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A MEMORABLE HISTORY TO MAKE CLEARLY UNDERSTOOD IN WHAT THE FORCE AND EXCELLENCE OF HOLY LOVE CONSIST.
How great an extent then, O my dear Theotimus, ought the force of this sacred love of God above all things to have? It must surpass all affections, vanquish all difficulties, and prefer the honour of God's good-will before all things; yea I say, before all things absolutely, without any exception or reservation; and I speak thus with such great distinctness, because there are men who would courageously forsake their goods, honour, and their own life for our Lord, who yet will not leave for his sake things of much less consideration.
In the reign of the Emperors Valerianus and Gallus, there lived in Antioch a priest named Sapricius, and a layman named Nicephorus, who by reason of their long and exceeding great friendship were considered as brothers: and yet it happened in the end, I know not upon what occasion, that this friendship failed, and according to custom was followed with a yet deeper hatred, which reigned for a time between them, till at length Nicephorus, acknowledging his fault, made three different attempts to be reconciled with Sapricius, to whom, now by one of their common friends, now by another, he sent words signifying all the satisfaction and submission that heart could have wished. But Sapricius, in no wise answering to his invitations, ever repulsed the reconciliation with as much contempt as Nicephorus besought it with humility; insomuch that the poor Nicephorus, thinking that if Sapricius saw him prostrate at his feet begging pardon he would be more touched to the heart with it, goes and finds him out and courageously casting himself down at his feet:—Reverend Father, says he, Ah! pardon me, I beseech thee by the bowels of our Saviour Jesus; but even this humility was disdained and rejected, together with his former endeavours.
Meanwhile, behold a hot persecution arose against the Christians, in which Sapricius with others being apprehended did wonders in suffering a thousand thousand torments for the confession of his faith—especially when he was most roughly shaken and rolled in an instrument made purposely, after the manner of a wine-press—without ever losing his constancy. At this the Governor of Antioch being extremely irritated condemned him to death; whereupon he was publicly led out of prison towards the place where he was to receive the glorious crown of martyrdom. No sooner had Nicephorus learnt this, than immediately he ran, and having met Sapricius, throwing himself upon the ground: Alas! cried he, with a loud voice, O martyr of Jesus Christ, pardon me, for I have offended thee! But Sapricius taking no notice, the poor Nicephorus, getting again before him by a shorter way, came to him anew with the like humility, conjuring him to pardon him in these words: O martyr of Jesus Christ, pardon the offence which I have committed against thee, I who am but a man and subject to offend: for lo! a crown is already bestowed upon thee by our Saviour whom thou has not denied, yea thou hast confessed his holy name before many witnesses. But Sapricius continuing in his pride gave him not one word in answer; until the very executioners, wondering at the perseverance of Nicephorus, said to him: We have never seen so foolish a man as thee; this fellow is going even at this moment to die, what dost thou want with his pardon? To whom Nicephorus answering: Thou knowest not, said he, what it is I demand of this confessor of Jesus Christ, but God knows. Meantime Sapricius arrived at the place of execution, where yet again Nicephorus, casting himself upon the ground before him: I beseech thee, said he, O martyr of Jesus Christ, that it would please thee to pardon me, for it is written: Ask and it shall be granted thee: words which could not in the least bend the caitiff and rebellious heart of the miserable Sapricius, who, obstinately denying mercy to his neighbour, was himself deprived by the just judgment of God of the most glorious palm of martrydom. For the executioners commanding him to put himself on his knees, in order to behead him, he began to be daunted, and to parley with them, making in the end this deplorable and shameful submission: Oh! I pray you, behead me not: I will do what the Emperors order, and sacrifice to idols. Which the poor good Nicephorus hearing, with tears in his eyes began to cry: Ah! do not, I beseech thee, transgress the law and deny Jesus Christ; forsake him not, I beseech thee, lose not the crown of glory which with so great labours and torments thou hast obtained! But alas! this miserable priest coming to the altar of martyrdom there to consecrate his life to the eternal God, had not called to mind what the Prince of Martyrs had said: If therefore thou offer thy gift at the altar, and there thou remember that thy brother hath anything against thee; leave there thy offering before the altar, and go first to be reconciled to thy brother: and then coming thou shalt offer thy gift.459459Matt. v. 23, 24. Wherefore God rejected his offering; and withdrawing his mercy from him, permitted him not only to lose the sovereign happiness of martyrdom, but even to fall headlong into the misery of idolatry; while the humble and meek Nicephorus, perceiving this crown of martyrdom vacant by the apostasy of the obdurate Sapricius, touched with an excellent and extraordinary inspiration, boldly presses forward to obtain it, saying to the officers and executioners: I am a Christian, my friends, I am in truth a Christian, and believe in Jesus Christ, whom this man has denied: put me, therefore, I beseech you, in his place, and cut off my head. At which the officers being extremely astonished, carried the tidings to the governor, who gave orders that Sapricius should be set at liberty, and that Nicephorus should be put to death, which happened on the 9th of February, about the year of our salvation 260, as Metaphrastes and Surius relate. A terrible history, and worthy of the gravest consideration in the subject we treat of! For did you note, my dear Theotimus, this courageous Sapricius—how bold and fervent he was in defence of his faith, how he was in the confession of our Saviour's name, while he was rolled and crushed in that press-like machine, how ready he was to receive the death-blow to fulfil the highest point of the divine law, preferring God's honour before his own life? And yet, because on the other side he prefers to the divine will the satisfaction which his cruel haughtiness takes in hating Nicephorus, he stops short in his course, and when he is on the point of coming up to and attaining the prize of glory by martyrdom, he miserably falls and breaks his neck, falling headlong into idolatry.
It is therefore true, my Theotimus, that it is not enough for us to love God more than our own life, unless we also love him universally, absolutely, and without reserve, more than all we love or can love. But you will say to me, did not our Saviour assign the furthest point of our love towards him, when he said that greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends?460460John xv. 13. It is true indeed, Theotimus, that amongst the particular acts and testimonies of divine love there is none so great as to undergo death for God's glory, yet it is also true that this is but one single act, and one single test; it is indeed the masterpiece of charity, but besides it charity exacts many things at our hands, and so much more forcibly and instantly as they are acts more easy, common and ordinary with all lovers, and more generally necessary to the preservation of sacred love. O miserable Sapricius! Durst thou be bold to affirm that thou didst love God as was fitting, whilst thou didst not prefer the will of God before the passion of hatred and rancour entertained in thy heart against the poor Nicephorus? To be willing to die for God is the greatest but not the only act of love which we owe to God; and to will this act only, excluding the others,—this is not charity, it is vanity. Charity is not fanciful, which she would be in the highest degree, if being resolved to please the beloved in things of greatest difficulty, she would permit us to displease him in easier matters. How can he will to die for God who will not live according to God?
A well-ordered mind that is resolved to die for a friend, would also without doubt undergo all other things; for he that has once despised death ought to have despised everything. But the human spirit is weak, inconstant and humoursome, whence men sometimes rather choose to die than to undergo far slighter pains, and willingly give their life for extremely frivolous, childish, and vain satisfactions. Agrippina having learnt that the child she was bringing forth would be Emperor, indeed, but that he would put her to death: Let him kill me, said she, provided that he reign. Mark, I pray you, the disorder of this foolishly loving mother's heart; she preferred her son's dignity before her own life. Cato and Cleopatra chose death rather than to see their enemies exult and glory in their capture; and Lucretia chose to put herself cruelly to death rather than to be unjustly branded with the shame of a deed in which, it would seem, she was not guilty. How many are there who would willingly embrace death for their friends, and yet would not live in their service, or accomplish their other desires? A man exposes his life, who would not open his purse. And though there may be found many who engage their life for a friend's defence, yet scarcely is there one found in a century who will imperil his liberty, or lose an ounce of the most vain and unprofitable reputation or renown in the world, be it for never so dear a friend.
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