Lessons from Cyprian of Carthage

“Just as I finish writing an obituary for a friend, news of another death arrives.”

Last week, seven people I knew died, mostly of coronavirus. Three of them were personally close to me—a priest in Cotabato, an uncle in Cagayan de Oro, and a colleague from the University of the Philippines.

In my running toll of people I personally know who died during the pandemic, the number is now about to breach a hundred. It does not matter if some of them did not test positive for COVID, like my mother who had pneumonia. As a relative from Cagayan de Oro said to me, this pandemic is vicious in how our loved ones are taken during this time. We cannot even celebrate their lives the best way we know – feasting, singing, telling stories about the person, praying together. We have invented new ways of mourning and saying goodbye, but none equals our pre-pandemic funeral wakes.

Seven months after she died in Cagayan de Oro, I still have not been able to visit my mother’s grave. Just as I finish writing an obituary for a friend, news of another death arrives.

For weeks now, I have been reflecting on the meaning of all the sickness and dying that I am witnessing. For today’s column, I share lessons from Saint Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage (now in Tunisia) whose writings about the plague that hit Africa and Europe around 250 CE (or AD) became so famous that it became known as The Plague of Cyprian.

The Plague of Cyprian erupted in Ethiopia, reached Rome, and spread to Greece and Syria. It lasted nearly 20 years and, at its height, reportedly killed as many as 5,000 people per day in Rome. St. Cyprian remarked that it appeared as if the world was at an end.

I borrow from the theologian Sean du Toit his reflections on St. Cyrpian’s work De Mortalitate (“On Mortality”). According to du Toit in an article published in the New Zealand Journal of Christian Thought and Practice, Cyprian proposed that the plague had the effect of testing us to see what kind of people we actually are. In “On Mortality,” the good bishop concludes:

“How suitable, how necessary it is that this plague and pestilence, which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the justice of each and everyone and examines the minds of the human race; whether the well care for the sick, whether relatives dutifully love their kinsmen as they should, whether masters show compassion to their ailing slaves, whether physicians do not desert the afflicted begging their help, whether the violent repress their violence, whether the greedy, even through the fear of death, quench the ever insatiable fire of their raging avarice, whether the proud bend their necks, whether the shameless soften their affrontry, whether the rich, even when their dear ones are perishing and they are about to die without heirs, bestow and give something!”

Du Toit observes that times like the Plague of Cyprian and this coronavirus pandemic, reveal to us who we truly are: “Are we those who tend to the sick? Are we those who affectionately love our families? Are we those who stretch out in help and hope to those in need? Such times of disaster reveal to us the character we have cultivated by our affections and allegiances. But such disasters also provide us with the opportunity to cultivate caring and concerned characteristics as we become aware of deficiencies or weaknesses in ourselves.

The theologian highlights the importance of solidarity with those who are suffering: “Solidarity with the human experience makes us aware of the suffering of others. By being aware, we can experience compassion for those who are vulnerable and in need of assistance and aid. If we were not aware and did not experience compassion, then we are isolated from the common experiences of the world, and this would be unfortunate since we are created to benefit and bless one another. How can we serve people faithfully if we are not aware of their circumstances and don’t experience compassion for them? Life experiences teach us that no one is exempt from the devastating effects of creation’s brokenness.”

Finally, according to du Toit, Cyprian sees the moments of trial during the plague as revealing our true dispositions and commitments. Thus:
“While the current pandemic is causing great anxiety and economic devastation, we can look to this as a moment of revelation and reformation. We can use the time allotted to us to grow in our discipleship, to put our faith into action. We can spend time in prayer, lamenting the death toll and devastation but also praying that God’s wisdom and strength would comfort or challenge those who need it. We can exercise our compassion by looking after the vulnerable and marginalised among us and even those who are far from us. We can remind ourselves of our future hope and confidence in God’s restoration of all things and that can shape us here and now as we live lives characterised by compassion and care, as well as justice, through this pandemic, and also beyond it.”

Visit this website to access the article.

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