SEEDS OF LIFE: Early Christian Martyrs
(Gracewing, 1998, softcover, 113pp, $22.00. Available from Freedom Publishing)
The Wellspring of Faith series is sponsored by Aide Inter-Monasteres, an international movement whose aim it is to assist young African and Asian monastic communities. It features a compilation of early Christian writings which even today encourage Christians to grow in faith.
The present book is a collection of the writings, letters and documented court hearings of martyrs such as Speratus, Cittinus, Donata, Perpetua, Bishop Cyprian of Africa and James and Blandina of Lyons.
The first known African Christian martyrs were executed during 180 AD under the Roman emperor Commodus. Early Christian Martyrs details an official account of their interrogation, trial and sentence. The proconsul (the governor of the province of Roman Africa), during his questioning of the saints, continued to repeat what would be necessary for them to be pardoned: "We too have a religion and it is simple. We take oaths in the name of our lord the emperor, and we pray for his safety. You should do the same ... If you are going to preach against our religion, I will not give you a hearing. Swear, instead, in the name of our lord the emperor."
The individual Christians, although given many opportunities to deny Christ, rejected any notion of clemency or pardon by repeating, "I am a Christian."
The sufferings which the martyrs joyfully endured were not only horrific, but, as these tortures were endured in public games arenas, humiliating. However, the Christians were so protected and guided by the Holy Spirit that they did not yield in pain or embarrassment.
Bishop Cyprian, who was later martyred, sent letters of encouragement to the Christians of Thibar and those whose punishment was to work in the mines. In his 252 AD letter, he wrote: "What true glory and what great joy to come into the sight of God! Yes, we shall have the honour of receiving the joys of salvation, an everlasting light, in the company of Christ the Lord, our God É We shall receive, with those who have remained faithful ... The immense joy of living with God forever the Kingdom of Heaven".
Early Christian Martyrs is not only a brief history of the early Church heroes and heroines, but is ideal as an introduction to the Church's myriad of rituals and treasury of writings which, even after almost two millennia, have not lost their relevance. Indeed, they provide inspiration for today's Christians who face a new wave of persecution in the form of relativism.
Julia Bakowski is a Melbourne Catholic writer.