The exile in Scythopolis

The Synod of Milan ended in June 355 A.D., and soon began the exile of the three bishops who had refused to sign the imperial decree. They had to travel thousands of miles under escort of the emperor to reach the East, where Arianism had been imposed by Constantius’ “normalization”.

In those hugely vast territories, only Athanasius and some Egyptian bishops remained to proclaim the true Christian faith.

Eusebius could not even go back to Vercelli to bid farewell to his people, his sister, and his clergy. The exiled were not allowed to take anything with them. Eusebius was conducted under military escort to Scythopolis, in northern Palestine.

Patrophilus was the local bishop, whose signature appeared on the synod document which declared Athanasius sacrilegious and Eusebius had refused to sign. St. Epiphanius would later write about Patrophilus: “He was very powerful due to his wealth and friendship with the emperor Constantius. He distinguished himself by his audacity and cruelty. “

Lucifer of Cagliari was sent to Syria; Dyonisius was sent from Milan to Cappadocia. The three of them made a long way of their path. Pancratius and Hilary were also exiled and could not go back to Rome.

The exile, according to the Roman law, was a penalty that consisted on the deportation to deserted places in Asia and Africa. The offenders did not lose their freedom, but were deprived of citizenship, civil rights and assets. They should live in a strange land, always guarded by soldiers.

Once deprived of assets, they had to support themselves with a job or begging, if they were old. The exiled would often fall into poverty and die, which happened to Dionysus. The exile was a sentence for life. It could be revoked by the indulgence of the emperor, who demanded at least the regret for the offense. Eusebius and his fellows’ offense was not having obeyed the emperor.

Saint Ambrose of Milan would later describe these facts on a magnificent page:

”Because of his faith, Eusebius chose the harshness of exile after joining Dionysius, in holy memory, who exchanged the friendship with the emperor for voluntary exile. So, when those men, who are worth our remembrance, were dragged out of the church surrounded by soldiers, which seemed a triumph of the Emperor, they proved the power of the Kingdom through force of their spirits. Those who were not intimidated by the soldiers’ weapons beat the cruelty of the ferocious spirits who were unable, however, to spoil their faith and holiness. “The king’s wrath is like the roaring of a lion”, reads the book of Proverbs.

Those who changed their opinion used to be considered defeated. But they considered their doctrine stronger than the iron swords. Incredulity had been mortally wounded, whereas the faith of the saints remained unharmed. They did not regret to be buried outside their homeland because they knew they would have a place in heaven.

They wandered all over the world, as those who have nothing and have everything. Wherever they would go, they would consider it a pleasant place. Nothing would lack because they had the treasure of faith. They had nothing to live on; they enriched others, because they were rich in grace. They would always be tested, but would not succumb to fasting, prisons, fatigue and vigils.

They would find strength in their weakness. They would not be brought down by the cold of the glacial regions because their devotion and ardor of spirit were their spring. They did not fear the prison of men because Jesus had set them free. They did not wish to be freed from death because Christ would resurrect them.

Eusebius conquered this strength through life in the monastery. Because he was accustomed to austere rules, he became tolerant to weariness. Eusebius was certainly worthy of being admired by angels when he struggled to reach the prize of Christ, when he struggled to live, in this world, an angelic life, to ward off the evil of the demon. The world watched him to emulate him. “

Ambrose’s expression “the world watched him to emulate him” is not just a catchphrase. It is a portrait of reality. Athanasius, in his History of the Arians, dedicated to the monks of the desert, says: “Everywhere they passed, although chained, they evangelized and preached their true faith. They attacked heresy and unmasked Valens and Ursacius. The farther they went, the more aversion they aroused among their enemies. The voyage of these holy men was a true preaching against the wickedness of their adversaries. Those who saw the exiled on their journey admired those confessors of the faith and rejected the Arians as impious people and henchmen. They called them everything but Christians. “

Some of Eusebius’ disciples, some of them from the Vercelli’s Coenobium, had followed the bishop in voluntary exile. They were: Tigrinus, a priest who Eusebius mentions as a fellow prisoner during Patrophilus’ oppression; Honoratus, whose tombstone recalls that he shared with his master Eusebius exile and prison, Gaudentius, who Eusebius sent to Vercelli as his vicar to calm the agitation of the people.

Scythopolis was located thirty miles from Nazareth. At Joseph’s house, the disciples founded a small monastery.

They resumed the family life of prayer, studies, ascetic discipline, thinking about the holy family that had lived nearby in anonymity and prayer under God’s eyes. Patrophilus arrived soon after and ordered Eusebius to change residence. He had to live in a closed house, under military custody.

Also in the house designed by Patrophilus, the small monastery continued its Christian life. Many fellow Christians, who saw Eusebius and his people arrive, go meet him and talk about their faith. His fame spreads. Epiphanius, bishop of Cyprus, comes to see him accompanied by Christians. Letters come from Vercelli. Eusebius and his people keep in touch through intense correspondence. They share the help they receive from Italy with the poor. This touches the people who regard these foreigners true Christians; instead of speculating about difficult theological formulas and live as wealthy courtiers, they use the time to pray and care for the poor. Devotion for Eusebius increases.

Patrophilus cannot stand all this and begins persecuting Eusebius, who starts a hunger strike.
All of a sudden, the letters from Italy cease to come. Eusebius grows concerned. He thinks that the Christians are being subjected to violence to betray their faith; that they are being treated by fake ecclesiastics and that they forgot him because of all the distress.
The deacon Cyrus and the exorcist Victor arrive from Vercelli; there is a big party at the coenobium small house.
Patrophilus had forbidden Eusebius to write. Eusebius carefully wrote a long and passionate letter to his children, who were far away. He describes it all: joys, sorrows, tears, beatings, hunger strike. He writes with such emotion that he fills the pages with life, though not in classical Latin, but in a succession of tangled and vibrant terms.
The people of Vercelli kept, for long time, with veneration, the letter from their exiled bishop. Between the lines, the heart of their father in faith pulses.

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