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COPTIC DEATH AND AFTERLIFE 2: COPTIC PURGATORY: THE DESTINY OF ALL FLESH? THE VEREDICT OF SAINT CYRUS

February 16, 2013

the life of cyrus Figure 1: The Life of Apa Cyrus, by Pambo (Brit. Mus. MS. Oriental No. 6783. fol. 23 a).

In 1914, E. A. Wallis Budge published the texts of some of the most interesting Coptic manuscripts which came under the possession of the British Museum, with their English translation. He was then Keeper of the Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities in the British Museum; and his valuable book is Coptic Martyrdom etc. In the Dialect of Upper Egypt.[1] All four published manuscripts[2] were found in Edfu (the Coptic Atbo[3] and Greek Apollinopolis Magna) in Upper Egypt, in the Monastery of Saint Mercurius and the library of the church of Saint Victor,[4] and all had been copied, from earlier manuscripts, during the second half of the tenth century and early eleventh century.[5] Budge thought the manuscripts were of “great importance for the history of Christianity in Egypt;”[6] their contents representing “the views and beliefs of the great monastic communities of Upper Egypt at the most flourishing period of their history”.[7]

One of the four manuscripts, Oriental No. 6783, was copied in 1003 AD during the Patriarchate of Philotheus (979 – 1003)[8] and the Fatimid Caliphate of Al-Hakim Bi-Amrillah (996 – 1021),[9] by a certain Victor.[10] It is a large manuscript, which includes, inter alia, The Life of Cyrus, the perfect monk, as told by Apa Pambo, the presbyter of the Church at Scete.[11]

Saint Cyrus (corrupted into Karas as consequence of Arabisation) was brother of the Emperor Theodosius I (379 – 395) and uncle of Emperors Arcadius (383 – 408) and Honorius (393 – 423).  He himself tells us of his royal connection and the reason for him to renounce a life of richness and comfort and go to Egypt’s western desert to live the life of an isolated anchorite: “Cyrus is my name. I am the brother of the Emperor Theodosius, and I was reared and fed at the same table as Arcadius and Honorius. And, indeed, many, many times hath Honorius said unto me, ‘Take me with thee into the desert, and I will become a monk’; but I did not wish to take him with me, because he is a son of the Emperor. And when we saw that oppression (or, violence) had multiplied, and that the Emperors were committing sin, and that the rulers were robbing the poor, and that everyone was turning out of the straight road, and making corrupt his path before God, I rose up, and I set out and I came to this desert, and I took up my abode therein because of the multitude of my sins. May God forgive me these!”[12] There, in complete isolation in the inner desert, where no one ventured beyond to live, Apa[13] Cyrus followed a saintly life, and received no man until the eve of his death, on the 7 Epip 182 AM (1 July 466 AD),[14] when Apa Pambo,[15] the elder of the Church of Shihet[16] (the Greek Scetis, Arabic Wadi El Natrun ‘Natrun Valley’) visited him. Hitherto, only Christ visited him in his isolation, and Pambo was to witness one such visit, in which he “saw the Christ go up to that brother [Cyrus] and kiss him, mouth to mouth, even as doth a brother who hath arrived from a strange region when he meeteth his friend.”[17]

On that day, Apa Cyrus told Apa Pambo that “A great prophet and Archimandrite hath died this day, that is to say, Apa Shenoute the elder; the whole world is punished this day, for he was a very great teacher, and this day is the seventh of the month Epeph.”[18] After paying homage to Apa Shenoute, Apa Cyrus tells Apa Pambo that he is sick, a sickness he knew will end in his death, and begs him: “I beseech thee to do me the favour of praying for me until I journey over the road of fear and terror.” Astonished, Apa Pambo enquires: “My beloved father, art thou, even thou, afraid, notwithstanding all the multitude ascetic labours which thou hast performed in this world?” And Apa Cyrus responds:

“I have performed a few of the ascetic labours which God appointed for me, it is true, but how is it possible for us not to be afraid of the things which have been indicated to us by very many witnesses, that is to say, the river of fire, and the appearance before the Judge? And as for that river, everyone is bound to pass over it, whether he be a righteous man or whether he be a sinner, and it is right that thou shouldst pray on my behalf until I journey over that terrible road.

… If a man’s life upon this earth were to consist of one day only, he would not be free from sin. And, moreover, all flesh shall be purged by the fire.”[19]

And behold, it came to pass on the following day, the eighth of Epip, at the third hour,[20] that Apa Cyrus became very ill, and yielded his spirit. As Apa Pambo was weeping over Cyrus, we read, “Christ opened the door of the cell, and He came in, and He stood up by the body of the blessed Apa Cyrus, and He wept over him.”[21] The body of Apa Cyrus was then visited by a multitude of Angels, and Archangels, and Apostles, and all the righteous. One of the visitors was Saint Peter, who told Apa Pambo that Christ has taken the soul of the blessed man Apa Cyrus, and the soul of Apa Shenoute, who had died yesterday, “to the place of rest, even as it is written, ‘There are many mansions in the house of My Father.’[22][23] And, again, we are told that Christ Himself returned and buried the body of the blessed man, “and He became unto him a place of defence until the day of the Righteous Judgement.”[24]

__________

Here we have a story of a great man from the 5th century, whose sainthood was attested by Christ Himself, who visited him, kissed him life a friend and wept over his depaarture. When he dies, Christ takes his soul with Him to “the place of rest”, which one takes to be Paradise, a place of no fear or terror. Moreover, Christ buries Cyrus’ body, and protects it until the Last Day, when all bodies of the dead shall be resurrected, joined with their souls, to face the Judgement.

And yet, this great saint, on the last day of his life, talks of a “road of fear and terror”, a “river of fire” over which “everyone is bound to pass”, whether he be a righteous man or sinner, for no one is free of sin even if his “life upon this earth were to consist of one day only”. This river of fire seems to me to be Hades, that place of suffering many Christian thinkers thought of as intermediate status between death and the Day of Judgement. In that river of fire, all flesh (Apa Cyrus must have meant by it ‘soul’) shall be purged by the fire. There is no “soul rest” here, which some advocate in their teaching following death, when the soul stays unconscious and unperturbed until the Last Day. Furthermore, and more interestingly perhaps, Apa Cyrus is talking here about a “purgatory” for all sinners and righteous: no man shall escape the river of fire, which has the purpose of purging the souls from their sins. Is Apa Cyrus advocating a universal sort of purgatory to all humans, followed by universal salvation, along the same idea attributed to Origen? This is difficult to ascertain. Anyway, there is no doubt that he believed that the destiny of the souls of the dead can be altered by the prayers of the saintly living.

Caution: This again is not an article on theology. It just tries to bring to the forefront stories or topics that are hidden in Coptic literature, and, though they may not represent the theology of the Church of Alexandria, help us to understand how Copts saw the world and afterlife in the olden days.


[1] The reader can find this valuable book here (Volume One) and here (Volume Two).

[2] Oriental No. 7022, Oriental No. 6783, Oriental No. 7027, and Oriental No. 7025.

[3] Or Tbo. Sometimes it is written as tBo.

[4] Three of the manuscripts were found in the Monastery of St. Mercurius and one (Oriental No. 7025) was found in the library of the church of St. Victor.

[5] Coptic Martyrdom; Vol. I; Preface; p. xii.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Philotheus was the 63rd Coptic Patriarch. He was succeeded by the sainty Zacharias (1004 – 1032). The copying of the manuscript was finished on 23 Mesore 719 AM = 16 August 2003. Philotheus’ death is dated to 12 Hatur without giving a year; and it is possible that he died in 719 or 720 AM. If Philotheus had died on 12 Hatur 719 AM (8 November 1002), then the copying of the manuscript was finished in the period between the death of Philotheus and the ordaining of Zacharias. If, however, Philotheus died on 12 Hatur 720 AM (9 November 1003), then the manuscript copying was finished at the end of his patriarchate.

[9] In 1003 the notorious Al-Hakim was still a young boy – his persecution of the Coptic Church (1011 – 1020) was yet to come.

[10] Victor the deacon, the son of Mercurius, the son of Eponuchos, the Archdeacon of the church of Saint Mercurius the General in the town of Latopolis, or Esna, in Upper Egypt. The work was commissioned by Zacharias, a deacon and monk in the church of Saint Mercurius the General in Atbo (Apollinopolis, or Edfu), and he gave it to the shrine of the saint.

[11] Apa Pambo tells us that after the burial of the body of Apa Cyrus, he departed to his monastery in Shihet, and he wrote the life of Cyrus, placing it in the church of Shihet. This seems to be the origin of all later copies.

[12] Coptic Martyrdom; Vol. I; p. 385.

[13] ‘Apa’ is ‘father’ in Coptic.

[14] No dating in years is given in the manuscript, but as we know Saint Shenoute died in 466 AD, as most scholars now agree, the date in anno Martyri is easy to deduce.

[15] Apa Pambo, who visited Apa Cyrus, and wrote his Life is different from the greater saint who was contemporary with Saint Athanasius the Great, and is believed to have died towards the end of the 4th century.

[16] Shihet is a Coptic word that means ‘Measure of the Hearts’.

[17] Coptic Martyrdom; Volume I; p. 386.

[18] Ibid; p. 387.

[19] Ibid; pp. 387-388.

[20] 2 July 466 AD; at 9 am.

[21] Coptic Martyrdom; Vol. I; p. 388.

[22] John 14:2.

[23] Coptic Martyrdom; Vol. I; p. 388.

[24] Coptic Martyrdom; Vol. I; p. 389.

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