, anxious and somewhat sad with a kind of indignation, holding his chin in his right hand, occupied his place with a sorrowful look. But another standing on the left hand, bore a net, which he threatened to throw, in order to catch the people standing round. And when he who saw marvelled what this could be, it was told him that the youth who was thus sitting on the right hand was saddened and grieved because his commandments were not observed; but that he on the left was exultant because an opportunity was afforded him of receiving from the father of the family the power of destroying. This was shown long before the tempest of this devastation arose. And we have seen that which had been shown fulfilled; that while we despise the commandments of the Lord, while we do not keep the salutary ordinances of the law that He has given, the enemy was receiving a power of doing mischief, and was overwhelming, by the cast of his net, those who were imperfectly armed and too careless to resist.
5. Let us urgently pray and groan with continual petitions. For know, beloved brethren, that I was not long ago reproached with this also in a vision, that we were sleepy in our prayers, and did not pray with watchfulness; and undoubtedly God, who “rebukes whom He loves, when He rebukes, rebukes that He may amend, amends that He may preserve. Let us therefore strike off and break away from the bonds of sleep, and pray with urgency and watchfulness, as the Apostle Paul bids us, saying, “Continue in prayer, and watch in the same.” For the apostles also ceased not to pray day and night; and the Lord also Himself, the teacher of our discipline, and the way of our example, frequently and watch-fully prayed, as we read in the Gospel: “He went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God.” And assuredly what He prayed for, He prayed for on our behalf, since He was not a sinner, but bore the sins of others. But He so prayed for us, that in another place we read, “And the Lord said to Peter, Behold, Satan has desired to sift you as wheat: but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not.” But if for us and for our sins He both laboured and watched and prayed, how much more ought we to be instant in prayers; and, first of all, to pray and to entreat the Lord Himself, and then through Him, to make satisfaction to God the Father! We have an advocate and an intercessor for our sins, Jesus Christ the Lord and our God, if only we repent of our sins past, and confess and acknowledge our sins, whereby we now offend the Lord, and for the time to come engage to walk in His ways, and to fear His commandments. The Father corrects and protects us, if we still stand fast in the faith both in afflictions and perplexities, that is to say, cling closely to His Christ; as it is written, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine or nakedness, or peril, or sword? None of these things can separate believers, nothing can tear away those who are clinging to His body and blood. Persecution of that kind is an examination and searching out of the heart. God wills us to be sifted and proved, as He has always proved His people; and yet in His trials help has never at any time been wanting to believers.
6. Finally, to the very least of His servants although placed among very many sins, and unworthy of His condescension, yet He has condescended of His goodness towards us to command: “Tell him,” said He, “to be safe, because peace is coming; but that, in the meantime, there is a little delay, that some who still remain may be proved.” But we are admonished by these divine condescensions both concerning a spare diet and a temperate use of drink; to wit, lest worldly enticement should enervate the breast now elevated with celestial vigour, or lest the mind, weighed down by too abundant feasting, should be less watchful unto prayers and supplication.
7. It was my duty not to conceal these special matters, nor to hide them alone in my own consciousness,–matters by which each one of us may be both instructed and guided. And do not you for your part keep this letter concealed among yourselves, but let the brethren have it to mad. For it is the part of one who desires that his brother should not be warned and instructed, to intercept those words with which the Lord condescends to admonish and instruct us. Let them know that we are proved by our Lord, and let them never fail of that faith whereby we have once believed in Him, under the conflict of this present affliction. Let each one, acknowledging his own sins, even now put off the conversation of the old man. “For no man who looks back as he putteth his hand to the plough is fit for the kingdom of God.” And, finally, Lot’s wife, who, when she was delivered, looked back in defiance of the commandment, lost the benefit of her escape. Let us look not to things which are behind, whither the devil calls us back, but to things which are before, whither Christ calls us. Let us lift up our eyes to heaven, lest the earth with its delights and enticements deceive us. Let each one of us pray God not for himself only, but for all the brethren, even as the Lord has taught us to pray, when He bids to each one, not private prayer, but enjoined them, when they prayed, to pray for all in common prayer and concordant supplication. If the Lord shall behold us humble and peaceable; if He shall see us joined one with another; if He shall see us fearful concerning His anger; if corrected and amended by the present tribulation, He will maintain us safe from the disturbances of the enemy. Discipline hath preceded; pardon also shall follow.
8. Let us only, without ceasing to ask, and with full faith that we shall receive, in simplicity and unanimity beseech the Lord, entreating not only with groaning but with tears, as it behoves those to entreat who are situated between the ruins of those who wail, and the remnants of those who fear; between the manifold slaughter of the yielding, and the little firmness of those who still stand. Let us ask that peace may be soon restored; that we may be quickly helped in our concealments and our dangers; that those things may be fulfilled which the Lord deigns to show to his servants,–the restoration of the Church, the security of our salvation; after the rains, serenity; after the darkness, light; after the storms and whirlwinds, a peaceful calm; the affectionate aids of paternal love, the accustomed grandeurs of the divine majesty whereby both the blasphemy of persecutors may be restrained, the repentance of the lapsed renewed, and the stedfast faith of the persevering may glory. I bid you, beloved brethren, ever heartily farewell; and have me in remembrance. Salute the brotherhood in my name; and remind them to remember me. Farewell.