St Didymus the blind: author, ascetic, theologian, dean & polymath

On this day also of the year 398 A.D (13th June, 6th Paone), the Coptic Orthodox Church commemorates the departure of St Didymus the Blind – a wonderful model of holy perseverance and discipline. He was the dean of the Theological School of Alexandria.

He was born in the city of Alexandria in the year 313 A.D. His parents called him Didymus which is the Greek word for Thomas. When he was four years old he was inflicted with a sickness in his eyes which led to his blindness. He did not learn reading in a school because of his poverty and blindness. However, his great love for knowledge allowed him to overcome all the obstacles before him. He learned the alphabet by touching carved wooden letters 15 centuries before the Braille system that is used by the blind today.

Using this method, he learned language and grammar, rhetoric, philosophy, logic, theology, arithmetic and music, and he excelled in them. He was able to debate those who studied these subjects in the usual textbooks. He became an example of excellence and the fame of his knowledge became well known everywhere.

Pope Athanasius entrusted to him the management of the Theological School of Alexandria in the year 346 A.D. The school during his days flourished and became equal to the great theological and secular schools in the East and West. He counted among his pupils some of the great learned men, such as Palladius, Rufinus and Jerome.

Jerome said about him that he bore the characteristics of an apostolic person and had enlightened thoughts in simple words. Rufinus called him a prophet and an apostolic man. Sozomin the historian tells us that the influence of Didymus in convincing the people of the validity of the teachings of the Council of Nicaea against the Arians was incomparable. The people considered Didymus as a fortified fortress and a strong support for the Christian religion. He was considered a strong opponent of the followers of Arius and vanquished them in all his debates with them.

He was a pious ascetic. He prayed for the sake of the Christians who were persecuted by Julian the infidel. He saw in a vision that Julian was killed in war and it was fulfilled in the exact day and hour.

Abba Antonius visited him in his cell; they prayed together and sat down talking about the Holy Scriptures. When he saw him sorrowful for the loss of his vision the father of all monks told him: “How can you be sorrowful for losing something shared with the least of animals and not rejoice in that God has given you a spiritual vision which He does not grant except to those whom He loves? He gave you eyes as the eyes of angels. You can see with them the spiritual things. Moreover, you can perceive with them the mysteries of God Himself.” Didymus was greatly comforted by these words.

St. Didymus wrote many inspired books in theology, dogma, and exegesis of both testaments of the Holy Scriptures, to the point that they called him, “the seeing blind.”

After he completed his good endeavor, he departed in peace in the year 398 A.D. He was 85 years old, in which he spent 52 years of them as the dean of the Theological School of Alexandria. He was a contemporary of four patriarchs: Pope Athanasius the Apostolic, Pope Peter II, Pope Timothy I, and Pope Theophilus.

When Abba Shenouda, bishop of education (Pope Shenouda III), inaugurated the Institute for the Church Cantors who were mostly blind, he called it St. Didymus Institute to honor this great theologian.

The blessing of the prayers of this ascetic and brilliant theologian, St. Didymus the Blind, be with us all and glory be to our God forever. Amen.

Ref: Coptic Reader synaxarium reading for the 13th June.

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