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A MOVING LETTER BY A COPTIC MOTHER WHO WOULD-BE MARTYR TO HER ‘LITTLE SWEET SON’ FROM A PRISON CELL

August 30, 2017

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Detail from Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid, a painting by Johannes Vermeer (c. 1670–1671)

In the Coptic martyrdom of Saints Paēse and Thecla, one finds a moving letter from Thecla to her little son Apollonius. The martyrdom which has been published, with an English translation, by E.A.E. Reymond and J. W. B. Barns in their excellent book, ‘Four Martyrdoms from the Pierpont Morgan Coptic Codices’ (Oxford University Press, 1973), tells us the story of Paēse and Thecla, brother and sister from Upper Egypt. Paēse, who lived in a village called Pousire,[1] was a charitable rich Coptic farmer; his sister, Thecla, whose husband had died, lived in the city of Antinoou,[2] with her little son, Apollonius. Both Paēse and Thecla lived in the second half of the third century and were martyred during the Diocletian persecution, possibly in AD 304, outside Tepot,[3] after several tortures in Alexandria by Armenius the duke of the city. Before their martyrdom, they were kept for several months in the prison of Alexandria. Possibly a couple of months before their martyrdoms on 8 Koyahk (= 17 December), Paēse urged his sister to write to her son, Apollonius, who had been left in Antinoou, to inform him of the situation. Probably Thecla had hesitated to break the news to her son. We do not the exact age of Apollonius, but we can presume he was possibly 10 years old or there about, since Thecla calls him in her letter, “my sweet little son,” “my little son,” and “my beloved son.”

The litter is emotional and intimate; and very moving. It is a letter from a would-be martyr mother to her little son from a prison cell, letting him know of her situation “her holy contest”, urging him to be brave and not to be sad. He must not lose faith in Christ.  She wants him not to see her martyrdom as death; and is sorry that they had to separate but hopefully they will reunite in Heaven. She informs him that she had kept his father’s inheritance, in way of valuables, hidden in a cave, and intact for him, and asks his to give charity to his servants, strangers, widows and orphans; and to distribute her clothing to the poor. Then at the end, in a moving farewell, she greets him, “for I shall not see you again in the flesh.”

Here is the letter from Thecla to Apollonius:

Before all else I ask concerning thy health, O Apollonius, my sweet little son. Just as I left thee on my way to Alexandria, now, then, lo, our Lord has called us to His holy contest. Do not be faint-hearted, O my son. I wander through the strange land; and all our fathers were strangers; for our father David has said, ‘I am a sojourner, sojourning as all my fathers did.’ Do not say that I have died; it is the death of the Apostles and Prophets that I have died. By thy health, O my son, do not forsake the Faith of Christ Jesus our Lord; and regard the saints, that they may pray for thee that thou mayest be saved. Now it is some holy writings which will be brought to thee. By thy health, O my son, see to thy young servants, and give them each an ounce of gold for the sake of their livelihood; and distribute my clothing to the naked; and perhaps God will put it into the heart of someone to wrap my own body when the Lord visits me. And go down to the cave; thou wilt find (there) the property of thy father. By thy health, O my son, I have not wasted anything of the property of thy father; but every one (sic) I have spent has been my parents’ property. Turn not thy face from a stranger, or a widow, or an orphan, that God may be a wall (of defence) to thee from the snares of the Devil. And if I find liberty to speak before the Lord, thou art the first for whom I (shall) obtain grace. Do not be distressed, O my son, that our bodies were separated from one another; for it is well for us if we are separated from one another in this world that we may be together in Jerusalem, the city of Christ. I greet thee, my little son, for I shall not see thee again in the flesh. And thy father (sic) Paēse greets thee. I salute thee in my soul and my spirit. Farewell in the Lord, my beloved son.[4]

This is a rare letter; and in its moving nature, I can’t find a second.

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[1] Pousire, a village in the 15th nome of Upper Egypt, whose capital city was Hermopolis Magna (Ashmunein in Arabic). Ashmunein lies on the west bank of the Nile, north-west of Mallawi.

[2] Antinoou or Antinopolis (also, Antinoöpolis, Antinoopolis, Antinoë), is a city built by Hadrian on the eastern bank of the Nile, opposite Hermopolis Magna. Under Diocletian, Antinopolis became the capital of the nome of the Thebaid.

[3] A village (also called Tenoat) in Lower Egypt, on the western Canopic branch of the Nile, north of Shentoufe.

[4] Four Martyrdoms from the Pierpont Morgan Coptic Codices; pp. 179-180. For the Coptic Sahidic text, see pp. 73-4.

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