Synesius, Letter 067

Synesius of Cyrene (c.370-c.413) was a Neo-Platonic philosopher who became bishop of Ptolemais in the Cyrenaica. He left behind a small corpus of texts that offer much information about daily life in Late Antiquity, and about the christianization of the Roman world.

The addressee, Theophilus,was patriarch of Alexandria from 384/385 to 412. He is generally considered a Christian "hardliner" and was responsible for the destruction of the Serapeum in 392. In 409, he appointed Synesius bishop. Other letters to Theophilus are 9, 66, 90, 68, 76, 69, and 80.

In the long Letter 67, written in 411 almost immediately after Letter 66, Synesius reports several ecclesiastical matters to Theophilus. Apparently, Synesius attended a meeting of bishops to discuss several problems; the two main issues can be summarized as follows:

  1. During a military crisis, two towns have elected a bishop of their own; when they died, the towns returned to the original bishopric, Erythrum; patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria urges the townspeople, through Synesius, to elect a new bishop, but Synesius discovers that the people simply do not want a bishop of their own and are happy with Paul of Erythrum;
  2. This Paul appears to have believed in some sort of Christian magic, as becomes clear in the second part of this letter; he had also transgressed some other rules when he built a church in an old fort.

Several minor issues are discussed as well. Note the role of women in the first part.

The very long Letter 67 was written in 411 and is offered here in the translation of A. Fitzgerald.

Ancient text

Letter 67: Paul of Erythrum and Other Matters

[1] To Theophilus

I desire, and a divine necessity urges me, to consider as law all that your sacred throne ordains. On this account, I have declined a sad duty, I have forced my body to action, while still under medical treatment, and have just journeyed through the suspected region as if it were unsuspected. I have traversed a country infested by the enemy, and have arrived at Palaebisca and Hydrax. (these are two villages of Pentapolis on the very frontier of arid Libya). Once there, I called together a meeting of the inhabitants; I gave them one letter, and I read to them from the other (one of them was addressed to them, the other, concerning them, addressed to me). I then delivered a speech suited to an election, hoping to induce them to propose the resolution concerning a bishop, or, if the case demanded it, to force them to such a decision; but I could not overcome this people's devotion to the most holy Paul. Believe me, my Father, it was no wish of mine to set out upon this quick and useless journey. I have only offended a people who held me in great honor.

[2] Amongst the most prominent citizens some protested with exclamations of wrath, while others, mounting upon any available pedestal to better be heard, addressed themselves at length to the gathering. I at once accused these of bribery and conspiracy, and ordered the ushers to hustle and to expel them from the meeting. I restrained and pacified the turbulent excitement of the crowd. I went through every path of argument; I invoked the sanctity of the Primate's throne, seeking to convince them that slight or honor to you means slight or honor to God. After this their lips pronounced the name of your sacred person with respect. They knelt down, they called upon you with cries and with groans, even as though you had been present. The emotion of these men, even though it was greater than I expected, was slight, but the women, who are proverbially difficult to control, lifted their arms, they raised their infants towards Heaven, they closed their eyes that they might not see the bishop's seat bereft of its accustomed occupant.note

[3] Indeed, in spite of our policy being the very opposite, they almost compelled us to the same state of feeling. I feared that I should not have the power to resist the contagion, for I felt my inner emotions mastering me; so I dissolved the meeting, and announced that it should assemble again on the fourth day, not, however, without first pronouncing vengeful execrations upon any who by their venal conduct and from motives of purely personal interest, by their complacent attitude or from any other private motive, should use language in opposition to the will of the Church.

[4] The appointed day arrived, and the people were again there, hostile and contentious. They did not even wait for a discussion, but straightway all was in an uproar, a confused sound impossible to distinguish. At this moment he heralds of the church proclaimed silence. Their clamor then ended in a dirge, and there was a sullen sound of men groaning, of women wailing, and of children sobbing. One said he mourned a father, another a son, another a brother, each one according to his age divided the titles of relationship.

[5] I was just about to speak, when a petition was passed up to me from the midst of the crowd. This someone begged me to read before the assembly. It was an adjuration to me not to attempt to restrain their violence any longer, but to postpone my decision until they were enabled to send to your most blessed presence a decree touching the matter, and an ambassador. They even begged me to send to you a written statement in their behalf, explaining all that I had learned here.

[6] Now it was proclaimed in the Synod by the priests and publicly by the people, and the missive went through these very points in order, that these churches belonged to that of Erythrum, according to the Apostolic and patriarchal tradition, but split away under Orion of blessed memory, then in advanced old age and blamed for weakness of character.

[7] This has always been a reproach in the eyes of those who consider that the priesthood should be a champion of men's affairs,note

[8] But the election was positively unlawful, as I have learned from the older man, inasmuch as he was not duly consecrated either in Alexandria or by three here, even though the power to ordain had been granted there. Philo of blessed memory, they say, took upon himself to announce the election of his fellow-priest entirely upon his own responsibility. This Philo of Cyrene was the elder, the uncle, and the namesake of the younger. In other respects he was such as Christ's teachings had made him, but the moment there was a question of authority on the one hand and obedience on the other, he was more audacious than law-abiding. (I ask forgiveness from the sacred soul of the old man for such a remark.) He arrived on the spot, and took the ordaining of the blessed Siderius into his own hands, and placed him upon the bishop's throne.

[9] After all, one must relax the severe letter of the law in times when freedom of speech is impossible. Even the great Athanasius himself has been known to yield to the force of circumstances; and some little time after all this, when it was necessary to warm and kindle up the tiny spark of the orthodox faith that still remained in Ptolemais, and since Siderius seemed to him fit for so important a mission, he transferred him to this place, that he might govern the metropolitan Church. But old age brought back Siderius to the village churches. There he died, and had no successor in these towns anymore than he had had a predecessor. Palaebisca and Hydrax were put under the old arrangement and came back to their dependency upon Erythrum, and this, they say, was in accordance with the decision of your sacred person.

[10] Now the citizens are very strong upon one point, to wit: that this consecration of yours should not be annulled. I asked them for the original document signed by you. They were not able to present it to me, but they produced as witnesses bishops from the council. These said that they proposed Paul to the people in obedience to a letter received from you. As it seemed well to all to make him bishop, they reported the decision, and others succeeded in placing him on the throne.

[11] Now, if you will allow me to say so, most revered Father, that was really the moment to look into the matter, for it is more painful to take away a thing than not to grant it; but let that now prevail which seems best to your paternal authority. For if what then seemed right to you was so to them, and they allege this, the fact that it no longer seems so to you deprives it of any justice in the future. It is only in this way that your will becomes identical with justice in the eyes of the people; for obedience is life, and disobedience is death. Therefore they do not raise their hands against you; on the contrary, they supplicate you not to make them orphans while their Father yet lives, for so they declare in their speech.

[12] I hardly know whether I should praise or congratulate the young mannote on the goodwill all are showing him. For it is a triumph either of art and power, or of divine grace, so to win men and so to dominate the multitude that for them life is not worth living without him.

[13] Your kind nature will therefore give the kindlier decision in their case. I must go back to town, there to await your orders to act. But you shall not be in ignorance of my arrangements during the four days that I passed in this place, and what solution each difficulty found. Do not be surprised if I happen to speak well and ill of the same man, for these comments do not all apply to the same actions, and it is acts that are praised or blamed. It were well that discord should never arise between those who are brothers in Christ, but if this does occur, it is well that it should promptly disappear. Moved by all these considerations, as well as in obedience to the instructions you sent, I have undertaken to arbitrate, and I have been listening to a dispute of somewhat the following nature:

[14] In the village of Hydrax there is a spot, itself the loftiest part of the village, which formerly was a highly fortified citadel, but God having visited the spot with an earthquake, it has become an abandoned heap of ruins. Up to this day, they have been making other uses of some few of its parts, but these present times of war make it extremely valuable to those who possess it, because it could be fortified anew and return to its old use.

[15] Now between our brothers, the most pious bishops Paul [of Erythrum] and Dioscurus [of Darnis], as formerly between others, it was a matter of contention. The Darnite has accused the Erythrite of employing fraudulent means of his own to get possession of that which did not belong to him. He had, forsooth, consecrated to God the property of another, under the pretext of piety. He then defended his villainy with the strong hand; he was the first man to occupy it! The reverend Paul endeavored to advance some counter-arguments, how that he had annexed the fort beforehand, and it had been used as a church long before the reverend Dioscurus had been appointed owner of the site.

[16] But if anyone were to handle the inquiry firmly, the truth would soon be evident, for this whole allegation seems stale. The fact that a crowd of men have once prayed there by necessity, driven in by a hostile attack of the enemy, does not consecrate a spot, for at that rate all the mountains and all the valleys would be churches, and no fortress would escape being a place of public worship, for in all such places, when the enemy are out for plunder, prayers and celebrations of the Holy Mysteries take place. How many houses in  the godless days of the Arians have received prayers and sacred ceremonies! These houses are none the less private property. For that, too, was a case of flight, and they, too, were enemies.

[17] Next I inquired into the date of the consecration, and if it had taken place by the gift or agreement of the proprietors. The opposite appeared clearly to be the case. One of the bishops asked for the fort. The other, who was in possession at the time, refused it. Finally one went out with the keys in his pocket, then the other burst in, and bringing with him a table, therewith consecrated a small room, on a broad hill. But nowhere is there access to this small room, except by crossing the whole plateau.

[18] Clearly it had been calculated that by this maneuver the hill could be definitely acquired. For my own part, this whole performance seemed to me unworthy, more than unworthy, and I was very angry at this flagrant violation of all sacred laws and civil forms of justice alike. All things become confounded, if on the one hand a new form of confiscation is invented, and if on the other by the holiest things the most abominable should be judged – prayer, the table of the Holy Communion, and the Mystic Veil becoming instruments of a violent attack. No doubt it was on these points that judgment had already been given in the city, for as a matter of fact at Ptolemais a meeting of almost all the bishops of the province had then assembled to consider a question of public interest. As they listened they felt hatred of the proceeding, but they hesitated before an act of eviction.

[19] I wish to separate superstition from piety, for it is an evil which has taken on the mask of virtue, an evil which philosophy has discovered to be the third degree of godlessness. In my eyes there is nothing sacred or holy except which has come into being in justice and holiness. Nor did it occur to me to shudder at the alleged consecration. For it is not the doctrine of Christians that the Divine presence follows of necessity these mystical matters and sounds, as though these were certain physical attractions. An earthly spirit might be so moved, indeed, but rather is the Divine present with unperturbed dispositions, and those that are proper to God. How could the Holy Ghost descend into a heart where anger, unreasoning passion, and a contentious spirit are the ruling forces? Nay, if such passions as these enter, even if it has formerly dwelt therein, it takes its departure. I was just about to declare the transference, but he was then proved to have promised this earlier himself, and had clenched his promise with an oath.

[20] Accordingly, taking this up with satisfaction, I was already for withdrawing from pronouncing sentence, but declaring the man himself his own judge, and compelling him to keep his oath, but he tried to retract and delayed. As I happened to be on the spot because of the ecclesiastical inspection, I felt called upon to cast an eye on the site, and to consider anew the subject under discussion; and again there was present a gathering of bishops from the neighborhood collected for one reason or another. In the presence of all these, and in my own, the boundary stones were shown marking out clearly the territory of Darnis; and the testimony of the old men, and the admissions of those who had up to the moment taken the contrary side, made it evident that the most pious Dioscurus was the owner of the site.

[21] On the insistence of Dioscurus' brother, necessity arose that I read publicly the abusive paper that the blessed Paul had written in the shape of a letter addressed to your holiness, an obscene and unpleasant satire directed against his brother, of which the burden of shame fell upon him who had spoken evil, not on him of whom evil had been spoken.

[22] But to feel shame is only the second of the virtues. Sinlessness is of the Divine destiny and nature entirely, but one might ascribe to modesty the blush for what has been ill done. By admitting these principles in the present case, the reverend Paul gave evidence of a change of opinion more convincing than any rhetoric, for his confession of error, and the bitter grief manifested as for evils he had voluntarily done, made us all favorably disposed towards him.

[23] This was not surprising in our case, but it was remarkable that the reverend bishop Dioscurus yielded to his adversary of his own free will, when he saw that he who had been until now so contentious had come to a more humble frame of mind. Although victorious by the votes of the judges, he was himself conquered by his own sentiment, and it became in the power of the reverend Paul to keep or give up the hill, as he should desire. The splendid Dioscurus was the first to suggest to him various concessions, to not one of which would Paul have listened for a moment before his repentance. Dioscurus suggested him to give up the hill alone, or to give up the whole property in exchange, and many other plans besides he devised, lavishing upon him ways in which a man might anticipate another's pleasure.

[24] But the other hesitated, he wished for one thing only, namely – to have the property by purchase on the same conditions as those by which his colleague Dioscurus had become the proprietor. Paul therefore became the proprietor of the vineyards and the olive groves in addition to the hill. Dioscurus, in place of his possessions, has the possession of magnanimity, a greater one in return for a less, and the honor of remaining within the gospel laws, which have declared the spirit of love to be the most important of its behests. This one thing only was worth commemorating, to wit, the agreement and harmony between the two brothers, passing over the fact that one who is a bishop had been convicted of stumbling, for it is best to allow acts that ought never to have been committed to pass into oblivion.

[25] But that Dioscurus should not be unlucky in everything, I have granted his request that I should go through the whole matter very carefully, so that your holiness should be ignorant of nothing. He considers it of the very greatest importance that you should be made acquainted with the facts of the case, and that you should thus realize that he was struggling in no unjust cause.

[26] Now I commend the man for other qualities, for he is one after my heart, but I exceedingly admire the feelings of respect by which he is moved for the dignity of your holy office. This I swear by your dear and sacred head: his fellow-poor at Alexandria owe Dioscurus much gratitude, for he helps them to cultivate their lands, and he is ubiquitous, and indefatigable in getting a profit from these even in bad years, and he knows how to turn all available chances to their advantage.

[27] Thus the quarrel between the two bishops has come to an end. You also gave me instructions to listen to the complaint of the presbyter Jason, the man who accused one of his colleagues of treating him with much unfairness. The case is somewhat as follows: Jason convicted Lamponian of wrong-doing, but the latter, though he anticipated the sentence by a confession, has his punishment in being debarred from attendance at ecclesiastical synods. Nevertheless he shed tears in repentance, and the people made supplications for his pardon. Notwithstanding all this, I confirmed the decision already rendered and left the right of acquittal to the pontifical seat.

[28] I only took upon myself to allow that in case fatal necessity should press upon Lamponian, in case the day of death seemed at hand, any presbyter who might be present should admit him to Holy Communion; for may no man die in chains through me! If on the other hand he should recover, let him undergo punishment again, and from your divine and charitable spirit alone let him await the token of pardon. After all, Jason himself is not above reproach. He has a quick tongue, and he came up against a man whose hand is quicker, and the result is that, as the proverb says, for a word, the lightest of all things, a sentence the heaviest was his penalty.note

[29] Now as to the sum of money which I discussed, Lamponian admits that he has it, nor does he desire to be relieved on account of the shipwreck which caused the contract to disappear. He only seeks a favorable moment to sell his crops, and he said indeed that, dismissing all other matters, he was giving his mind to this one thing, how he might make restoration to his poorer creditors. The sum in question amounts to one hundred and fifty seven pieces.

[30] Now I must report on an abuse that is spreading amongst us, that it may perforce stop its course. Priests are prosecuting priests for lawless acts, I do not yet say by perjury, but at all events by malice prepense, for their object is not to punish those who are guilty, but to gain some illicit profit from the military chiefs. The burdens of all must needs fall upon my shoulders. Write, therefore, I beg of you, and ordain that it be permitted to no one to do anything of the sort. By so doing, you will confer a favor upon me, and at the same time you will protect the more peaceable and the unfortunate. In a word, you will be doing a much better turn to the evildoers themselves, if it is a greater good to be delivered from a greater evil, and a greater evil to do injustice than to suffer injustice,note for the one thing is one's own, the other another's fault.

[31] I have not revealed who these men are, and do not you for your part, if you know, convict any of them by name, that I may not be hated by my brethren. God will forgive me for reproving them greatly face to face in private, but do you appear to condemn the offense only in your letter to me. Without wounding anyone, I shall with God's help find means of bringing to an end this unseemly behavior of ours, not to say that of the whole Church.

[32] Still one more point to settle, and I have finished this letter. A certain number of discharged men are wandering about our neighborhood. You must forgive me for using something of a foreign word, in order that by the more common vernacular of the country, I may put the wickedness of some more clearly. These men do not wish to have an appointed see, and have left each their own, not so much by necessity as by caprice. They enjoy honors, traveling wherever they find most profit.

[33] This, revered Father, is in my opinion the best line of conduct to pursue in regard to them. We ought to forbid every church to those who have renounced their own, and until they go and establish themselves in their own, no one should receive them at the altar, nor invite them to occupy the chief seats; we should overlook them amongst the crowd on the peoples' benches when they burst into the church. They would return quickly to their own posts, if they feared for their dignity, which they now think to enjoy everywhere, rather than in the one place befitting; but they would prefer to enjoy their dignity there, rather than nowhere.

[34] Thus, then, they should be treated in public, merely as private citizens, if so it seems well to your sacred throne also, but how to treat them privately in our own homes, we shall know only when an answer comes from your Holiness to that question which, you may remember, I put to you some time ago about Alexander, by race a Cyrenean, but ordained bishop in some city in Bithynia. He was expelled from his own see in troublous times, and now that he is able to return there, he refuses to take up his post again but insists upon remaining in our midst. Concerning this matter I wrote to your Holiness, going into all the details of his case, and I asked you how I ought to comport myself with him. As you did not reply, I do not know whether my letter reached you or whether it was lost. I talked over the whole matter with Dioscurus, that worthy bishop, and he ordered the scribes to hand over the copy of what I wrote beforehand, so that if you do not happen to have received my letter, when you have this document in hand, you can decide upon the merits of the case and send me your answer.

[35] Above all, pray for me, for you will be praying for a man abandoned by all, deserted, and in need of such support. I shrink from asking of God anything for myself. All things are turning out quite contrary to my desires, on account of my rash presumption; a sinful man, brought up outside the pale of the Church, and having received an alien training, I grasped at the altars of God.