Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Fathers of the Church

Personal Letter XLIX: letter to Dracontius


Athanasius refers to the surprising unanimity of the abbot's election and to the danger that unfit persons will grasp at the office if Dracontius did not accept. In order to show that Dracontius is not the only one who has been elected from among the monks, he mentions a number of monastic superiors who became bishops. It seems that the letter was successful because Dracontius participated in the synod of Alexandria in 362 as bishop of Hermupolis Parva. (Quasten)


The Epistula ad Dracontium was written in 354 or 355 to urge an abbot not to refuse the episcopate. (Quasten)

by Athanasius in 354 or 355 A.D. | translated by Payne-Smith

I AM at a loss how to write. Am I to blame you for your refusal? or for having regard to the trials, and hiding for fear of the Jews? In any case, however it may be, what you have done is worthy of blame, beloved Dracontius. For it was not fitting that after receiving the grace you should hide, nor that, being a wise man, you should furnish others with a pretext for flight. For many are offended when they hear it; not merely that you have done this but that you have done it having regard to the times and to the afflictions which are weighing upon the Church. And I fear lest, in flying for your own sake, you prove to be in peril in the sight of the Lord on account of others. For if 'he that offendeth one of the little ones, should rather choose that a mill stone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depths of the sea[2a],' what can be in store for you, if you prove an offence to so many? For the surprising unanimity about your election in the district of Alexandria will of necessity be broken up by your retirement and the episcopate of the district will be grasped at by many,—and many unfit persons, as you are well aware. And many heathen who were promising to become Christians upon your election will remain heathen, if your piety sets at nought the grace given you.

2. What defence will you offer for such conduct? With what arguments will you be able to wash away and efface such an impeachment? How will you heal those who on your account are fallen and offended? Or how will you be able to restore the broken peace? Beloved Dracontius, you have caused us grief instead of joy, groaning instead of consolation. For we expected to have you with us as a consolation; and now we behold you in flight, and that you will be convicted in judgment, and when upon your trial will repent it. And 'Who shall have pity upon thee,' as the Prophet says, who will turn his mind to you for peace, when he sees the brethren for whom Christ died injured on account of your flight? For you must know, and not be in doubt, that while before your election you lived to yourself, after it, you live for your flock. And before you had received the grace of the episcopate, no one knew you; but after you became one, the laity expect you to bring them food, namely instruction from the Scriptures. When then they expect, and suffer hunger, and you are feeding yourself only, and our Lord Jesus Christ comes and we stand before Him, what defence will you offer when He sees His own sheep hungering? For had you not taken the money, He would not have blamed you. But He would reasonably do so if upon taking it you dug and buried it,— in the words which God forbid that your piety should ever hear: 'Thou oughtest to have given my money to the bankers, that when I came I might demand it of them.'

3. I beseech you, spare yourself and us. Yourself, lest you run into peril; us, lest we be grieved because of you. Take thought of the Church, lest many of the little ones be injured on your account, and the others be given an occasion of withdrawing. Nay but it you feared the times and acted as you did from timidity, your mind is not manly; for in such a case you ought to manifest zeal for Christ, and rather meet circumstances boldly, and use the language of blessed Paul: 'in all these things we are more than conquerors;' and the more so in that we ought to serve not the time, but the Lord But if the organising of the Churches is distasteful to you, and you do not think the ministry of the episcopate has its reward, why, then you have brought yourself to despise the Saviour that ordered these things. I beseech you, dismiss such ideas, nor tolerate those who advise you in such a sense, for this is not worthy of Dracontius. For the order the Lord has established by the Apostles abides fair and firm; but the cowardice of the brethren shall cease[8a].

4. For if all were of the same mind as your present advisers, how would you have become a Christian, since there would be no bishops? Or if our successors are to inherit this state of mind, how will the Churches be able to hold together? Or do your advisers think that you have received nothing, that they despise it? If so surely they are wrong. For it is time for them to think that the grace of the Font is nothing, if some are found to despise it. But you have received it, beloved Dracontius; do not tolerate your advisers nor deceive yourself. For this will be required of you by the God who gave it. Have you not heard the Apostle say, 'Neglect not the gift that is in thee? or have you not read how he accepts the man that had doubled his money, while he condemned the one that had hidden it? But may it come to pass that you may quickly return, in order that you too may be one of those who are praised. Or tell me, whom do your advisers wish you to imitate? For we ought to walk by the standard of the saints and the fathers, and imitate them, and to be sure that if we depart from them we put ourselves also out of their fellowship. Whom then do they wish you to imitate? The one who hesitated, and while wishing to follow, delayed it and took counsel because of his family, or blessed Paul, who, the moment the stewardship was entrusted to him, 'straightway conferred not with flesh and blood?' For although he said, 'I am not worthy to be called an Apostle,' yet, knowing what be had received, and being not ignorant of the giver, he wrote, 'For woe is me if I preach not the gospel.' But, as it was 'woe to me' if he did not preach, so, in teaching and preaching the gospel, he had his converts as his joy and crown. This explains why the saint was zealous to preach as far as Illyricum, and not to shrink from proceeding to Rome, or even going as far as the Spains, in order that the more he laboured, he might receive so much the greater reward for his labour. He boasted then that he had fought the good fight, and was confident that he should receive the great crown. Therefore, beloved Dracontius, whom are you imitating in your present action? Paul, or men unlike him? For my part, I pray that you, and myself, may prove an imitator of all the saints.

5. Or possibly there are some who advise you to hide, because you have given your word upon oath not to accept the office it elected. For I hear that they are buzzing in your ears to this effect, and consider that they are thus acting conscientiously. But if they were truly conscientious, they would above all have feared God, Who imposed this ministry upon you. Or if they had read the divine Scriptures, they would not have advised you contrary to them. For it is time for them to blame Jeremiah also, and to impeach the great Moses, in that they did not listen to their advice, but fearing God fulfilled their ministry, and prophesying were made perfect. For they also when they had received their mission and the grace of Prophecy, refused. But afterwards they feared, and did not set at nought Him that sent them. Whether then you be of stammering utterance, and slow of tongue yet fear God that made you, or if you call yourself too young to preach, yet reverence Him Who knew you before you were made. Or if you have given your word (now their word was to the saints as an oath), yet read Jeremiah, how he too had said, 'I will not name the Name of the Lords' yet afterwards he feared the fire kindled within him, and did not do as he had said, nor hid himself as if bound by an oath, but reverenced Him that had entrusted to him his office, and fulfilled the prophetic call. Or are you not aware, beloved, that Jonah also fled, but met with the fate that befel him, after which he returned and prophesied?

6. Do not then entertain counsels opposite to this. For the Lord knows our case better than we ourselves, and He knows to whom He is entrusting His Churches. For even if a man be not worthy, yet let him not look at his former life, but let him carry out his ministry, lest, in addition to his life he incur also the curse of negligence. I ask you, beloved Dracontius, whether knowing this, and being a wise man, you are not pricked in your soul? Do you not feel anxious lest any of those entrusted to you should perish? Do you not burn, as with a fire in your conscience? Are you not in fear of the day of judgment, in which none of your present advisers will be there to aid you? For each shall give account of those entrusted to his hands. For how did his excuse benefit the man who hid the money? Or how did it benefit Adam to say, The woman beguiled me?' Beloved Dracontius, even if you are really weak, yet you ought to take up the charge, lest, the Church being unoccupied, the enemies injure it, taking advantage of your flight. You should gird yourself up, so as not to leave us alone in the struggle; you should labour with us, in order to receive the reward also along with all.

7. Make haste then, beloved, and tarry no longer, nor suffer those who would prevent you: but remember Him that has given, and come hither to us who love you, who give you Scriptural advice, in order that you may both be installed by ourselves, and, as you minister in the churches make remembrance of us. For you are not the only one who has been elected from among monks, nor the only one to have presided over a monastery, or to have been beloved by monks. But you know that not only was Serapion a monk, and presided over that number of monks; you were not unaware of how many monks Apollos was father; you know Agathon, and are not ignorant of Ariston. You remember Ammonius who went abroad[3a] with Serapion. Perhaps you have also heard of Muitus[3aa] in the upper Thebaid, and can learn about Paul[3b] at Latopolis, and many others. And yet these, when elected, did not gainsay; but taking Elisha as an example, and knowing the story of Elijah, and having learnt all about the disciples and apostles, they grappled with the charge, and did not despise the ministry, and were not inferior to themselves, but rather look for the reward of their labour, advancing themselves and guiding others onward. For how many have they turned away from the idols? How many have they caused to cease from their familiarity with demons by their warning? How many servants have they brought to the Lord so as to cause those who saw such wonders to marvel at the sight? Or is it not a great wonder to make a damsel live as a virgin, and a young man live in continence, and an idolater come to know Christ?

8. Let not monks then prevent you, as though you alone had been elected from among monks; nor do you make excuses, to the effect that you will deteriorate. For you may even grow better if you imitate Paul, and follow up the actions of the Saints. For you know that men like those, when appointed stewards of the mysteries, all the more pressed forward to the mark of their high calling. When did Paul meet martyrdom and expect to receive his crown, if not after being sent to teach? When did Peter make his confession if not when he was preaching the Gospel, and had become a fisher of men? When was Elijah taken up, if not after completing his prophetic career? When did Elisha gain a double share of the Spirit, if not after leaving all to follow Elijah? Or why did the Saviour choose disciples, if not to send them out as apostles?

9. So take these as an example, beloved Dracontius, and do not say, or believe those who say, that the bishop's office is an occasion of sin, nor that it gives rise to temptations to sin. For it is possible for you also as a bishop to hunger and thirst, as Paul did. You can drink no wine, like Timothy, and fast constantly too, like Paul, in order that thus fasting after his example you may feast others with your words, and while thirsting for lack of drink, water others by teaching. Let not your advisers, then, allege these things. For we know both bishops who fast, and monks who eat. We know bishops who drink no wine, as well as monks who do. We know bishops who work wonders, as well as monks who do not. Many also of the bishops have not even married, while monks have been fathers of children; just as conversely we know bishops who are fathers of children and monks 'of the completest kind.' And again, we know clergy who suffer hunger, and monks who fast. For it is possible in the latter way, and not forbidden in the former. But let a man, wherever he is, strive earnestly; for the crown is given not according to position, but according to action.

10. Do not then suffer those who give contrary advice. But rather hasten and delay not; the more so as the holy festival is approaching; so that the laity may not keep the feast without you, and you bring great danger upon yourself. For who will in your absence preach them the Easter sermon? Who will announce to them the great day of the Resurrection, if you art in hiding? Who will counsel them, if you are in flight, to keep the feast fittingly? Ah, how many will be the better if you appear, how many be injured if you fly! And who will think well of you for this? and why do they advise you not to take up the bishop's office, when they themselves wish to have presbyters? For if you are bad, let them not associate with you. But if they know that you are good, let them not envy the others. For if, as they say, teaching and government is an occasion of sin, let them not be taught themselves, nor have presbyters, lest they deteriorate, both they and those who teach them. But do not attend to these human sayings, nor suffer those who give such advice, as I have often already said. But rather make haste and turn to the Lord, in order that, taking thought for his sheep, you may remember us also. But to this end I have bidden our beloved Hierax, the presbyter, and Maximus the reader go, and bid you by word of mouth also, that you may be able thus to learn both with what feelings I have written, and the danger that results from gainsaying the ordinance of the Church.

Taken from "The Early Church Fathers and Other Works" originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland, beginning in 1867. (NPNF II/IV, Schaff and Wace). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.

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