[St. Pachomius Library]

Synesius of Cyrene, Bishop of Ptolemais

IV/V Centuries
Libyan intellectual and natural scientist (a student and later colleague of Hypatia). Although a happily-married layman and far more interested in Neoplatonic philosophy than in Christian theology, he was pressured against his will into becoming Metropolitan of Pentapolis by his friend St. Theophilus of Alexandria and others in the Church, who apparently believed that his political and diplomatic skills would compensate for his spiritual weaknesses. They may have been right -- in his brief episcopate, he successfully guided his diocese through physical invasion by barbarians and spiritual invasion by Eunomian heretics, all the while grappling with his own inability to entirely believe the Orthodox tenets he was ably defending.

He has frequently been portrayed by modern writers (starting with Gibbon) as a pagan who was forced by circumstances to play at being a clergyman, but neither his writings nor church tradition bear this out; rather, he was struggling with what seemed to him to be the irreconcilable conflict between Chritstian doctrine and his sophisticated Greek education. The outcome of this struggle was far from certain, but according to the Spiritual Meadow of St. John Moschus, as well as other ancient sources, he finally attained the gift of faith.

Obviously, Synesius should not be considered a Church Father in the strict sense of the term; his writings are a mixture of Orthodoxy and Neoplatonism. In spite of their well-known theological shortcomings, they were always extremely popular in Byzantium, being valued for their literary and scientific content, their occasional genuine spiritual insight, and their amazingly honest presentation of an educated (and completely sincere) Hellene's wrestling-match with God. Read them in this light rather than for doctrinal content.

Norman Hugh Redington


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