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  • Writer's pictureLES HENSON

Cyprian’s Conversion

Les Henson

Cyprian, who in the mid-third century was the leading bishop in the North African church and who was martyred in 258. Grew up in a pagan family.  But Cyprian’s family was exceptionally privileged, and he had all of the benefits of his class: He participated in incredible feasts; wore costly clothing that glittered “in gold and purple”; and had many servants and retainers at his disposal. Yet despite wealth, power and prominence, Cyprian was unhappy.  He observed the Christians, whose lives had the freedom of contentment he desired. His life, he knew, was full of “gilded torments”; but how could he, a “slave of luxury,” become free?  That was his question! Typical of the people of his class, he was imprisoned by his prosperity, which had taken hold of his inner being. He writes, luxury was “actually a part of me . . . and indigenous to me”.  

Cyprian’s concern was not about belief; he was not worried whether he could believe what the Christians believed.  He was not primarily concerned about belonging, whether he could associate with a suspect movement made up of all social classes.  Rather, Cyprian’s concern was with behaviour:  Could he live as they lived?  Could he simplify his life?  Could he share his possessions? Could he change?  

Through his time as a catechumen, in which he learned to “love the poor”, Cyprian began to change.  But it was especially in ritual, in the waters of baptism, Cyprian reported, that he received the power to change.  In the washing of baptism, “by the agency of the Holy Spirit,” Cyprian experienced “a second birth”, as a result of which things that had been impossible became possible. Even an aristocrat could change.  Cyprian like other Christians could now: Give his goods to the poor; dress in simple clothing; and live without fear of death. The converted Cyprian, in his own words, had become “a new man.” He was transformed.

How did his transformation come about? Well, the early church of the third century, required the catechumen to go through a three year process of resocializing them into this alternative community and rehabituating them into the ways of a community. The goal was to change and transform their lives in terms of belief, behaviour, belonging and experience. Yet the focus in the early stages of the conversion process was on the change of behaviour, so that the catechumen could demonstrate to their sponsor’s and the bishop that they were serious about following Jesus and that they could in fact live like a Christian. The teaching of beliefs focused on understanding the Christian story and on living as a Christian in a hostile world. Interestingly there was also an emphasis on beliefs that led to a discerning of areas of demonic power in society that enslaved them. Likewise, the Christian community was knit together by its search for ways of dealing with the idols of the age sex, power, wealth and violence that would be in line with the teaching of Jesus.

It was only after the initiating ritual of baptism, which took place at the end of the three year process, usually at Easter that the Catechuman belonged and were part of the community. They then were able partake of the belonging ritual of communion for the first time. Through this process the lives of the catechumens were transformed. So that Minucius Felix could say.  “We do not preach distinctive things; we live them!”  Or as the Canons of Hippolytus (19), urged:, “May [the lives of Christians] shine with virtue, not before each other [only], but also before the Gentiles so they may imitate them and become Christians.”  


How do we participate with God in the transforming of lives and the liberating of God’s people from the idols of our culture?

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