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To the Brethren in Alexandria
(Eus., H. E. vii. 22)
(Part of another Easter Letter)

(1) Other men would not think the present a time for “keeping festival: nor, indeed, is this nor any other such a time to them; I speak not of times obviously sorrowful, but even of such as they might consider most joyful. In these days there are lamentations everywhere, and all are mourning: wailings resound through the city by reason of the number of the dead and the dying day by day. For, as it is written about the firstborn of the Egyptians, so now also “a great cry arose: for there is not a house in which there is not one dead.”147147Exod. xii. 30. I would, indeed, there were but one; for the things that have before now befallen us were truly many and grievous.148148I have translated the Berlin editor’s reading here, as being the least unsatisfactory of those proposed. Others give a text which may be rendered: “I would this were all: for the things that befell us before drove us into many grievous troubles.” But the exact meaning is doubtful, however we take it. First of all they drove us into exile and we kept the feast 71 then too by ourselves, persecuted and harried to death by all, and every place where each particular affliction befel us became the scene of our festal assembly, open country, desert, ship, inn or prison, and our perfect149149This epithet for martyrs has already occurred on p. 64. martyrs spent the brightest of all feasts, being entertained in heaven above. But after this war and famine seized us, which we endured in common with the Gentiles, having undergone alone all the injuries they had inflicted on us and then having to share in the evils they wrought on one another and suffered: and once more we rejoiced in the peace of Christ, which He has given to us alone. But now after we and they had obtained a very brief respite, this pestilence has overtaken us, which is to them a more fearful thing than all former fears and more terrible than any calamity whatever, and to quote an expression of an historian of their own,150150This is none other than a quotation from Pericles’s speech about the plague at Athens in Thucyd. ii. 64, though in Dionysius’s original phrase it sounds as if he meant some local minor historian. “a thing which alone has exceeded all men’s expectation,” while to us it was not so much that as a discipline and a testing no less severe than any of the rest: for it did not spare us, though it attacked the Gentiles in great force.

To this he adds as follows—

(2) At all events most of the brethren through their love and brotherly affection for us spared not themselves nor abandoned one another, but without regard to their own peril visited those who fell sick, diligently looking after and ministering to them and cheerfully shared their fate with them, being infected with the disease from them and willingly involving 72 themselves in their troubles. Not a few also, after nursing others back to recovery, died themselves, taking death over from them and thus fulfilling in very deed the common saying, which is taken always as a note of mere good feeling; for in their departure they became their expiatory substitutes.151151The word Dionysius uses here is the same as S. Paul, uses (1 Cor. iv. 13: περίψημα, offscouring). It is said to have been used at Athens of the human scapegoats thrown into the river in time of famine: “Be thou my expiation (περίψημα).” Elsewhere it seems to have degenerated into a sort of extravagant compliment: “I am your humble servant (περίψημα).” Dionysius suggests it might regain its more serious meaning in the present case. At all events, the very pick of our brethren lost their lives in this way, both priests and deacons and some highly praised ones from among the laity, so that this manner of dying does not seem far removed from martyrdom, being the outcome of much piety and stalwart faith. So, too, taking up the bodies of the saints on their arms and breasts, closing their eyes and shutting their mouths, bearing them on their shoulders and laying them out for burial, clinging to them, embracing them, washing them, decking them out, they not long after had the same services rendered to them; for many of the survivors followed in their train. But the Gentiles behaved quite differently: those who were beginning to fall sick they thrust away, and their dearest they fled from, or cast them half dead into the roads: unburied bodies they treated as vile refuse;152152Here again Dionysius uses an expression suggested by S. Paul in Phil. iii. 8. for they tried to avoid the spreading and communication of the fatal disease, difficult as it was to escape for all their scheming.

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