The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The End Is Near...3rd Century Version

The other day I wrote about folks today who seem so certain that the end of days are just around the corner. Well, things haven't changed much. Today I came across a comment by St. Cyprian of Carthage, a third-century bishop and martyr, who was apparently convinced that he and his contemporaries were facing the end. His view seems to be colored significantly by his observations of nature and the growing decadence already evident in the Roman Empire. Here's what he had to say in a letter to one Demetrius:
"The world itself now bears witness to its approaching end by the evidence of its failing powers. There is not so much rain in winter for fertilizing the seeds, nor in summer is there so much warmth for ripening them. The springtime is no longer so mild, nor the autumn so rich in fruit. Less marble is quarried from the exhausted mountains, and the dwindling supplies of gold and silver show that the mines are worked out and the impoverished veins of metal diminish from day to day. The peasant is failing and disappearing from the fields, the sailor at sea, the soldier in the camp, uprightness in the forum, justice in the court, concern in friendships, skill in the arts, discipline in morals. Can anything that is old preserve the same powers that it had in the prime and vigor of its youth? It is inevitable that whatever is tending downwards to decay and approaches its end must decrease in strength, like the setting sun and the waning moon, and the dying tree and the failing stream. This is the sentence passed on the world; this is God's law: that all that has risen should fall and that all that has grown should wax old, and that strong things should become weak and great things should become small, and that when they have been weakened and diminished they should come to an end." [St. Cyprian, Ad Demetrianum, c. iii]
St. Cyprian might have been wrong about the imminent collapse of the natural world, but he was correct in recognizing the signs of societal decay. The Roman Empire had already begun its downward spiral, even though its end was still far in the future. For as Christopher Dawson wrote:
"...the third century witnessed a social and constitutional revolution of the most far-reaching kind. The great break in the history of the ancient world -- the end of the old society and the inauguration of a new order -- took place not in the age of St. Augustine, when the barbarians conquered the western provinces and the unity of the Empire was destroyed, but more than a century earlier, in the age of military anarchy, which followed the fall of the house of Severus." [St. Augustine: His Age, Life and Thought, p. 27]
Of course, being a saint doesn't make one infallible, but at least St. Cyprian didn't try to pick out the day and the hour of the end, as do today's false prophets.

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