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Synesius of Cyrene


Mosaic depicting an angel. Museum of Ptolemais. Photo Marco Prins.
Mosaic depicting an angel. Museum of Ptolemais
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.

Letter 66, written in 411 and offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald, appears to have been written when Synesius had only just become a bishop and did not yet known the details of ecclesiatical law. This letter appears not to have reached the addressee, the patriarch of Alexandria; in Letter 67, Synesius repeats his question.

Letter 66: Asking for Clarification

To Theophilus

As I am about to make a certain inquiry of you, I wish first to give you some explanation in regard to it. A man from Cyrene, Alexander by name, of senatorial rank, while still quite young entered the monastic life. As his plan of life developed with his years, he was deemed worthy of ecclesiastical orders. He first became a deacon and then a priest. Then certain matters called him to court, and he became associated with Johannes [1] of blessed memory (I use the phrase advisedly, for we cannot speak without respect of that man, now that he is no more; all enmity ought to end with this life). Associated with this prelate before the churches were thrown into confusion, he was ordained at his hands Bishop of Basinupolis in Bithynia, and when differences arose he remained the friend of his ordainer, and was of those who took his part. But when the Synod's judgment prevailed against him, for a time the quarrel continued.

But why should I tell you all that you know better than anyone? Was it not owing to you, after all, that measures were taken to bring about union? I read a memoir full of good sense, which you addressed, if I am not mistaken, to the blessed Atticus, and in which you advised him to receive certain men again.

Up to this moment there was common cause between Alexander and his fellow-apostates. But his was a peculiar line of conduct, at least one shared by few, inasmuch as the third year he has now come round since the amnesty and the reconciliation, but he has not taken the straight road to Bithynia nor has he taken over the see assigned to him. He remains in our midst, as if he cared not at all whether any one treats him as a layman or not.

Now, for my part, I have not been in the past brought up in knowledge of the holy laws, nor has it befallen me to learn much even now, for as recently as last year I was not on the list of bishops. So, when I perceive aged men not pretending to understand the situation clearly, but terrified lest they should unwittingly offend against some canon of the Church; when I see them treating him quite harshly on this account, and because of their vague distrust slighting the stranger everywhere in public, nor suffering him in their houses; I do not censure these men, but I do not imitate them. Do you know how I conducted myself, most venerable father? I did not receive Alexander at the church, nor did I permit him to communicate at the sacred table, but in my own house I paid him the same civilities as I extend to the blameless, and my manner to him is such as it to my fellow countrymen.

When anyone of these comes to pay me a visit, in every act and word conveying honor, we defer to him, esteeming as nonsense any disgust that people may feel, at our subversion of the metropolitan rights of the city. And yet on account of this I bear the cares of all, taking them on my shoulders, and, for the sake of the leisure of all, I alone have no leisure; but it will be put down to my honor in the sight of God, that though poor in honors I am rich in labors. Whenever I set out for church, I do not like to see this Alexander anywhere in the forum, and if by chance I see him, I turn my eyes elsewhere, and a blush at once spreads over my cheek. But the moment he has crossed the threshold of my house, that he is under my roof, I receive him with all the usual courtesies.

Why, then, am I at variance with myself in public and private, and in neither of the situations do what seems fitting? At one moment I obey the law, at another I am yielding to my own nature, which inclines me to benevolence; and yet I should have been willing even to do violence to my nature, if I had been clearly informed about the law. This very thing, then, is the question to which the authority of the evangelical succession ought to give an answer simply and clearly, and as I understand it - Is Alexander to be considered a bishop or not?

Note 1:
Unidentified, but perhaps John Chrysostom, an enemy of Theophilus of Alexandria.
Online 2007
Revision: 31 July 2007
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