Dionysius the Great vs. Irene the Great

Remember that passage in the synoptic gospels (Luke 2:24, Matthew 18:1, Mark 9:34) where the disciples start arguing about which one of them is the greatest? Jesus basically tells them to get a life (by losing it). Here at Lent Madness, however, Dionysius and Irene are battling to resolve the question once and for all. In the Battle of the Greats, Dionysius the Great takes on Irene the Great as we crank things back up for another week of saintly action. The winner will take on Brigid of Kildare.

We're glad to have the drama of Friday's server crash behind us and Lent Madness is now being hosted on a shiny new purple server using a company that understands "unlimited bandwidth" to actually mean "unlimited bandwidth." So, vote (once), comment, tell all all your friends to log on at the exact same moment and we should be fine. Thanks for collectively having the patience of a, well, saint. 

LMdionysiusDionysius the Great

Dionysius was born sometime around 190 to a well-to-do pagan family. He attended a church school and was educated to be a priest. He was a bright and well-read child and a student of the scholar Origen. Dionysius became head of the Catechetical School of Alexandria in 232 and was elevated to Bishop of Alexandria in 248, succeeding Heraklas in both posts.

In 249 a series of riots broke out and anti-Christian violence ensued. This soon evolved into the Decian Persecutions. Christians were subjected to all manner of torture and cruelty, with the goal to force them to sacrifice to false gods. It was a time of martyrdom and forced migration as many fled to the deserts for safety.

Dionysius was among those who fled but was later seized after being recognized. He was ultimately freed by a party of Christians and resumed his exile in the desert where he remained until the persecutions came to an end in 251.

Dionysius is remembered especially for his role in how to treat Christians who had lapsed during the persecutions. Many believed there was no possibility for readmission to Holy Communion and the Church after such apostasies. Dionysius, however, offered a way toward reconciliation. He said that after a period of penance and re-baptism, those who had succumbed to pressure would be welcomed back into the Church.

A prayer penned by Dionysius reads,“O God the Father, Origin of Divinity, good beyond all that is good, fair beyond all that is fair, in whom is calmness, peace, concord: Heal the dissensions that divide us from one another, and bring us back into the unity of love that resembles your divine nature.”

Upon returning to Alexandria, Dionysius took up extensive writing, especially opposing heresy and exploring scripture. His work in interpreting scripture was especially admired.

In 257, at the instigation of Emperor Valerian, Christians were once again under persecution and Dionysius was exiled when he refused to sacrifice to pagan gods. After two years of exile, he returned to a city plagued by disease and wracked by violence. In this environment he served five more years as bishop until his death in 265.

Persecution, plague, and violence marked the life of Dionysius, and yet through all of this he remained faithful and diligent, causing Saint Basil to term him “Dionysius the Great.”

Collect for Dionysius the Great

Almighty God, you called your servant Dionysius the Great to be a champion of reconciliation during times of great fear and persecution. Grant us the grace to seek the calm, peace, and concord that mark the things of the kingdom of God, reminding us that our greatest consolation may be found in pondering your holy words, even in the darkest of times. Amen.

-Robert Hendrickson

Irene_of_ThessalonikiIrene the Great

Named Penelope and born as a Persian princess in the fourth century, Irene the Great is a legendary figure credited with miracles that astonish the modern reader. To keep her from hearing the gospel, her father (the pagan king Licinius) isolated her in a high tower like a Rapunzel of late antiquity, where she was watched over by thirteen young maidens and the statues of ninety-eight gods. She desperately objected to her seclusion and isolation from her mother and even the sunshine, but Licinius would not relent and sealed her in the tower with his signet ring until she was to marry. In spite of her father, an elderly tutor was hired to teach her. Servants hauled him up into the tower by an elaborate pulley system, and he spoke to her from behind a curtain and taught her about Jesus Christ.

When she reached marrying age, she received a series of signs from God delivered to the tower via an assortment of birds. Her tutor interpreted them as a call to virginity and as omens foreshadowing her suffering for her savior. Penelope was baptized and took the name Irene, which means peace. She initially failed to convert her parents, and like a righteously indignant teenager, destroyed all her father’s idols. As punishment, he threw her under wild horses to be trampled to death, but the horses did not stomp on her and instead attacked Licinius, gravely injuring him. Irene prayed for her father and he was healed in the presence of eyewitnesses, leading to the conversion of her parents and three thousand others.

Later, she refused the governor’s order to cease preaching, and he threw her into a pit of vipers. She remained unharmed for ten days, fed and guarded by an angel until her release. Her life of preaching and miracle-working continued, and thousands more people converted to Christianity.

In 330 the Persian King Sapor II had her arrested, beheaded, and buried. Remarkably, even for a woman who survived a pit of vipers, God resurrected her, and she continued teaching all the way to Ephesus, converting thousands more to the Christian faith! Finally, at divine bidding, she found an unused tomb, made the sign of the cross, and was sealed inside. When her friends returned four days later, the tomb was reportedly empty.

Ironically, those wishing to land a quick and happy marriage are encouraged to pray to Saint Irene, despite her role in history as a virgin and martyr saint. In Greece, she is also the patron saint of policemen.

Collect for Irene the Great

Jesus, you raised up your servant Irene the Great and set her before us as an example of deep thirst for faith and a hunger for righteousness. May we have the discerning spirit to seek more of you, disregarding the detours and damage the enemy may place in our path toward you. Let us, like Irene, never be given over to anger or malice, but continually pray for those who do not know you, never letting violence or intractability steal away the peace and consolation you give us with yourself. Amen.

-Amber Belldene


Dionysius the Great vs. Irene the Great

  • Dionysius the Great (58%, 3,466 Votes)
  • Irene the Great (42%, 2,546 Votes)

Total Voters: 6,012

Loading ... Loading ...


* indicates required

Recent Posts



214 comments on “Dionysius the Great vs. Irene the Great”

    1. Yay Oliver! I'm on Team Irene too. She does sound like way more fun.
      ...though I'm trying to think of something positive to say about Dionysius too. It sounds like he was probably a really good runner!

  1. Dionysius it is for me! We must still be devoted to reconciliation, the giving of second chances, and the promise of returning to the fold as demonstrated by this saint. If he could promote this view in his time of violence and persecution, so must we be devoted to the same in our time of division and strife. A wonderful model to follow.
    As for Irene, I am persuaded by my incredulity for such miracles as are attributed to her. Normally I am greatly in the female camp, but this is just too much for my modern mind. No doubt she faced hardships, but the story just goes too far for me to entirely trust.

  2. I had to vote for Irene, even though I am sure I am on the losing team. A tower, horses, vipers, beheading...nothing could keep her from her faith! What a Warrior Woman! Go Irene!

    1. Exactly my thoughts, Vicki! I voted for her because I want her to go onto the next round so we can learn more about her. Ah well...maybe in a future Lent Madness?

  3. I'm not a big fan of re-baptizing on theological grounds, but I'll cut Dionysius some slack. They were difficult times, and God is gracious. Reconciliation won my vote.

    1. The whole re-baptizing thing initially turned me off too, but if you think about it, first of all, he was much closer than we are to the Jewish roots of that sacrament in the mikvah, which is not a once-and-for-all thing, but a continuing thing; always to turn again and be purified. AND, if a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, perhaps those people needed such a sign of the grace of being accepted.

      1. When placed in such a wonderful context how does the non-viperous vipers, the beheading that didn't work, the horses that turned around, the drawn-up tutor hold up?

      2. '@ Sister Janet- I think that is a sensible and gracious way of looking at why re-baptism might have been deemed necessary. I wasn't as perturbed by that detail as many folks were though.

  4. If he got Basil's vote, he gets mine. Uneasy times and he had the courage to return to the trenches.

    1. I was thinking PBS would take it up. Downton Abbey, maybe in a real abbey. With vipers even!

  5. Irene's story is marvelous and that's the problem -- too marvelous. This summary leads me to think her feats are entirely legendary while Dionysius seems to be more historical. His work in welcoming lapsed Christians back to the church is exactly the type of ministry we need today as the younger generation in the west strays from Christianity, seeing it as fuddy-duddy at best, bigoted and hypocritical at worst.

  6. Family conflict is one of life's big sources of suffering, and not many of us would persevere like Irene, what with the vipers and horses and bird divination and thousands of converts and stuff. But today, Dionysus wins my vote. We need wise, learned policymakers.

  7. For the young women abducted by Boko Haram and all others who are forced to live in the pit with the vipers, may you be visited by the spirit of Irene to give you courage and fiery peace that endures. And if/when you are returned home, may there be a welcoming Dionysius who does not shame you for your suffering, nor for anything you do to survive. Today I'll vote Irene in your honor.

    1. Thank you, Susan! I voted for Dionysius, but really want to put the complainers about the legendary women in a time-out. Women who are persecuted and shrouded and even placed in windowless (or blacked-out windows) homes so that they cannot be seen by men are very real stories of our present day. Once in a while, we get an example of a a young girl trying to be educated, who is shot in the face for that "crime." That she survived is a miracle, that she won a Nobel is incredible, that she inspires persecuted girls around the world is downright saintly. That people (given history) are likely to see her as merely legend an another 1000 years......just sad. Irene stands for the many whose stories will never be told because they were not incredible enough....

      1. Thank you Barbra for your comment drawing a parallel between the 'fantastic story" of Irene and the 'hard to believe' story of Malala who simply tried to be eductated, was persecuted by the Taliban who tried to execute her, survived to continue standing up against her oppressors for the cuase of education for women and to share the Nobel prize. Sounds just like a Disney script too but we have seen it with our own eyes. I am so tired of people discounting the saints whose stories are just too fantastic to be real. There are many stories told and handed down from ancient people that seem too fantastic and yet we see the truth in them. My vote today went to Irene.

      2. This strand has decided me... and nudged me back to praying for those 'lost girls.' The news cycle pushes tragedies aside sometimes and those women deserve/require our on going attention. I also think that in this one perhaps we're seeing both serious and fun together? which comes out sounding odd in light of the last sentence. But with Joy being ,as Lewis put it , 'the serious business of heaven,' and two of the finest living spiritual leaders, the Dali Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu, both living joy in their seriousness... Irene works for me today. Thanks y'all. And of course i shall now spend the rest of the evening humming "Irene Good Night."

  8. Forgiving even
    those who walked away from faith?
    That WOULD take greatness!

    Dionysius gets my vote--reconciliation is a practice all too rare in the Church, as in the world.

  9. I thought Friday's match-up was hard! These are getting harder and harder. When I read Dionysus' write-up, I thought we really need someone like him in the Middle East now (I suspect we will see several in the days to come). Then I read Irene's and thought a teenager who has so much faith that she survives imprisonment, several attempts to kill her, and is resurrected after being beheaded. Wow! Both of these saints are deserving but I just had to go with Irene as a young woman of such strong faith.

  10. I had picked Irene but the prayer of Dionysus really moved me this morning. An earlier commenter said this prayer should be our Lenten prayer. I agree.

  11. SOOOOOOOOOOO GLAD U R BACK!! This is the GREATEST MARCH MADNESS EVER. ABSOLUTELY LOVE LEARNING ABOUT THESE SAINTS AND TODAY SHARED OF FB ASKING FOR IRENE VOTES! We do need reconciliation, however, we also need more individuals willing to be disciples not mere followers. Overabundance of cross wearing bible thumping types who forget FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD.

  12. Holy Executioner, Batman! A beheading that didn't work! Vipers that didn't vipe. Makes one think of ravenous seals. What will they think of next? Go Dionysius, you're for real.

  13. I agree that reconciliation is a great need in our world, and a good Lenten theme as well. I just loved the fantastic storyof Irene, so thinking Dionysius would come the victor, just had to be rebel enough to vote for Irene.

  14. Irene's is a story of resilience--also a quality much needed in a hurting world. She gets my vote, but it was a tough choice.

  15. I had to go for Dionysius today. Welcoming ex Christians back to the church won it for me. How many of us would have been able to stand up to the persecution and would have left the church because of fear of the authorities. Definitely in this day and age we need this spirit.

    1. And Dionysius, didn't he, umm, really like wine and wild parties?
      Oh, right, that's the other one.

  16. For my beloved sister Penelope and her late Mother-in-law Irene, I will vote for Irene.

  17. I had to vote for Irene. I had thought only St. Denis continued to walk after losing his head -- but now, here's Irene. Like St. Denis, she was heard to have said, "The first few miles are the hardest".

  18. That was a tough one, but I went with Dionysius; forgiveness and reconciliation are important.

  19. What a dilemma! Dionysius' reconciliation, or Irene's preaching and praying for those who had so wronged her? She was so much more than a rebellious teenager! I can wholeheartedly vote for the suggestion that we collectively pray the prayer of Dionysius. I'm not ready yet to vote for either of them over the other.

  20. I can't help thinking how things haven't changed much in lo these many years. Dionysius would've felt right at home in the middle east today. Lord, in Dionysius's name and in Jesus's name, let this persecution end. Amen.

  21. I tend to be a little wary of folks who write lots about heresy. Reconciliation is good, but there is plenty of reconciliation in Irene's story, too. I also think it is worthwhile (unlikely miracles aside -- and whenever are miracles "likely"?) to honor those who witness through preaching...especially women since much of our church history between the death of Jesus and now has ignored them. Irene has my vote.

  22. Irenes story is a fantasy with a true message. Dionysius may be a true story but re baptism, for me no Truth in that, so Irene for me.

  23. I would welcome anyone who could bring peace and reconciliation to violent times to the saintly 16. Dionysius gets my vote.

  24. I just voted for Irene. What decided me finally? The collect, which sums up her ministry so beautifully. Plus, it's hard for a female preacher to deny another female preacher her vote.