October 3, 2017

Holy Hieromartyr Dionysios, Bishop of Alexandria (+ 265)

St. Dionysios of Alexandria (Feast Day - October 3)


Dionysios and his fellow eight contestants,
From the darkness below were transpositioned to a place inhabited by light.

Much of the information about his life comes from the extensive correspondence he maintained during his life that survived in the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius. Dionysios was born about the year 190 in Alexandria to a pagan family of wealth, and he was well read. After a divine vision instructing him to do so, he studied in depth the traditions of the heretics after becoming a Christian at a mature age in order to be able to refute them. Dionysios joined the Catechetical School of Alexandria where he became a student of Origen and Heraklas. In 232, as Heraklas became the Bishop of Alexandria, Dionysios, now a priest, succeeded him as leader of the school.

In 248, Dionysios succeeded Heraklas as Bishop of Alexandria, apparently also keeping his position as head the Catechetical School. In 249, a riot against Christians arose in Alexandria, nurtured by a popular pagan prophet and poet, during which Christians were at risk from mobs. Soon, the riots became legal persecutions instituted by the new Emperor Decius. The Christians were subjected to all kinds of cruelty, tortures of all sorts, all aimed to drive the victim Christians to sacrifice to the gods. Many martyrs were made. Many also fled to the deserts. Dionysios spent three days in hiding before departing on the fourth night of the Decian decree with his servants and other loyal brethren, but he was identified and made prisoner. Dionysios himself had been pursued by the prefect Sabinus, who had sent out an assassin to murder him on sight. News of Dionysios' capture soon became known to a party of Christians who descended on the soldiers holding him, and they took flight. Managing to escape with two of his followers, he set up a residence in the Libyan desert until the end of the persecution the following year.

In the epistle of Dionysios to Germanos, he gives an account of what befell him. Speaking of himself, he writes as follows:

I speak before God, and he knows that I do not lie. I did not flee on my own impulse nor without divine direction. But even before this, at the very hour when the Decian persecution was commanded, Sabinus sent a frumentarius to search for me, and I remained at home four days awaiting his arrival. But he went about examining all places — roads, rivers, and fields — where he thought I might be concealed or on the way. But he was smitten with blindness, and did not find the house, for he did not suppose, that being pursued, I would remain at home. And after the fourth day God commanded me to depart, and made a way for me in a wonderful manner; and I and my attendants and many of the brethren went away together. And that this occurred through the providence of God was made manifest by what followed, in which perhaps we were useful to some.

Farther on he relates in this manner what happened to him after his flight:

For about sunset, having been seized with those that were with me, I was taken by the soldiers to Taposiris, but in the providence of God, Timothy was not present and was not captured. But coming later, he found the house deserted and guarded by soldiers, and ourselves reduced to slavery.

After a little he says:

And what was the manner of his admirable management? For the truth shall be told. One of the country people met Timothy fleeing and disturbed, and inquired the cause of his haste. And he told him the truth. And when the man heard it (he was on his way to a marriage feast, for it was customary to spend the entire night in such gatherings), he entered and announced it to those at the table. And they, as if on a preconcerted signal, arose with one impulse, and rushed out quickly and came and burst in upon us with a shout. Immediately the soldiers who were guarding us fled, and they came to us lying as we were upon the bare couches. But I, God knows, thought at first that they were robbers who had come for spoil and plunder. So I remained upon the bed on which I was, clothed only in a linen garment, and offered them the rest of my clothing which was lying beside me. But they directed me to rise and come away quickly. Then I understood why they had come, and I cried out, beseeching and entreating them to depart and leave us alone. And I requested them, if they desired to benefit me in any way, to anticipate those who were carrying me off, and cut off my head themselves. And when I had cried out in this manner, as my companions and partners in everything know, they raised me by force. But I threw myself on my back on the ground; and they seized me by the hands and feet and dragged me away. And the witnesses of all these occurrences followed: Gaius, Faustus, Peter, and Paul. But they who had seized me carried me out of the village hastily, and placing me on an ass without a saddle, bore me away.

As the persecutions ended in 251 Dionysios was confronted by a request for support by Novation the Presbyter in his attempt to obtain the see of Rome over the newly elected Cornelius. Dionysios did not give him any support, and, indeed, asked for Novations retirement. In regard the controversies of the time concerning the readmission of Christians to communion who had lapsed during the persecutions, Dionysios took the side that they should not be permanently excluded but should be remitted after due penitence and without rebaptism.

Another controversy in which Dionysios took part was that concerning the issue raised by the Millenarians who believed that Jesus Christ would return and establish a kingdom on earth for a thousand years. The belief in Chiliasm, as the belief was called, was denounced strongly by Dionysios. During the heretical debates Dionysios used language that made Jesus not as divine as the Father, a position about which he quickly corrected himself. About the year 250 he further affirmed his position of the essence of Christ with the use of the title "Theotokos" for the Virgin Mary in a correspondence to Paul of Samosata, a title first used by Origen in 230.

In 252 an outbreak of plague ravaged Alexandria, and Dionysios, along with other priests and deacons, took it upon themselves to assist the sick and dying. The Saint called upon his flock to tend sick Christians and pagans alike, and to bury the dead. Concerning the death of his spiritual children he wrote, “In such a manner the best of our brethren have departed this life. This generation of the dead, a deed of great piety and firm faith, is no less of a martyrdom.”

The persecutions subsided somewhat under Trebonianus Gallus, but were renewed under Valerian (257-258) who replaced Gallus. Aimilianos became Governor of Alexandria and summoned Dionysios before his tribunal, with his disciples. For refusing to honor and sacrifice to the idols and confessing that there was only one true God, Dionysios and his disciples was imprisoned and then exiled to to the desert village of Cephro in Libya. There he was exiled with Gaius, Faustus, Peter, Paul, Eusebius, Chaeremon and two others. Though they were not allowed to preach the gospel and at first were stoned by the pagan locals, many became attracted to his wisdom and virtuous manner and thus came to hear his teachings and were converted to the faith of Christ. In this way the exile of the Saint became a mission of the gospel. When Aimilianos heard of this, he was exiled deeper into the desert though along a highway inhabited by robbers and murderers. In all he lived there for twelve years and underwent much tribulation and suffering in an unhealthy environment. When Gallienus, son of Valerian, took over the empire he released all the believers who were in prison and brought back those in exile. Gallienus wrote to Dionysios and the bishops a letter to assure their safety in opening the churches.

Dionysios died of an illness in the twelfth year of the reign of Gallienus, in 264 or 265, having held the episcopate of Alexandria for seventeen years, and Maximus succeeded him.

The influence of Saint Dionysios extended beyond the limits of Egypt, and his writings dealt with practical as well as theological subjects (“On Nature,” “On Temptations,” “On the Promises,” etc.). He was also familiar with Greek philosophy. Only fragments of his writings survive today, most of them preserved in Eusebius, who mentions him in his Ecclesiastical History ( Book 6 & 7) and calls him “Dionysios the Great.”