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Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume VI: June. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.

June 3

St. Cecilius, Confessor

        From Minutius Felix’s Dialogue called Octavius; and Pontius in his life of St. Cyprian. See Tillemont, t. 3. Ceillier, t. 2, p. 222. Reeve’s preliminary dissertations, and Orsi’s elegant abstract of this dialogue. Hist. t. 2, l. 5, p. 453.

A.D. 211.

ST. CECILIUS, Octavius, and Marcus Minutius Felix, were three eminent and learned men, who formed together a triumvirate of perfect friendship. Minutius seems by his style, and by other circumstances, to have been originally an African, though he lived at Rome, and there pleaded at the bar with great reputation for eloquence and probity. He was called in an advanced age to the light of divine wisdom, as he testifies: 1 and he had humility enough to despise the rank which he held among the learned and the great ones in the world; and, by a happy violence, to enter heaven in the company of the ignorant, and the little ones, says St. Eucherius. 2 His two friends were also Africans, and all three were joined in a course of the same studies. They kept company a long time whilst they were engaged in the vices and superstitions of the age; but Octavius and Minutius first broke through the strong holds of education and interest, and every worldly temptation, to embrace the doctrine of the cross. Octavius seems to have had the glory of leading the way; for Minutius says he ran before him as a guide. But like a true friend, he could not be content to be happy without his Minutius: and he gave himself no repose, so long as he saw his friend, his other half, remain in darkness, and in the shades of death. Words from the mouth of such a friend, drop like honey from the honeycomb, whilst from a harsh prophet whom we hate, truth itself becomes unacceptable. Minutius therefore was easily prepared to receive the impressions of virtue, and this blessed pair became one in religion as well as in friendship. Faith, far from abating, served only to refine and perfect their mutual affection, and these two heavenly friends congratulated each other upon their new life, in transports of holy joy, which all their oratory wanted words to express. They looked back on their past sinful lives with shame and sorrow, and could relish nothing for the future but the humiliations of the cross, and the severities of penance. Racks and tortures they overlooked with triumph; both turned advocates for the faith, and without any other retaining fee than the reward of their charity, and the expectation of a happiness beyond the grave, they strenuously pleaded the cause of the crucified Jesus. Arnobius seems to have had in his eye these two illustrious converts, when, answering the reproaches of the heathens, he lets them know, that orators and lawyers of the first rank had embraced the doctrine of the cross. 3 Octavius and Minutius seemed now to want nothing themselves, but they were extremely desirous to make Cecilius, their third friend, as happy as themselves. This however was a work of difficulty, and called for the last efforts of their piety and friendship. Early prejudices from education leave a tincture upon the mind, which seldom wears out without much pains and ingenuity; and how supine soever such a conduct is in matters of this nature and importance, men often are inclined to content themselves with the religion of their parents, almost as naturally as they take up with their language. Cecilius, moreover, was a man of the world, and of latitudinarian principles, and therefore was hardly to be come at with argument. He was a person of wit and abilities, but his own idol, and a great lover of applause and pleasure. Hence his chief religion seems to have been to serve himself; for we find him, in his disputation, one while for neither gods nor providence, and then again for both; and afterwards a bigot for all the gods in vogue all the world over. To complete his character, the philosophy he had imbibed only raised his vanity, and intoxicating his head with conceit, set him at the greatest distance from the reach of argument. But, notwithstanding this seemingly inaccessible temper of mind, we find Cecilius at length, by the power of divine grace, made a glorious convert, an eminent saint, and, in all probability, the converter of the great St. Cyprian. Octavius and Minutius were the instruments which God was pleased to make use of to effect this great work. They began by recommending it to God by their earnest prayers. And their victory over him was the issue of a conference, the sum of which Minutius has left us in an elegant dialogue which he entitled Octavius, in honour of his friend who had departed this life when he committed this to writing.
  In the structure of this dialogue, the design and order are extremely beautiful and taking, and speak a master builder: for in the very entrance he insensibly steals upon our passions with such bewitching blandishments in the character of his beloved Octavius, then leads us on to the occasion of the conference with such awaking descriptions, and sets off the minutest objects with such surprising embellishments, that he has in a manner got our hearts before he comes to open his cause. 4 He tells us that Octavius, an excellent and holy person, at his departure out of this world had left in him most eager desires and longings for such a friend: for, says Minutius, “He always burnt with equal fire, and loved me so passionately in return, that, both in our diversions and business, our minds continually played in concert to one another, insomuch that you would imagine there was but one soul between us both.” This author called to mind with gratitude the benefit of his example, and, ruminating on his virtues, rekindled his own devotion; whilst, by cherishing his memory in his breast, he studied to go after him in his thoughts, and to wean his heart more and more from the world. He then recapitulates their momentous discourse with Cecilius, whereby that friend was also brought over to the true religion. The occasion by which it was introduced is related as follows:—  2
  Octavius came to Rome to pay Minutius a visit, forcing his way through the strong endearments of house, wife, and amiable little children, which he left at home. It was in autumn, and in vacation time, which gave our orator a relaxation from his business at the bar; and he took the opportunity which that time of leisure afforded him, to go to Ostia to bathe in the salt waters of the sea, which he looked upon as a proper remedy for drying up the humours with which he was afflicted. Octavius and Cecilius would needs bear him company. It happened, that as they were walking together in the town, towards the sea-shore, early in the morning, Cecilius spied a statue of Serapis; at which he put his hand to his mouth, and kissed it. This was an act of adoration among the Greeks and Romans. 5 Octavius hereupon said to Minutius, that it was a crime and reproach in them that their friend should still remain involved in the darkness of error, and worship stones, which had indeed received a figure, and been anointed with oil, and crowned by way of consecration, but were still dumb and deaf stones. Cecilius was nettled to hear himself accused of ignorance, and challenged Octavius to hold a dispute upon that subject, telling him sarcastically, he would make him know that he never before had to do with a philosopher. The conference was immediately agreed upon, and down they sat upon a pile of stones thrown up for the shelter of the bath. Minutius was placed in the middle, in quality of arbitrator. Cecilius began the dispute by denying a providence, triumphing with an air of assurance and self-sufficiency, and swaggering with flashes of wit, and overbearing eloquence. He objected the poverty and slavery of the Christians who were every where subject to the idolaters, whose empire was prosperous; he recommended the religion that is uppermost, calling the Christians sad poor fellows, who choose obstinately to starve, and who suffer on with pleasure, make a jest of racks and torture, are careless of life and fortune, and every worldly comfort, and have not so much as churches wherein to worship their one God: 6 that they are a most contented, pitiful, ragged tribe, skulk about in holes without a word to say for themselves, and only cant in corners about a resurrection, and the joys of another world. He spent a deal of his artillery against the resurrection of the body: which was a great stumbling-block to the ancient philosophers, as appears from the writings of Athenagoras, Tertullian, Origen, and other apologists of our holy faith. But calumnies were the chief strength of this champion of error. The gospel contains so lovely a system of manners, and advances moral virtue to such noble heights, that it could not but excite esteem and veneration in its greatest adversaries. In order to throw a blind over its amazing beauty, which bespoke its original divine, the devil had recourse to slanders, with which he stirred up his instruments to blacken and misrepresent it. Cecilius thought himself secure behind this false intrenchment, and flattered himself he should thence be able to annoy his adversary. He seemed impatient to come to this battery: and he loudly objected nocturnal assemblies, solemn fasts, inhuman banquets, and crimes perpetrated under the name of religion. “I hear,” says he, “that they adore the head of an ass, the knees of their bishop or priest, and a man who was punished for his crimes, and the cursed wood of the cross.” He makes it a subject of ridicule that the Christians should despise present torments for fear of others that are invisible: that they abstain from lawful pleasures, from public shows, pomp, banquets, perfumes which they reserve for their death, &c. In answer to these prejudices, Octavius demonstrates a divine providence superintending all human affairs, from the evident marks of order and design in all the works of nature: an argument so obvious and natural, yet so evident and strong, that no subtilty can foil or obscure it. For so admirable is the beauty and contexture which comes out and meets our eye in every part of the universe, that no one can be blind to its author. “Should you chance to come into a house,” says our Octavius, with Tully, 7 “and see all the rooms exquisitely furnished, and kept in great order, you would make no dispute but such a house is under the care and inspection of a master who is preferable to all the furniture. Thus, when you cast your eyes upon heaven and earth, and behold the admirable order and economy of things, can you question whether there is a Lord of the universe, and that he is more glorious than the stars, and more to be admired than all the works of his hands?” From providence he proceeds to prove the unity of God, and that he is the supreme spirit and intelligence, the universal parent, who gave beginning to all things, himself eternal; who, before the world was produced, was a world to himself; who is infinite and immense, and whose immensity is intelligible only to himself. “Our intellect,” says Octavius, “is too narrow to contain him; and we never conceive so worthily of him as when we apprehend him inconceivable.” He thence takes occasion to show the absurdity of polytheism, and the monstrous folly of the idolaters concerning their gods. Proving their idols and oracles to be devils, he writes thus: “Most of you know very well 8 that the demons are forced to confess against themselves, as often as we rack them into confession by bare words only, and force them out of the bodies they possess, by such tormenting speeches as they cannot bear. You may well be assured they would never frame lies to their own shame, especially in the presence of you who adore them. Take their word then, and believe them to be devils, when you have it from their own mouths. For when we adjure them by the one living God, the wretches tremble, and either depart forthwith from the bodies they possess, or vanish by degrees, according to the faith of the patient, or the grace of the physician.”  3
  Cecilius, pressed by these arguments, flies from his tenets, but thinks he can charge as much upon Christianity. This was at best to abandon the cause of idolatry, and a poor shift which discovered his distress. Neither could he object any thing to the evidence of the gospel revelation, except gross calumnies formed out of our doctrines disguised, or taken by halves; and from our discipline either mistaken or traduced. The slanders therefore were easily wiped off by a flat denial of them, and by a plain exposition of the sanctity of our doctrine. As to the old calumny of an ass’s head being worshipped by the Christians, which imputation had formerly been cast upon the Jews, (as appears from Josephus, in his books against Appion,) Octavius contented himself with denying so groundless a charge: as he does likewise that we adore the knees of the bishop, which senseless slander arose from the custom of penitents kneeling before the bishop to receive his absolution or blessing, as Dr. Cave and others observe. To the accusation of incests in our mysteries, Octavius answers, that it was confuted by the purity of our morals, and by the great number of those who vow chastity among us. But this argument he turns upon his adversary, loading paganism with that dishonour which she endeavoured to blacken us with, and which she openly professed by placing Priapus among her divinities, sacrificing to Venus the prostitute, and celebrating the festivals of Bona Dea and others, with all imaginable abominations and lewdness. He shows that, far from feeding on the flesh of children, or allowing any lewdness, Christians would not even see men justly put to death, or assist at public executions, and that they refrained from eating blood: that those who marry only take one wife: and that very many live in perpetual continency, yet without glorying in their state; 9 and that the least thought of a crime was condemned by them. 10 Our disputant observes, that Pythagoras, Plato, and other heathen philosophers learned the immortality of the soul, and many other truths which they taught (though mingled with much falsehood) by an imperfect tradition from the divine revelation 11 delivered to the ancient patriarchs. He says that we bury the dead instead of burning the corpses, because this was the ancient and better custom; but that God can equally raise our bodies again from ashes or from dust. He teaches the eternity of hell-fire, 12 which infidels and wicked livers justly deserve, “because it is not a less crime to be ignorant of the common Lord and parent of all men and all things, than it is to disobey him.” Octavius closes his discourses by a short, but amiable description of the Christian morality, where, in answer to the reproach of poverty, he says, “Who can be said to be poor who finds himself in no want? He rather is the poor wretch who is necessitous in the midst of plenty. There is no man can be poorer than he came into the world. The Christian art of possessing all things is, by desiring nothing. As a traveller, the lighter he is, the easier he finds himself; so in this journey of life, he is happier who is lightened by poverty, than he who groans under a load of riches. Did we conclude riches necessary, we should ask them of God. Innocence is the top of our desire; and patience the thing we beg for. Calamity is the school of virtue. How beautiful a spectacle in the sight of God is a Christian entering the lists with affliction, and with a noble constancy combating menaces, racks, and tortures! When, like a conqueror, he triumphs over the judge who condemns him! For he is certainly victorious who obtains what he fights for.” He says that our religion consists in practice, not in pompous words. “We do not look big, nor do we talk great things, but we live in them.” 13 When Octavius had done speaking, Cecilius cried out, “I congratulate both my Octavius and myself exceedingly: we are both conquerors. Octavius triumphs over me, and I triumph over error. But the chief victory and gain are mine, who, by being conquered, find the crown of truth.” This is the summary of this celebrated conference: but the fine train of ideas, and the beauty of the discourse are only to be understood from the original. If this excellent dialogue seems to have any fault, it is that it appears too short: for the reader, to his great disappointment, is sorry to find himself at the end so soon, and always lays down the book with regret, which is the true character of every excellent composition. The company in this conference promised themselves another meeting, which was to initiate Cecilius into Christianity, and instruct him in its discipline. From the excellency of this first part, which is chiefly a confutation of paganism, we have great reason to lament the loss of the second conference on so important a subject. 14  4
  Baronius and other historians doubt not but this was Cecilius the priest, who afterwards converted St. Cyprian: for they were both Africans, of the same age and profession; and St. Cyprian, in his writings, borrows many things from this dialogue, which he probably received from Cecilius. Out of veneration for his memory, he took the agnomen of Cecilius, and would be called from him Cecilius Cyprianus. Pontius assures us that the priest Cecilius was a just man, venerable for his age, and worthy of eternal memory and praise; adding, that St. Cyprian ever respected him as his own father, and paid him all possible honour, deference, and gratitude. St. Cecilius is named in the Roman Martyrology.  5
  It is a great proof of sincere virtue, a great, but rare victory over pride, for a learned man to own himself vanquished by truth in a disputation. Pride recoils at opposition, and however the understanding may be convinced, the will usually becomes by it more averse, and more obstinately fixed in error. On this account, he who would bring another over to the truth, ought to be careful not to alarm or awake so dangerous an enemy, but to insinuate virtue by such indirect means that the person may almost seem his own instructor. Our three disputants all vanquished, because they were all armed with docility, charity, and humility; not like those vain combatants in the schools who love opinions, not for the sake of truth, but because they are their own, as St. Austin complains. In this happy company, though all were conquerors, yet no one prized higher his victory than Cecilius, who overcame both pride and error: according to the maxim of a great man, “Then we vanquish when we are instructed.”  6
Note 1. In Octavio, c. 1. [back]
Note 2. Ep. ad Valerian. De contemptu mundi. [back]
Note 3. Arnobius, l. 1. [back]
Note 4. The purity and delicacy of the Latin Language in this piece are not equalled by any Pagan writer of that age. If some passages savour of the African dialect, this is no more a wen than that Patavinity, or space of a provincial dialect, which a nice Roman ear could discover in Livy. For Minutius, by conversing with the best company at Rome, and by pleading at the bar, had worn off the asperities of the African style, and had polished it to the standard of the Latin idiom. The beauty and justness of his thoughts bespeak his judgment; the candour with which he delivers himself, shows him good and gracious, frank and affable; his bold figures, his strong images, and the sweetness and easiness of his style, joined everywhere with a becoming gravity and strength, prove him to be perfectly skilled in the art of persuasion, and a great master of address. He seems made to charm his reader, and to carry him where he pleases. He displays great erudition, and a perfect knowledge of the Pagan theology: his reasoning is very close; he rallies delightfully, and cuts and cures with the same hand, so genteel is his satire, yet so agreeably sharp and poignant. His wit is true sterling, both solid and bright, of intrinsic value and unallayed lustre, as the ingenious Mr. Blackwall remarks, (Introduction to the Classics, p. 140,) who adds: “The author clears Christianity from the vile aspersions of the Pagans, and retorts their charge with such becoming vehemence and evidence of truth, that he demonstrates himself to be the most dangerous opponent that could be feared against a bad cause, as well as the ablest champion that could be desired for a good one.” [back]
Note 5. Hence the words adorare and [Greek]. See Job xxxi. 26, 27, 28, &c. [back]
Note 6. The Christians had churches built under the favourable reign of Alexander. Baronius observes that they wear in this dialogue the sad face of affliction under a persecution, which must have been that of Severus. And St. Jerom in his Catalogue places Minutius Felix in that order of time, about the year 211. [back]
Note 7. L. 2, de Nat. Deor. c. 6. [back]
Note 8. Hæc omnia sciunt plerique vestrum, ipsosque dæmones de seipsis confiteri, quoties a nobis, tormentis verborum, de corporibus exiguntur. [back]
Note 9. Plerique inviolati corporis virginitate fruunter potius quam gloriantnr. [back]
Note 10. Apud nos et cogitare peccare est. (p. 250.) These slanders sprung from the malice of the heathens, and from our doctrines and mysteries, either corrupted or not understood. The filthy abominations of the Gnostics and Carpocratians, who called themselves Christians, might give a hint to those who were willing to deceive themselves in slandering us. The heathens also reproached us, that we venerate all criminals who are crucified, as appears from Origen, (l. 2, contra Cels. p. 87,) and Cecilius gives the same hint as to crosses. But Octavius answers, that we do neither adore nor wish for crosses. “The external respect which Christians showed, and their frequent use of the cross, gave occasion to the heathens (who were apt to wrest everything) to give out that they worshipped a cross,” says Mr. Reeves. (Notes, ib. p. 136, t. 2.) Cecilius says we have no temples, no known images, Nulla nota simulacra; which words seem to imply some images, though not of the gods known in the empire. [back]
Note 11. Corruptâ et dimidiatâ fide tradiderunt. [back]
Note 12. Nec tormentis aut modus ullus aut terminus. Illic sapiens ignis membra urit et reficit, carpit et nutrit. Pœnale illud incendium, non damnis ardentium pascitur, sed inexesâ corporum laceratione nutritur. Eos autem merito torqueri qui Deum nesciunt, ut impios, et injustos, nisi profanus, nemo deliberat: Cum Parentem omnium, et omnium Dominum, non minoris sceleris sit ignorare quàm lædere, p. 251. [back]
Note 13. Nod eloquimur magna, sed vivimus, p. 252. [back]
Note 14. The best editions of this dialogue of Minutius Felix are those of Leyden, in 1552, in 4to.; of Cambridge, 1678; of London, 1711, 8vo. &c. Ablancourt has given a French translation of it. [back]