The Carmelite Review – Saint Athanasius

Byzantine icon of Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, author unknownNero, it is said, lighted up his gardens with burning Christians, who, clad in oil-soaked hides of beasts, were fastened at intervals and slowly roasted alive. Nero is dead, but his spirit bias survived him; and as we glance through the garden of history we see at stated intervals – epochs of exceptional hate – the giant figures of Christian heroes, afire indeed and affording fiendish joy to the persecutors, but at the same time shedding on the surrounding darkness rays of a light which is the dawn of heaven’s day.

Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, in Egypt, was one of these victims of the world’s malignity, and as his feast falls in this month it is opportune to pass in review his wonderful career. Born in 296 at Alexandria, his education was conducted by Alexander, later metropolitan of the great Egyptian See. While yet under twenty, we find him seeking spiritual direction from the famous Abbot Anthony in the desert; and when he was but a deacon his eloquence charmed, while his extraordinary learning amazed the Fathers assembled in 325 in the Council of Nice. A few years after this Saint Alexander died, and the young Athanasius was chosen, amid universal applause, to succeed to the See of Alexandria.

Athanasius ruled the See for forty-six stormy years as our holy Church passed through. During this period six Popes succeeded one another in Peter’s chair, while six Emperors wielded the absolute sceptre over the vast Roman empire. At this time heresy, like a pleasant but deadly intoxicant, claimed its victims among imperial and episcopal dignitaries. Courtier bishops fawned on crowned heads and foreswore their allegiance to the centre of unity, while inferior clergy and the laity ran about in bewilderment like flocks without a shepherd. Arianism, the fad of emperors and the bane of the church, was victorious in a worldly sense, and earnest, honest hearts like Saint Jerome’s were almost broken at the spectacle of delirious and rampant error. In the midst of all this wreck and ruin the faith of Athanasius, ever one with that of Rome, shone above the strife like Pharos over the treacherous waters of the Alexandine harbor. And one man was the cause of all this trouble. What the demagogue Luther was to the 16th century or Voltaire to the 18th, that and more was Arius to the 4th. A born conspirator, prepossessing in appearance, captivating in manners, magical in eloquence, and matchless, even among Greeks, in diplomacy this heresiarch pulled down with him a “third part of the stars” in his fall. His ambition was to become Patriarch of Alexandria, but when Saint Alexander was appointed he sought balm for his disappointment in schism and heresy.

The “Meletian” heretics, whose chief fault was exaggerated asceticism, welcomed Arius to their ranks, and together they began that series of persecutions which rendered the life of Saint Alexander bitter and that of his successor a martyrdom. Arius denied the godhead of Christ, and after the Council of Nice was banished by Constantine; but shortly after, through the influence of courtiers like Eusebius, he was recalled and admitted to the friendship of the emperor, with whom he posed as a persecuted man.

These were not the days of parliaments or of constitutional monarchies. The emperor was the government; his pleasure, law; his frown, exile or death.

The adherents of Arius, many of them noble and powerful, became so unruly that the peace of the empire was disturbed by their tumults. They affected submission to the decrees of Nice, and thus deceived the emperor, whose nature was frank and ingenuous. They held numerous councils and formulated countless professions of faith, that always came near to calling Jesus God, and yet made him but a creature. These formulas satisfied Constantine, who ordered Athanasius to admit Arius to his communion. The saint refused the compromise and was banished. Five times in all, under Constantine, Julian and Valens, was a like sentence passed on the intrepid defender of our Lord’s honor. He was exiled into Thrace and into Gaul, he wandered about the deserts of Thebais, sharing the frugal meals of the Anchorets, and lay concealed in tombs and caverns, his haunts known only to his clergy. He was driven from his cathedral and dragged from his native city, forced to stand before judges who had no jurisdiction to try his case, and accused of crimes that only such monsters could commit, as invented the charges against him. Before the Emperor he was accused of withholding the corn supply, of misappropriating revenue, and of favoring a rival to the throne, and before the Bishops he was charged with rape, simony, witchcraft and murder! Divine Providence baffled his accusers on one occasion. A suborned woman fixed her charges on a deacon whom she mistook for the saint, to the chagrin of the Arians, and Bishop Arsenius whom they had accused Athanasius of murdering, walked into the court alive to confound their hideous malice. Nevertheless the Patriarch was judged guilty and deposed. He appealed to the Pope and after a trial was acquitted of all charges brought against him. Christ’s Vicar even upheld him while the world struggled to cast him down. And this struggle lasted almost half a century.

There are two reasons why Athanasius was so persistently assailed, even after the death of his personal foe, Arias. First, the Alexandrine See was nearest to Rome in honor – the Patriarchate of Egypt, established by Saint Mark. If a heretic were bishop of this See his influence would speedily establish Arianism in the East. Hence the struggle to get rid of the orthodox pastor. Second, a vast number of irregularly ordained bishops, intruders in the Sees of exiled Catholic bishops, feared the great champion who upheld Catholic unity, and by implication condemned them It was their interest to protect their livings, no matter what the cost. But the saint never faltered in his course. He knew no compromise, welcomed no truce, spared no energy, feared no danger. The asperity of exile only whetted his pen to keener logic, and isolation in the desert served but to etherealize and refine his style. His daily meditation of the scriptures, which he knew by heart, and his filial obedience and attachment to the centre of Christian authority buoyed him in his struggles for the right and gave depth, solidity and order to his prolific writings. Had the doctrine of Christ’s divinity fallen at that time, the church could not have presented a united front to the barbarians in the next century. The motive would have been taken away from Christian endeavor to convert these savages, and letters, arts and religion would have shared the fate of civil government, a fate we read in the moss grown ruins that cover Italy and Gaul. The life work of Athanasius was the providential lion in the path of heresy. Many of his persecutors, struck by his unselfish heroism, returned to the faith and rejoiced the church by their penances. His obstinacy, as his enemies called his steadfastness, revived serious thought, and thought conversion. It abashed the proud, nerved the weak, encouraged the timid, and aroused the dormant martyr spirit in the faithful at large. While unyielding in faith, our saint was merciful in discipline, pardoning and sparing where others would have exacted more prolonged penances.

Thus we see this great athlete made a spectacle to angels and men, like his Divine Master. His whole life was a martyrdom. Learned, his science was employed in preaching and explaining Catholic truth. Charitable, he never sought to revenge himself even by words on an enemy. Courageous, he bore tortures rather than betray the faith, and finally, victorious, even over the Emperor, who tired of harassing him, he died in the city of his birth, and the scene of his valor, in the year 373. His clear exposition of the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation has been embodied in the creed that bears his name, and wherever that symbol is sung or recited in the wide world the odor of Athanasian virtue, like the fragrance of flowers wafted on a summer breeze, floats across the mists of intervening centuries, refreshing and stimulating to sterner effort the soldiers of Christ and His holy cause.

– text taken from the article “Saint Athanasius” in the June 1893 edition of The Carmelite Review magazine, authored by P J Harold