Feast day: May 2
Doctor of the Church
Born: 296 Died: May 2, 373
Bishop of Alexandria, confessor, Doctor of the Church
ATHANASIUS was born in Egypt towards the end of the third century, and was from his youth pious, learned, and deeply versed in the sacred writings, as befitted one whom God had chosen to be the champion and defender of His Church against the Arian heresy. Though only a deacon he was chosen by his bishop to go with him to the Council of Nicæa, in 325, and attracted the attention of all by the learning and ability with which he defended the faith. A few months later, he became Patriarch of Alexandria, and for forty-six years he bore, often well-nigh alone, the whole brunt of the Arian assault. On the refusal of the Saint to restore Arius to Catholic communion, the emperor ordered the Patriarch of Constantinople to do so. The wretched heresiarch took an oath that he had always believed as the Church believes; and the patriarch, after vainly using every effort to move the emperor, had recourse to fasting and prayer, that God Would avert from the Church the frightful sacrilege. The day came for the solemn entrance of Arius into the great church of Sancta Sophia. The heresiarch and his party set out glad and in triumph. But before he reached the church, death smote him swiftly and awfully, and the dreaded sacrilege was averted. St. Athanasius stood unmoved against four Roman emperors; was banished five times; was the butt of every insult, calumny, and wrong the Arians could devise, and lived in constant peril of death. Though firm as adamant in defence of the Faith, he was meek and humble, pleasant and winning in converse, beloved by his flock, unwearied in labors, in prayer, in mortifications, and in zeal for souls. In the year 373 his stormy life closed in peace, rather that his people would have it so than that his enemies were weary of persecuting him. He left to the Church the whole and ancient Faith, defended and explained in writings rich in thought and learning, clear, keen, and stately in expression. He is honored as one of the greatest of the Doctors of the Church.
Reflection.—The Catholic Faith, says St. Augustine, is more precious far than all the riches and treasures of earth; more glorious and greater than all its honors, all its possessions. This it is which saves sinners, gives light to the blind, restores penitents, perfects the just, and is the crown of martyrs.
Athanasius was the greatest champion of Catholic belief on the subject of the Incarnation that the Church has ever known and in his lifetime earned the characteristic title of “Father of Orthodoxy”, by which he has been distinguished ever since. While the chronology of his career still remains for the most part a hopelessly involved problem, the fullest material for an account of the main achievements of his life will be found in his collected writings and in the contemporary records of his time.
He was born, it would seem, in Alexandria, most probably between the years 296 and 298. An earlier date, 293, is sometimes assigned as the more certain year of his birth; and it is supported apparently by the authority of the “Coptic Fragment” (published by Dr. O. von Lemm among the Mémoires de l’académie impériale des sciences de S. Péterbourg, 1888) and corroborated by the undoubted maturity of judgement revealed in the two treatises “Contra Gentes” and “De Incarnatione“, which were admittedly written about the year 318 before Arianism as a movement had begun to make itself felt. It must be remembered, however, that in two distinct passages of his writings (Hist. Ar., lxiv, and De Syn., xviii) Athanasius shrinks from speaking as a witness at first hand of the persecution which had broken out under Maximian in 303; for in referring to the events of this period he makes no direct appeal to his own personal recollections, but falls back, rather, on tradition. Such reserve would scarcely be intelligible, if, on the hypothesis of the earlier date, the Saint had been then a boy fully ten years old. Besides, there must have been some semblance of a foundation in fact for the charge brought against him by his accusers in after-life (Index to the Festal Letters) that at the times of his consecration to the episcopate in 328 he had not yet attained the canonical age of thirty years. These considerations, therefore, even if they are found to be not entirely convincing, would seem to make it likely that he was born not earlier than 296 nor later than 298.
It is impossible to speak more than conjecturally of his family. Of the claim that it was both prominent and well-to-do, we can only observe that the tradition to the effect is not contradicted by such scanty details as can be gleaned from the saint’s writings. Those writings undoubtedly betray evidences of the sort of education that was given, for the most part, only to children and youths of a better class. It began with grammar, went on to rhetoric, and received its final touches under some one of the more fashionable lecturers in the philosophic schools. It is possible, of course, that he owed his remarkable training in letters to his saintly predecessor’s favour, if not to his personal care. But Athanasius was one of those rare personalities that derive incomparably more from their own native gifts of intellect and character than from the fortuitousness of descent or environment. His career almost personifies a crisis in the history of Christianity; and he may be said rather to have shaped the events in which he took part than to have been shaped by them. Yet it would be misleading to urge that he was in no notable sense a debtor to the time and place of his birth. The Alexandria of his boyhood was an epitome, intellectually, morally, and politically, of that ethnically many-colored Greco-Roman world, over which the Church of the fourth and fifth centuries was beginning at last, with undismayed consciousness, after nearly three hundred years of unwearying propagandism, to realize its supremacy. It was, moreover, the most important center of trade in the whole empire; and its primacy as an emporium of ideas was more commanding than that of Rome or Constantinople, Antioch or Marseilles. Already, in obedience to an instinct of which one can scarcely determine the full significance without studying the subsequent development of Catholicism, its famous “Catechetical School”, while sacrificing no jot or tittle or that passion for orthodoxy which it had imbibed from Pantænus, Clement, and Origen, had begun to take on an almost secular character in the comprehensiveness of its interests, and had counted pagans of influence among its serious auditors (Eusebius, Church History VI.19).
To have been born and brought up in such an atmosphere of philosophizing Christianity was, in spite of the dangers it involved, the timeliest and most liberal of educations; and there is, as we have intimated, abundant evidence in the saint’s writings to testify to the ready response which all the better influences of the place must have found in the heart and mind of the growing boy. Athanasius seems to have been brought early in life under the immediate supervision of the ecclesiastical authorities of his native city. Whether his long intimacy with Bishop Alexander began in childhood, we have no means of judging; but a story which pretends to describe the circumstances of his first introduction to that prelate has been preserved for us by Rufinus (Hist. Eccl., I, xiv). The bishop, so the tale runs, had invited a number of brother prelates to meet him at breakfast after a great religious function on the anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Peter, a recent predecessor in the See of Alexandria. While Alexander was waiting for his guests to arrive, he stood by a window, watching a group of boys at play on the seashore below the house. He had not observed them long before he discovered that they were imitating, evidently with no thought of irreverence, the elaborate ritual of Christian baptism. (Cf. Bunsen’s “Christianity and Mankind“, London, 1854, VI, 465; Denzinger, “Ritus Orientalium” in verb.; Butler’s “Ancient Coptic Churches“, II, 268 et sqq.; “Bapteme chez les Coptes“, “Dict. Theol. Cath.“, Col. 244, 245). He therefore sent for the children and had them brought into his presence. In the investigation that followed it was discovered that one of the boys, who was no other than the future Primate of Alexandria, had acted the part of the bishop, and in that character had actually baptized several of his companions in the course of their play. Alexander, who seems to have been unaccountably puzzled over the answers he received to his inquiries, determined to recognize the make-believe baptisms as genuine; and decided that Athanasius and his playfellows should go into training in order to fit themselves for a clerical career. The Bollandists deal gravely with this story; and writers as difficult to satisfy as Archdeacon Farrar and the late Dean Stanley are ready to accept it as bearing on its face “every indication of truth” (Farrar, “Lives of the Fathers”, I, 337; Stanley, “East. Ch.” 264). But whether in its present form, or in the modified version to be found in Socrates (I, xv), who omits all reference to the baptism and says that the game was “an imitation of the priesthood and the order of consecrated persons”, the tale raises a number of chronological difficulties and suggests even graver questions.
Perhaps a not impossible explanation of its origin may be found in the theory that it was one of the many floating myths set in movement by popular imagination to account for the marked bias towards an ecclesiastical career which seems to have characterized the early boyhood of the future champion of the Faith. Sozomen speaks of his “fitness for the priesthood”, and calls attention to the significant circumstance that he was “from his tenderest years practically self-taught”. “Not long after this,” adds the same authority, the Bishop Alexander “invited Athanasius to be his commensal and secretary. He had been well educated, and was versed in grammar and rhetoric, and had already, while still a young man, and before reaching the episcopate, given proof to those who dwelt with him of his wisdom and acumen” (Soz., II, xvii). That “wisdom and acumen” manifested themselves in a various environment. While still a levite under Alexander’s care, he seems to have been brought for a while into close relations with some of the solitaries of the Egyptian desert, and in particular with the great St. Anthony, whose life he is said to have written. The evidence both of the intimacy and for the authorship of the life in question has been challenged, chiefly by non-Catholic writers, on the ground that the famous “Vita” shows signs of interpolation. Whatever we may think of the arguments on the subject, it is impossible to deny that the monastic idea appealed powerfully to the young cleric’s temperament, and that he himself in after years was not only at home when duty or accident threw him among the solitaries, but was so monastically self-disciplined in his habits as to be spoken of as an “ascetic” (Apol. c. Arian., vi). In fourth-century usage the word would have a definiteness of connotation not easily determinable today.
It is not surprising that one who was called to fill so large a place in the history of his time should have impressed the very form and feature of his personality, so to say, upon the imagination of his contemporaries. St. Gregory Nazianzen is not the only writer who has described him for us (Orat. xxi, 8). A contemptuous phrase of the Emperor Julian’s (Epist., li) serves unintentionally to corroborate the picture drawn by kindlier observers. He was slightly below the middle height, spare in build, but well-knit, and intensely energetic. He had a finely shaped head, set off with a thin growth of auburn hair, a small but sensitively mobile mouth, an aquiline nose, and eyes of intense but kindly brilliancy. He had a ready wit, was quick in intuition, easy and affable in manner, pleasant in conversation, keen, and, perhaps, somewhat too unsparing in debate. (Besides the references already cited, see the detailed description given in the January Menaion quotes in the Bollandist life. Julian the Apostate, in the letter alluded to above sneers at the diminutiveness of his person — mede aner, all anthropiokos euteles, he writes.) In addition to these qualities, he was conspicuous for two others to which even his enemies bore unwilling testimony. He was endowed with a sense of humor that could be as mordant — we had almost said as sardonic — as it seems to have been spontaneous and unfailing; and his courage was of the sort that never falters, even in the most disheartening hour of defeat. There is one other note in this highly gifted and many-sided personality to which everything else in his nature literally ministered, and which must be kept steadily in view, if we would possess the key to his character and writing and understand the extraordinary significance of his career in the history of the Christian Church. He was by instinct neither a liberal nor a conservative in theology. Indeed the terms have a singular inappropriateness as applied to a temperament like his. From first to last he cared greatly for one thing and one thing only; the integrity of his Catholic creed. The religion it engendered in him was obviously — considering the traits by which we have tried to depict him — of a passionate and consuming sort. It began and ended in devotion to the Divinity of Jesus Christ. He was scarcely out of his teens, and certainly not in more than deacon’s orders, when he published two treatises, in which his mind seemed to strike the keynote of all its riper after-utterances on the subject of the Catholic Faith. The “Contra Gentes” and the “Oratio de Incarnatione” — to give them the Latin appellations by which they are more commonly cited — were written some time between the years 318 and 323. St. Jerome (De Viris Illust.) refers to them under a common title, as “Adversum Gentes Duo Libri“, thus leaving his readers to gather the impression which an analysis of the contents of both books certainly seems to justify, that the two treatises are in reality one.
As a plea for the Christian position, addressed chiefly to both Gentiles and Jews, the young deacon’s apology, while undoubtedly reminiscential in methods and ideas of Origen and the earlier Alexandrians, is, nevertheless, strongly individual and almost pietistic in tone. Though it deals with the Incarnation, it is silent on most of those ulterior problems in defence of which Athanasius was soon to be summoned by the force of events and the fervour of his own faith to devote the best energies of his life. The work contains no explicit discussion of the nature of the Word’s Sonship, for instance; no attempt to draw out the character of Our Lord’s relation to the Father; nothing, in short, of those Christological questions upon which he was to speak with such splendid and courageous clearness in time of shifting formularies and undetermined views. Yet those ideas must have been in the air (Soz., I, xv) for, some time between the years 318 and 320, Arius, a native of Libya (Epiphanius, Haer., lxix) and priest of the Alexandrian Church, who had already fallen under censure for his part in the Meletian troubles which broke out during the episcopate of St. Peter, and whose teachings had succeeded in making dangerous headway, even among “the consecrated virgins” of St. Mark’s see (Epiphanius, Haer., lxix; Socrates, Church History I.6), accused Bishop Alexander of Sabellianism. Arius, who seems to have presumed on the charitable tolerance of the primate, was at length deposed (Apol. c. Ar., vi) in a synod consisting of more than one hundred bishops of Egypt and Libya (Depositio Ar., 3). The condemned heresiarch withdrew first to Palestine and afterwards to Bithynia, where, under the protection of Eusebius of Nicomedia and his other “Collucianists”, he was able to increase his already remarkable influence, while his friends were endeavouring to prepare a way for his forcible reinstatement as priest of the Alexandrian Church. Athanasius, though only in deacon’s order, must have taken no subordinate part in these events. He was the trusted secretary and advisor of Alexander, and his name appears in the list of those who signed the encyclical letter subsequently issued by the primate and his colleagues to offset the growing prestige of the new teaching, and the momentum it was beginning to acquire from the ostentatious patronage extended to the deposed Arius by the Eusebian faction. Indeed, it is to this party and to the leverage it was able to exercise at the emperor’s court that the subsequent importance of Arianism as a political, rather than a religious, movement seems primarily to be due.
The heresy, of course, had its supposedly philosophic basis, which has been ascribed by authors, ancient and modern, to the most opposite sources. St. Epiphanius characterizes it as a king of revived Aristoteleanism (Haer., lxvii and lxxvi); and the same view is practically held by Socrates (Church History II.35), Theodoret (Haer. Fab., IV, iii), and St. Basil (Against Eunomius I.9). On the other hand, a theologian as broadly read as Petavius (De Trin., I, viii, 2) has no hesitation in deriving it from Platonism; Newman in turn (Arians of the Fourth Cent., 4 ed., 109) sees in it the influence of Jewish prejudices rationalized by the aid of Aristotelean ideas; while Robertson (Sel. Writ. and Let. of Ath. Proleg., 27) observes that the “common theology”, which was invariably opposed to it, “borrowed its philosophical principles and method from the Platonists.” These apparently conflicting statements could, no doubt, be easily adjusted; but the truth is that the prestige of Arianism never lay in its ideas. From whatever school it may have been logically derived, the sect, as a sect, was cradled and nurtured in intrigue. Save in some few instances, which can be accounted for on quite other grounds, its prophets relied more upon curial influence than upon piety, or Scriptural knowledge, or dialectics. That must be borne constantly in mind, if we would not move distractedly through the bewildering maze of events that make up the life of Athanasius for the next half-century to come. It is his peculiar merit that he not only saw the drift of things from the very beginning, but was confident of the issue down to the last (Apol. c. Ar., c.). His insight and courage proved almost as efficient a bulwark to the Christian Church in the world as did his singularly lucid grasp of traditional Catholic belief. His opportunity came in the year 325, when the Emperor Constantine, in the hope of putting an end to the scandalous debates that were disturbing the peace of the Church, met the prelates of the entire Catholic world in council at Nicaea.
The great council convoked at this juncture was something more than a pivotal event in the history of Christianity. Its sudden, and, in one sense, almost unpremeditated adoption of a quasi-philosophic and non-Scriptural term — homoousion — to express the character of orthodox belief in the Person of the historic Christ, by defining Him to be identical in substance, or co-essential, with the Father, together with its confident appeal to the emperor to lend the sanction of his authority to the decrees and pronouncements by which it hoped to safeguard this more explicit profession of the ancient Faith, had consequences of the gravest import, not only to the world of ideas, but to the world of politics as well. By the official promulgation to the term homoöusion, theological speculation received a fresh but subtle impetus which made itself felt long after Athanasius and his supporters had passed away; while the appeal to the secular arm inaugurated a policy which endured practically without change of scope down to the publication of the Vatican decrees in our own time. In one sense, and that a very deep and vital one, both the definition and the policy were inevitable. It was inevitable in the order of religious ideas that any break in logical continuity should be met by inquiry and protest. It was just as inevitable that the protest, to be effective, should receive some countenance from a power which up to that moment had affected to regulate all the graver circumstances of life (cf. Harnack, Hist. Dog., III, 146, note; Buchanan’s tr.). As Newman has remarked: “The Church could not meet together in one, without entering into a sort of negotiation with the power that be; who jealousy it is the duty of Christians, both as individuals and as a body, if possible, to dispel” (Arians of the Fourth Cent., 4 ed., 241). Athanasius, though not yet in priest’s orders, accompanied Alexander to the council in the character of secretary and theological adviser. He was not, of course, the originator of the famous homoösion. The term had been proposed in a non-obvious and illegitimate sense by Paul of Samosata to the Father at Antioch, and had been rejected by them as savouring of materialistic conceptions of the Godhead (cf. Athan., “De Syn., ” xliii; Newman, “Arians of the Fourth Cent., ” 4 ed., 184-196; Petav. “De Trin., ” IV, v, sect. 3; Robertson, “Sel. Writ. and Let. Athan. Proleg.”, 30 sqq.).
It may even be questioned whether, if left to his own logical instincts, Athanasius would have suggested an orthodox revival of the term at all (“De Decretis”, 19; “Orat. c. Ar.”, ii, 32; “Ad Monachos”, 2). His writings, composed during the forty-six critical years of his episcopate, show a very sparing use of the word; and though, as Newman (Arians of the Fourth Cent., 4 ed., 236) reminds us, “the authentic account of the proceedings” that took place is not extant, there is nevertheless abundant evidence in support of the common view that it had been unexpectedly forced upon the notice of the bishops, Arian and orthodox, in the great synod by Constantine’s proposal to account the creed submitted by Eusebius of Caesarea, with the addition of the homoösion, as a safeguard against possible vagueness. The suggestion had in all probability come from Hosius (cf. “Epist. Eusebii.”, in the appendix to the “De Decretis”, sect. 4; Socrates, Church History I.8 and III.7; Theodoret, Church History I; Athanasius; “Arians of the Fourth Cent.”, 6, n. 42; outos ten en Nikaia pistin exetheto, says the saint, quoting his opponents); but Athanasius, in common with the leaders of the orthodox party, loyally accepted the term as expressive of the traditional sense in which the Church had always held Jesus Christ to be the Son of God. The conspicuous abilities displayed in the Nicaean debates and the character for courage and sincerity he won on all sides made the youthful cleric henceforth a marked man (St. Greg. Naz., Orat., 21). His life could not be lived in a corner. Five months after the close of the council the Primate of Alexandria died; and Athanasius, quite as much in recognition of his talent, it would appear, as in deference to the deathbed wishes of the deceased prelate, was chosen to succeed him. His election, in spite of his extreme youth and the opposition of a remnant of the Arian and Meletian factions in the Alexandrian Church, was welcomed by all classes among the laity (“Apol. c. Arian”, vi; Sozomen, Church History II.17, 21, 22).
The opening years of the saint’s rule were occupied with the wonted episcopal routine of a fourth-century Egyptian bishop. Episcopal visitations, synods, pastoral correspondence, preaching and the yearly round of church functions consumed the bulk of his time. The only noteworthy events of which antiquity furnishes at least probable data are connected with the successful efforts which he made to provide a hierarchy for the newly planted church in Ethiopia (Abyssinia) in the person of St. Frumentius (Rufinus I, ix; Soc. I, xix; Soz., II, xxiv), and the friendship which appears to have begun about this time between himself and the monks of St. Pachomius. But the seeds of disaster which the saint’s piety had unflinchingly planted at Nicaea were beginning to bear a disquieting crop at last. Already events were happening at Constantinople which were soon to make him the most important figure of his time. Eusebius of Nicomedia, who had fallen into disgrace and been banished by the Emperor Constantine for his part in the earlier Arian controversies, had been recalled from exile. After an adroit campaign of intrigue, carried on chiefly through the instrumentality of the ladies of the imperial household, this smooth-mannered prelate so far prevailed over Constantine as to induce him to order the recall of Arius likewise from exile. He himself sent a characteristic letter to the youthful Primate of Alexandria, in which he bespoke his favour for the condemned heresiarch, who was described as a man whose opinions had been misrepresented. These events must have happened some time about the close of the year 330. Finally the emperor himself was persuaded to write to Athanasius, urging that all those who were ready to submit to the definitions of Nicaea should be re-admitted to ecclesiastical communion. This Athanasius stoutly refused to do, alleging that there could be no fellowship between the Church and the one who denied the Divinity of Christ.
The Bishop of Nicomedia thereupon brought various ecclesiastical and political charges against Athanasius, which, though unmistakably refuted at their first hearing, were afterwards refurbished and made to do service at nearly every stage of his subsequent trials. Four of these were very definite, to wit: that he had not reached the canonical age at the time of his consecration; that he had imposed a linen tax upon the provinces; that his officers had, with his connivance and authority, profaned the Sacred Mysteries in the case of an alleged priest names Ischyras; and lastly that he had put one Arenius to death and afterwards dismembered the body for purposes of magic. The nature of the charges and the method of supporting them were vividly characteristic of the age. The curious student will find them set forth in picturesque detail in the second part of the Saint’s “Apologia”, or “Defense against the Arians”, written long after the events themselves, about the year 350, when the retractation of Ursacius and Valens made their publication triumphantly opportune. The whole unhappy story at this distance of time reads in parts more like a specimen of late Greek romance than the account of an inquisition gravely conducted by a synod of Christian prelates with the idea of getting at the truth of a series of odious accusations brought against one of their number. Summoned by the emperor’s order after protracted delays extended over a period of thirty months (Soz., II, xxv), Athanasius finally consented to meet the charges brought against him by appearing before a synod of prelates at Tyre in the year 335. Fifty of his suffragans went with him to vindicate his good name; but the complexion of the ruling party in the synod made it evident that justice to the accused was the last thing that was thought of. It can hardly be wondered at, that Athanasius should have refused to be tried by such a court. He, therefore, suddenly withdrew from Tyre, escaping in a boat with some faithful friends who accompanied him to Byzantium, where he had made up his mind to present himself to the emperor.
The circumstances in which the saint and the great catechumen met were dramatic enough. Constantine was returning from a hunt, when Athanasius unexpectedly stepped into the middle of the road and demanded a hearing. The astonished emperor could hardly believe his eyes, and it needed the assurance of one of the attendants to convince him that the petitioner was not an impostor, but none other than the great Bishop of Alexandria himself. “Give me”, said the prelate, “a just tribunal, or allow me to meet my accusers face to face in your presence.” His request was granted. An order was peremptorily sent to the bishops, who had tried Athanasius and, of course, condemned him in his absence, to repair at once to the imperial city. The command reached them while they were on their way to the great feast of the dedication of Constantine’s new church at Jerusalem. It naturally caused some consternation; but the more influential members of the Eusebian faction never lacked either courage or resourcefulness. The saint was taken at his word; and the old charges were renewed in the hearing of the emperor himself. Athanasius was condemned to go into exile at Treves, where he was received with the utmost kindness by the saintly Bishop Maximinus and the emperor’s eldest son, Constantine. He began his journey probably in the month of February, 336, and arrived on the banks of the Moselle in the late autumn of the same year. His exile lasted nearly two years and a half. Public opinion in his own diocese remained loyal to him during all that time. It was not the least eloquent testimony to the essential worth of his character that he could inspire such faith. Constantine’s treatment of Athanasius at this crisis in his fortunes has always been difficult to understand. Affecting, on the one hand, a show of indignation, as if he really believed in the political charge brought against the saint, he, on the other hand, refused to appoint a successor to the Alexandrian See, a thing which he might in consistency have been obliged to do had he taken seriously the condemnation proceedings carried through by the Eusebians at Tyre.
Meanwhile events of the greatest importance had taken place. Arius had died amid startlingly dramatic circumstances at Constantinople in 336; and the death of Constantine himself had followed, on the 22nd of May the year after. Some three weeks later the younger Constantine invited the exiled primate to return to his see; and by the end of November of the same year Athanasius was once more established in his episcopal city. His return was the occasion of great rejoicing. The people, as he himself tells us, ran in crowds to see his face; the churches were given over to a kind of jubilee; thanksgivings were offered up everywhere; and clergy and laity accounted the day the happiest in their lives. But already trouble was brewing in a quarter from which the saint might reasonably have expected it. The Eusebian faction, who from this time forth loom large as the disturbers of his peace, managed to win over to their side the weak-minded Emperor Constantius to whom the East had been assigned in the division of the empire that followed on the death of Constantine. The old charges were refurbished with a graver ecclesiastical accusation added by way of rider. Athanasius had ignored the decision of a duly authorized synod. He had returned to his see without the summons of ecclesiastical authority (Apol. c. Ar., loc. cit.). In the year 340, after the failure of the Eusebian malcontents to secure the appointment of an Arian candidate of dubious reputation names Pistus, the notorious Gregory of Cappadocia was forcibly intruded into the Alexandrian See, and Athanasius was obliged to go into hiding. Within a very few weeks he set out for Rome to lay his case before the Church at large. He had made his appeal to Pope Julius, who took up his cause with a whole-heartedness that never wavered down to the day of that holy pontiff’s death. The pope summoned a synod of bishops to meet in Rome. After a careful and detailed examination of the entire case, the primate’s innocence was proclaimed to the Christian world.
Meanwhile the Eusebian party had met at Antioch and passed a series of decrees framed for the sole purpose of preventing the saint’s return to his see. Three years were passed at Rome, during which time the idea of the cenobitical life, as Athanasius had seen it practised in the deserts of Egypt, was preached to the clerics of the West (St. Jerome, Epistle cxxvii, 5). Two years after the Roman synod had published its decision, Athanasius was summoned to Milan by the Emperor Constans, who laid before him the plan which Constantius had formed for a great reunion of both the Eastern and Western Churches. Now began a time of extraordinary activity for the Saint. Early in the year 343 we find the undaunted exile in Gaul, whither he had gone to consult the saintly Hosius, the great champion of orthodoxy in the West. The two together set out for the Council of Sardica which had been summoned in deference to the Roman pontiff’s wishes. At this great gathering of prelates the case of Athanasius was taken up once more; and once more was his innocence reaffirmed. Two conciliar letters were prepared, one to the clergy and faithful of Alexandria, and the other to the bishops of Egypt and Libya, in which the will of the Council was made known. Meanwhile the Eusebian party had gone to Philippopolis, where they issued an anathema against Athanasius and his supporters. The persecution against the orthodox party broke out with renewed vigour, and Constantius was induced to prepare drastic measures against Athanasius and the priests who were devoted to him. Orders were given that if the Saint attempted to re-enter his see, he should be put to death. Athanasius, accordingly, withdrew from Sardica to Naissus in Mysia, where he celebrated the Easter festival of the year 344. After that he set out for Aquileia in obedience to a friendly summons from Constans, to whom Italy had fallen in the division of the empire that followed on the death of Constantine. Meanwhile an unexpected event had taken place which made the return of Athanasius to his see less difficult than it had seemed for many months. Gregory of Cappadocia had died (probably of violence) in June, 345. The embassy which had been sent by the bishops of Sardica to the Emperor Constantius, and which had at first met with the most insulting treatment, now received a favourable hearing. Constantius was induced to reconsider his decision, owing to a threatening letter from his brother Constans and the uncertain condition of affairs of the Persian border, and he accordingly made up his mind to yield. But three separate letters were needed to overcome the natural hesitation of Athanasius. He passed rapidly from Aquileia to Treves, from Treves to Rome, and from Rome by the northern route to Adrianople and Antioch, where he met Constantius. He was accorded a gracious interview by the vacillating Emperor, and sent back to his see in triumph, where he began his memorable ten years’ reign, which lasted down to the third exile, that of 356. These were full years in the life of the Bishop; but the intrigues of the Eusebian, or Court, party were soon renewed. Pope Julius had died in the month of April, 352, and Liberius had succeeded him as Sovereign Pontiff. For two years Liberius had been favourable to the cause of Athanasius; but driven at last into exile, he was induced to sign an ambiguous formula, from which the great Nicene test, the homoöusion, had been studiously omitted. In 355 a council was held at Milan, where in spite of the vigorous opposition of a handful of loyal prelates among the Western bishops, a fourth condemnation of Athanasius was announced to the world. With his friends scattered, the saintly Hosius in exile, the Pope Liberius denounced as acquiescing in Arian formularies, Athanasius could hardly hope to escape. On the night of 8 February, 356, while engaged in services in the Church of St. Thomas, a band of armed men burst in to secure his arrest (Apol. de Fuga, 24). It was the beginning of his third exile.
Through the influence of the Eusebian faction at Constantinople, an Arian bishop, George of Cappadocia, was now appointed to rule the see of Alexandria. Athanasius, after remaining some days in the neighbourhood of the city, finally withdrew into the deserts of upper Egypt, where he remained for a period of six years, living the life of the monks and devoting himself in his enforced leisure to the composition of that group of writings of which we have the rest in the “Apology to Constantius”, the “Apology for his Flight”, the “Letter to the Monks”, and the “History of the Arians”. Legend has naturally been busy with this period of the Saint’s career; and we may find in the “Life of Pachomius” a collection of tales brimful of incidents, and enlivened by the recital of “deathless ‘scapes in the breach.” But by the close of the year 360 a change was apparent in the complexion of the anti-Nicene party. The Arians no longer presented an unbroken front to their orthodox opponents. The Emperor Constantius, who had been the cause of so much trouble, died 4 November, 361, and was succeeded by Julian. The proclamation of the new prince’s accession was the signal for a pagan outbreak against the still dominant Arian faction in Alexandria. George, the usurping Bishop, was flung into prison and murdered amid circumstances of great cruelty, 24 December (Hist. Aceph., VI). An obscure presbyter of the name of Pistus was immediately chosen by the Arians to succeed him, when fresh news arrived that filled the orthodox party with hope. An edict had been put forth by Julian (Hist. Aceph., VIII) permitting the exiled bishops of the “Galileans” to return to their “towns and provinces”. Athanasius received a summons from his own flock, and he accordingly re-entered his episcopal capital 22 February, 362. With characteristic energy he set to work to re-establish the somewhat shattered fortunes of the orthodox party and to purge the theological atmosphere of uncertainty. To clear up the misunderstandings that had arisen in the course of the previous years, an attempt was made to determine still further the significance of the Nicene formularies. In the meanwhile, Julian, who seems to have become suddenly jealous of the influence that Athanasius was exercising at Alexandria, addressed an order to Ecdicius, the Prefect of Egypt, peremptorily commanding the expulsion of the restored primate, on the ground that he had never been included in the imperial act of clemency. The edict was communicated to the bishop by Pythicodorus Trico, who, though described in the “Chronicon Athanasianum” (xxxv) as a “philosopher”, seems to have behaved with brutal insolence. On 23 October the people gathered about the proscribed bishop to protest against the emperor’s decree; but the saint urged them to submit, consoling them with the promise that his absence would be of short duration. The prophecy was curiously fulfilled. Julian terminated his brief career 26 June, 363; and Athanasius returned in secret to Alexandria, where he soon received a document from the new emperor, Jovian, reinstating him once more in his episcopal functions. His first act was to convene a council which reaffirmed the terms of the Nicene Creed. Early in September he set out for Antioch, bearing a synodal letter, in which the pronouncements of this council had been embodied. At Antioch he had an interview with the new emperor, who received him graciously and even asked him to prepare an exposition of the orthodox faith. But in the following February Jovian died; and in October, 364, Athanasius was once more an exile.
With the turn of circumstances that handed over to Valens the control of the East this article has nothing to do; but the accession of the emperor gave a fresh lease of life to the Arian party. He issued a decree banishing the bishops who has been deposed by Constantius, but who had been permitted by Jovian to return to their sees. The news created the greatest consternation in the city of Alexandria itself, and the prefect, in order to prevent a serious outbreak, gave public assurance that the very special case of Athanasius would be laid before the emperor. But the saint seems to have divined what was preparing in secret against him. He quietly withdrew from Alexandria, 5 October, and took up his abode in a country house outside the city. It was during this period that he is said to have spent four months in hiding in his father’s tomb (Sozomen, Church History VI.12; Socrates, Church History IV.12). Valens, who seems to have sincerely dreaded the possible consequences of a popular outbreak, gave order within a very few weeks for the return of Athanasius to his see. And now began that last period of comparative repose which unexpectedly terminated his strenuous and extraordinary career. He spent his remaining days, characteristically enough, in re-emphasizing the view of the Incarnation which had been defined at Nicaea and which has been substantially the faith of the Christian Church from its earliest pronouncement in Scripture down to its last utterance through the lips of Pius X in our own times. “Let what was confessed by the Fathers of Nicaea prevail”, he wrote to a philosopher friend and correspondent in the closing years of his life (Epist. lxxi, ad Max.). That that confession did at last prevail in the various Trinitarian formularies that followed upon that of Nicaea was due, humanly speaking, more to his laborious witness than to that of any other champion in the long teachers’ roll of Catholicism. By one of those inexplicable ironies that meet us everywhere in human history, this man, who had endured exile so often, and risked life itself in defence of what he believed to be the first and most essential truth of the Catholic creed, died not by violence or in hiding, but peacefully in his own bed, surrounded by his clergy and mourned by the faithful of the see he had served so well. His feast in the Roman Calendar is kept on the anniversary of his death.
[Note on his depiction in art: No accepted emblem has been assigned to him in the history of western art; and his career, in spite of its picturesque diversity and extraordinary wealth of detail, seems to have furnished little, if any, material for distinctive illustration. Mrs. Jameson tells us that according to the Greek formula, “he ought to be represented old, bald-headed, and with a long white beard” (Sacred and Legendary Art, I, 339).]
ST. GREGORY NAZIANZEN begins with these words his panegyric of this glorious saint, and champion of the faith: “When I praise Athanasius, virtue itself is my theme: for I name every virtue as often as I mention him who was possessed of all virtues. He was the true pillar of the church. His life and conduct were the rule of bishops, and his doctrine the rule of the orthodox faith.” St. Athanasius was a native of Alexandria, and seems to have been born about the year 296. His parents, who were Christians, and remarkable for their virtue, were solicitous to procure him the best education. After he had learned grammar and the first elements of the sciences, St. Alexander, before he was raised to the episcopal chair of that city, was much delighted with the virtuous deportment of the youth, and with the pregnancy of his wit; and took upon himself the direction of his studies, brought him up under his own eye, always made him eat with him, and employed him as his secretary. Athanasius copied diligently the virtues of his master, imbibed his maxims of piety and holy zeal, was directed by him in the plan and method of his studies, and received from him the greatest assistance in the pursuit of them. By writing under so great a master, he acquired the most elegant, easy, and methodical manner of composition. Profane sciences he only learned as far as they were necessary, or might be rendered subservient to those that are most sublime and important: but from their aid he contracted an elegant, clear, methodical, and masterly style; and was qualified to enter the lists in defense of our holy faith with the greatest advantage. However, the sacred studies of religion and virtue he made the serious employment of his whole life: and how much he excelled in them, the sequel of his history and perusal of his works show. From his easy and ready manner of quoting the holy scriptures, one would imagine he knew them by heart; at least, by the assiduous meditation and study of those divine oracles he had filled his heart with the spirit of the most perfect piety, and his mind with the true science of the profound mysteries which our divine religion contains. But in his study of the sacred writings, the tradition of the church was his guide, which he diligently sought in the comments of the ancient doctors, as he testifies. In another place, he declares that he had learned it from holy inspired masters, and martyrs for the divinity of Christ. That he might neglect no branch of ecclesiastical learning, he applied himself diligently to the study of the canons of the church, in which no one was more perfectly versed: nor was he a stranger to the civil law, as appears from his works; on which account Sulpicius Severus styles him a lawyer.
Achillas, who had succeeded St. Peter in the patriarchal see of Alexandria, dying in 313, St. Alexander was promoted to that dignity. The desire of grounding himself in the most perfect practice of virtue drew St. Athanasius into the deserts to the great St. Antony, about the year 315; with whom he made a considerable stay, serving him in quality of a disciple, and regarding it as an honor to pour water on his hands when he washed them. When he had by his retreat prepared himself for the ministry of the altar, he returned to the city, and having passed through the inferior degrees of ecclesiastical orders, was ordained deacon about the year 319. St. Alexander was so much taken with his prudence, virtue, and learning, that he desired to have him always with him, and governed his flock by his advice. He stood much in need of such a second, in defending his church against the calumnies and intrigues of the schismatics and heretics. The holy patriarch St. Peter had, at the intercession of the martyrs and confessors, dispensed with the rigor of the canons in behalf of certain persons who through frailty had fallen into idolatry during the persecution, and upon their repentance had received them again to communion. Meletius, bishop of Lycos in Thebais, unjustly took offence at this lenity, and on that pretence formed a schism over all Egypt against St. Peter and his successors. Arius. a Lybian by birth, and a deacon, who for seditious practices was expelled the church by his bishop St. Peter, fell in with Meletius. St. Peter was so well acquainted with his turbulent spirit, that no entreaties could move him, even when he was going to martyrdom, to receive him into the communion of the church. However, his successor, Achillas, upon his submission and repentance, not only admitted him into his communion, but also ordained him priest, and intrusted him with the church of Baucalis, one of the parishes of the city. Achillas was succeeded by St. Alexander, whose promotion Arius resented as an injury done to himself, being in his own opinion the more worthy: and some time after impudently and blasphemously asserted that Christ was not God, but a mere creature, though formed before all other created beings, (but not from eternity,) and of a nature superior in perfection to all other creatures. St. Alexander long endeavored by mildness to reclaim the heresiarch, but was compelled by his obstinacy to cut him off from the communion of the church, in a synod of all the bishops under his jurisdiction, held at Alexandria. Arius fled first into Palestine, and thence to Nicomedia, where he had already gained by letters the confidence of Eusebius, the crafty bishop of that city. In 319, St. Alexander sent an account of his proceedings against Arius in a circular letter directed to all the bishops of the church, signed by St. Athanasius and many others. In 325, he took the holy deacon with him to the council of Nice, who there distinguished himself by the extraordinary zeal and learning with which he encountered not only Arius, but also Eusebius of Nicomedia, Theognis, and Maris, the principal protectors of that heresiarch; and he had a great share in the disputations and decisions of that venerable assembly, as Theodoret, Sozomen, and St. Gregory Nazianzen testify.
Five months after this great council, St. Alexander, lying on his deathbed, by a heavenly inspiration recommended to his clergy and people the choice of Athanasius for his successor, thrice repeating his name; and when he was found to be absent, he cried out: “Athanasius, you think to escape, but you are mistaken.” Sozomen says he had absconded for fear of being chosen. In consequence of this recommendation, the bishops of all Egypt assembled at Alexandria, and finding the people and clergy unanimous in their choice of Athanasius for patriarch, they confirmed the election about the middle of the year 326; for St. Cyril testifies, that he held that chair forty six years. He seems then to have been about thirty years of age. He ordained Frumentius bishop of the Æthiopiaus, and made the visitation of the churches under his jurisdiction throughout all Egypt. The Meletians continued, after the death of their author, to hold private assemblies, ordain new bishops by their own authority, everywhere to divide the people, and to fill Egypt with factions and schisms. In vain did St. Athanasius employ all the power which his authority put into his hands, to bring them back to the unity of the church. The severity of their morals gained them a reputation among the people, and their opposition to the Catholics moved the Arians to court their friendship. Though these schismatics were in the beginning orthodox in faith, and the first and most violent opposers of Arius, yet they soon after joined his partisans in calumniating and impugning St. Athanasius; for which purpose they entered into a solemn league of iniquity together. For St. Athanasius observes, that as Herod and Pontius Pilate forgot their enmity to agree in persecuting Christ, so the Meletians and Arians dissembled their private animosities, to enter into a mutual confederacy and cabal against the truth: which is the spirit of all sectaries, who, though divided in every other thing, unite in persecuting the truth and opposing the church.
Arius being recalled from banishment, into which he had been sent by the emperor, St. Athanasius refused him entrance into the church, whereupon he retired to his friends in Palestine and the neighboring eastern provinces, at whose entreaty Constantine urged St. Athanasius to admit him to his communion. The intrepid patriarch answered the emperor, that the Catholic church could hold no communion with heresy that so impudently attacked the divinity of Jesus Christ. Eusebius of Nicomedia, and Theognis, after three years’ banishment, seeing Arius already released from his exile, wrote a letter to the emperor, which is extant in Socrates and Sozomen, artfully declaring that they all agreed in faith, that they received the word consubstantial, having now fully examined its meaning, and that they entirely gave themselves up to peace; but could not anathematize Arius, whom, by a long converse with him, and both by word and writing, they had found not to be guilty of what had been laid to his charge, and who had already met with a favorable reception from his imperial majesty. Hereupon the sentence of their banishment was reversed, and they were both permitted to return to their respective sees. This Eusebius had before ambitiously procured his translation from the see of Berytus to that of Nicomedia, which being at that time the residence of the eastern emperors, gave him a fair opportunity of ingratiating himself with the great ministers of state, and thereby of rendering himself considerable for power and interest at court. He neither wanted parts nor learning, was of a subtle and daring temper, a deep dissembler, and the most artful of men; and on these accounts a proper instrument of the devil to be the contriver of the calumnies and persecutions against our saint and the Catholic church. He was no sooner come back to Nicomedia, than he began to set his engines at work. He first wrote a civil letter to St. Athanasius, wherein he endeavored to justify Arius. But neither his own flattering words, not the emperor’s threats, which he procured, prevailing, he wrote to the Meletians that the time was now come to put their designs in execution and impeach Athanasius. It was some time before they could agree what they should lay to his charge. At length they sent three of their schismatical bishops, Isio, Eudæmon, and Callinicus, to Nicomedia, who undertook to accuse him to the emperor of having exacted linen for the use of his church, and imposed it as a tribute upon the people; also of sending a purse of gold to one Philumenus, who was plotting to usurp the empire. Athanasius being summoned to appear before Constantine, his cause was heard in his palace of Psammathia, situated in the suburbs of Nicomedia. The emperor, having examined the accusations against him, was convinced of his innocence, acquitted him of what had been alleged against him, and sent him back with a letter to the faithful of Alexandria, wherein he calls him a man of God, and a most venerable person.
Eusebius, though baffled for the present, did not despair of compassing his ends; and, in the mean time, contrived the banishment of St. Eustathius, the most zealous and holy patriarch of Antioch. And soon after, new allegations were laid against Athanasius, charging him with the murder of Arsenius, a Meletian bishop, and with other crimes. Constantine appeared shocked at the accusation of the murder, and sent an order to St. Athanasius to clear himself in a council, which was to be held at Cæsarea, in Palestine, whereof Eusebius, one of the Arian party, was bishop. The saint, disliking it, no doubt, on this account, and justly apprehensive he should not have liberty allowed him for his defence, did not appear. This his enemies represented to Constantine as the effect of pride and stubbornness; who, being exasperated by these suggestions, began to entertain an ill opinion of him, and appointed another council to assemble at Tyre, where he commanded Athanasius, at his peril, to appear. The council met there in August, 335, consisting of sixty bishops, chiefly Arians. St. Athanasius, after some delay, came thither, attended with a considerable number of bishops of his own province, and, among these, the illustrious confessors, Paphnutius and Potamon. All the chiefs of the Arian sect were present; the two Eusebiuses, Flacillus, the intruded bishop of Antioch, Theognis of Nice, Maris of Chalcedon, Narcissus of Neronias, Theodorus of Heraclea, Patrophilus of Scythopolis, Ursacius of Syngidon, Valens of Mursa, and George of Laodicea. The just exception which St. Athanasius made against such judges who had declared themselves his enemies, was tyrannically overruled, and, on his entering the council, they, instead of allowing him to take his place among them, obliged him to stand as a criminal at the bar before his judges. St. Potamon could not forbear tears upon the occasion; and, addressing himself to Eusebius of Cæsarea, who had been a prisoner with him for the faith in the late persecution, cried out: “What, Eusebius, are you sitting on the bench, and doth Athanasius stand arraigned? Who can bear this with patience? Tell me; was not you in prison with me during the persecution? As for my part, I lost an eye in it, but I see you are whole and sound. How came you to escape so well?” By which words he insinuated a suspicion of public fame, that Eusebius had been guilty of some unlawful compliance. The rest of the Egyptian bishops persisted in refusing to allow those to be judges of their patriarch, who were his professed enemies; but their remonstrances were not regarded.
The first article of accusation against the saint was, that Macarius, his deputy, had been guilty of sacrilege, in breaking the chalice of one Ischyras, a supposed priest, while he was officiating at the altar. This, which had been already proved to be mere calumny, and was further confuted by deputies sent from Tyre into Egypt to examine into the state of the affair whereby it appeared that the whole charge was groundless and malicious, and that Ischyras, who at length was reconciled to St. Athanasius, had been set on by certain bishops of the Meletian faction. He was next accused of having ravished a virgin consecrated to God: and a woman was accordingly prevailed with to own and attest the fact in open council. Whereupon Timothy, one of the saint’s clergy, turning to her, “Woman,” said he, “did I ever lodge at your house; did I ever, as you pretend, offer violence to you?” “Yes,” said she, “you are the very person I accuse;” adding, at large, the circumstances of time and place. The imposture thus plainly discovering itself, put the contrivers of it so much out of countenance, that they drove her immediately out of the assembly. St. Athanasius indeed insisted on her staying, and being obliged to declare who it was that had suborned her; but this was overruled by his enemies, alleging that they had more important crimes to charge him with, and such as it was impossible to elude by any artifices whatsoever. They proceeded next to the affair of Arsenius, an old Meletian bishop, whom they accused St. Athanasius of having murdered. To support this charge, they produced in court a dried and, supposed to be the hand of Arsenius, which, as they alleged, the patriarch had ordered to be cut off, to be employed in magical operations. The truth was: Arsenius, styled by his party bishop of Hypsele, had fallen into some irregularity, and had absconded. St. Athanasius had first procured certificates from many persons that he was still living; and prevailed with him afterwards, through the interest of friends, to come privately to Tyre, to serve Athanasius on this occasion. The saint therefore asked if any of the bishops present knew Arsenius: several answering, they did; he then made him appear before the whole assembly with both his hands. Thus was the wicked purpose of his adversaries defeated, no less to the pleasure and satisfaction of the innocent, than to the shame and confusion of the guilty. Arsenius soon after made his peace with St. Athanasius, and with the Catholic church; as did also John, the most famous of the Meletian bishops. The Arians called the saint a magician, and one that imposed upon their senses by the black art; and would have torn him to pieces had not the imperial governor interposed and rescued him out of their hands, who for further security sent him on board a ship that sailed the same night. Having thus escaped their fury, he went soon after for Constantinople. All these particulars are related by St. Athanasius, in his apology: also by Socrates, Sozomen, and Theodoret. Though the saint had been convicted of no crime, the Arian bishops pronounced against him a sentence of deposition, forbidding him to reside at Alexandria, lest his presence should excite new disorders there, repeating in their sentence the calumnies which had been so fully refuted.
Constantine, who had refused to see or give audience to our saint on his arrival at Constantinople, whom he looked upon as justly condemned by a council, sent an order to the bishops of Tyre to adjourn to Jerusalem, for the dedication of the church of the holy sepulchre, which he had caused to be built there. Arius came thither at this time to the council, with a letter from the emperor, and a profession of faith which he had presented to him, and which is extant in Socrates. In it the subtle heretic professes his belief in Christ, “as begotten before all worlds: God the Word, by whom all things were made, &c.” But neither the word consubstantial, nor any thing equivalent to it, was there. The heresiarch had assured the emperor that he received the council of Nict, who was thus imposed upon by his hypocrisy; but he ordered the bishops to examine his profession of faith. The Eusebians readily embraced the opportunity which they had long waited for, declared Arius orthodox, and admitted him to the communion. St. Athanasius, in the mean time, having requested of the emperor, who had refused him audience, that his pretended judges might be obliged to confront him, and that he might be allowed the liberty to exhibit his complaints against them, Constantine sent them an order to come to Constantinople to give an account of their transactions at Tyre. But only six, and these the most artful of the number, obeyed the summons, namely, Eusebius, Theognis, Maris, Patrophilus, Ursacius, and Valens. These agreed to attack St. Athanasius with a fresh accusation, as they did, charging him with having threatened to hinder the yearly transportation of corn from Alexandria to Constantinople. This accusation, though protested against by the saint as absolutely false and to the last degree improbable, was nevertheless believed by Constantine, who expressed his resentment at it, and banished him, in consequence, to Triers, then the chief city of the Belgic Gaul.
The holy man arrived there in the beginning of the year 336, and was received with the greatest respect by St. Maximinus, bishop of the place, and by Constantine the younger, who commanded there for his father. St. Antony and the people of Alexandria wrote to the emperor in favor of their pastor: but he answered that he could not despise the judgment of a council. The saint had the satisfaction to be informed that his church at Alexandria constantly refused to admit Arius. The year after, on Whitsunday, the 12th of May, Constantine departed this life, being sixty-three years and almost three months old, while he yet wore the Neophyte’s white garment after his baptism. His historian testifies with what ardor the people offered up their prayers to God for his soul.† He was buried in the porch of the church of the twelve apostles, which he had founded in Constantinople for the burying-place of the emperors and patriarchs, though he had built that of St. Irene for the great church or the cathedral. He would be buried in that holy place, according to Eusebius, “that he might deserve to enjoy the benefit of the mystical sacrifice, and the communion of devout prayers.” Constantine’s three sons divided the empire, as their father’s will directed. Constantine, the eldest, had Britain, Spain, Gaul, and all that lies on this side the Alps: Constantius, the second son, Thrace, Asia, Egypt, and the East: Constans, the youngest, had Italy, Africa, Greece, and Illyricum. Constantine, the younger, restored St. Athanasius to his see, sending with him a letter filled with high commendations of the holy prelate, and expressions of great respect for his sanctity, and of indignation against his adversaries. The saint passed through Syria, and was received by his flock with a joy and pomp equal to the triumph of an emperor.
The city of Alexandria was situate within the jurisdiction of Constantius, whom the Arians had gained over to their party without much difficulty. These heretics accused St. Athanasius afresh to the three emperors for raising tumults and seditions upon his return, for committing violences and murder, and selling, for his own private use, the corn which Constantine had destined for the support of widows and ecclesiastics in those countries where corn did not grow; but the attestations of the bishops who had received it in Lybia justified him, and covered his accusers with confusion. Constantine and Constans sent away their deputies with disgrace: but Constantius being met at Antioch by Eusebius of Nicomedia, and others of his party, was easily persuaded into the belief of this last head of the accusation, and prevailed upon to grant them leave to choose a new bishop of Alexandria. They lost no time, but, assembling at Antioch, named one Pistus to that see, an Egyptian priest of their sect, who, together with the bishop that ordained him, had been condemned by St. Alexander and by the council of Nice: but pope Julius rejected his communion, and all other Catholic churches pronounced anathemas against him; nor was he ever able to get possession of the patriarchal chair. St. Athanasius called a council of about a hundred bishops, at Alexandria, to defend the Catholic faith: after which he repaired to Rome to pope Julius, to whom this council sent letters and deputies. Here the pope acquitted him in a council of fifty bishops, held in 341, and confirmed him in his see: but he was obliged to continue at Rome three years, during which the Arians carried on every thing by violence in the East. The same year a council met at Antioch to the dedication of the great church, called the Golden church, and framed twenty-five canons of discipline. After the departure of the orthodox prelates, the Arians framed a canon levelled against St. Athanasius, that if a bishop, who had been deposed in a council, whether justly or unjustly, should return to his church without the authority of a greater council than that which had deposed him, he should never hope to be re-established, nor have his cause admitted to a hearing. They then named Gregory, a Cappadocian, and placed him by force of arms in the see of Alexandria, in 341. The emperor Constans, in 345, invited St. Athanasius to Milan; and, by earnest letters, obliged his brother Constantius to join with him in assembling a general council of the East and West at Sardica, in Illyricum. It met in May, 347, and consisted of three hundred bishops of the West, and seventy-six of the East, according to Socrates and Sozomen; but, according to St. Athanasius, only of one hundred and seventy, besides the Eusebians; which agrees nearly with Theodoret, who reckons them in all two hundred and fifty. They were collected out of thirty-five provinces, besides the Orientals. This is reputed a general council, and is proved such by Natalis Alexander, though commonly looked upon only as an appendix to that of Nice. St. Athanasius, Marcellus of Ancyra, and Asclepas of Gaza, were acquitted. They and some others out of the eastern empire were present. But the Arian Orientals made a body apart, being fourscore in number, who having formed several assemblies in certain places by the way, on their arrival at Sardica, refused, as they had agreed before they came, to join the other prelates; alleging the presence of Athanasius, and other such frivolous pretenses; and at length, upon an intimation of the threats of the synod, if they did not appear, and if the Eusebians did not justify themselves of the matters said to their charge, they all fled by night, and held a pretended council at Philippopolis, as St. Hilary, in his fragments, and Socrates testify. Dr. Cave alleges that they dated their acts a Sardica: but this they did only to usurp the venerable name of that synod for at the same time they quote the synodal epistle of the prelates who remained at Sardica, before the date of which epistle all historians testify that they had left that city. The true council excommunicated the chiefs of the Eusebians, with Gregory the Cappadocian, forbidding all Catholic bishops to hold communication with them. This council sent two deputies to Constantius to press the execution of its decrees. The emperor Constans wrote to him also, both before and after the council, to acquaint him, that, unless he restored Athanasius to his see, and punished his calumniators, he would do it by force of arms. Gregory the Cappadocian, who had, with the Arian governors, exercised a most bloody persecution against the Catholics, and among others had caused to be beaten to death the holy confessor St. Potamon, dying four months after the council of Sardica, facilitated our saint’s return to Alexandria, and deprived the emperor of all pretexts for hindering or delaying it. Constantius had also upon his hands an unsuccessful war against the Persians, and dreaded the threats of a civil war from his brother. Therefore he wrote thrice to the holy prelate, entreating him to hasten his return to Alexandria. St. Athanasius, at the request of Constans, went first to him, then residing in Gaul, and probably at Milan, and thence to Rome, to take leave of pope Julius and his church. He took Antioch on his way home, where he found Constantius, who treated him with great courtesy, and only desired that he would allow the Arians one church in Alexandria. The saint answered, that he hoped, that, in that case, the same favor might be granted to the Catholics at Antioch, who adhered to Eustathius: but this not being relished by the Arians, Constantius insisted no longer on that point, but recommended Athanasius in very strong terms to his governors in Egypt. In the mean time, the zealous and pious emperor Constans was treacherously slain by Magnentius, in Gaul, in January, 350. Nevertheless, Constantius restored Athanasius, who immediately assembled a council at Alexandria, and confirmed the decrees of that of Sardica. St. Maximus did the same in a numerous synod at Jerusalem. Many Arian bishops on this occasion retracted their calumnies against the holy man, and also their heresy, among whom were Ursacius and Valens: but they soon returned to the vomit.
Magnentius usurped the empire in Italy, Gaul, and Africa, and Vetrannio in Pannonia. Constantius marched into the West against them. He made himself master of Vetrannio’s person by a stratagem, and his army defeated Magnentius, near Mursa, in Pannonia, in 351, and that tyrant fell soon after, by his own sword. While Constantius resided at Sirmium, in 351, a council was held in that city, consisting chiefly of oriental bishops, most of them Arians. Photinus, bishop of that see, who renewed the heresy of Sabellius, and affirmed Christ to be no more than a mere man, having been already condemned by two councils at Milan, was here excommunicated, deposed, and banished by the emperor. The profession of faith drawn up in this synod, is commonly esteemed orthodox, and called the first confession of Sirmium. The Arians had never ceased to prepossess the credulous emperor against Athanasius, whose active zeal was their terror; and that prince was no sooner at liberty, by seeing the whole empire in his own hands, than he began again to persecute him. He procured him to be condemned by certain Arian bishops, at Arles, in 353, and again at Milan, in 355, where he declared himself his accuser, and banished the Catholic bishops who refused to subscribe his condemnation, as SS. Eusebius of Vercelli, Dionysins of Milan. Paulinus of Triers, &c. He sent a chamberlain to obtain of pope Liberius the confirmation of this unjust sentence: but he rejected the proposal with indignation, though enforced with presents and threats. Liberius not only refused the presents which were brought him, but, when the messenger sought means to deposite them, as an offering in St. Peter’s church, unknown to the pope, he threw them out of doors. Constantius hereupon sent for him under a strict guard to Milan, where, in a conference, recorded by Theodoret, he boldly told Constantius that Athanasius had been acquitted at Sardica, and his enemies proved calumniators and impostors, and that it was unjust to condemn a person who could not be legally convicted of any crime: the emperor was reduced to silence on every article; but being the more out of patience, ordered him, unless he complied within three days, to go into banishment to Berœa, in Thrace. He sent him, indeed, five hundred pieces of gold to bear his charges, but Liberius refused them, saying, he might bestow them on his flatterers: as he did also a like present from the empress, bidding the messenger learn to believe in Christ, and not to persecute the church of God. After the three days were expired, he departed into exile, in 356. Constantius, going to Rome to celebrate the twentieth year of his reign, in 357, the ladies joined in a petition to him that he would restore Liberius, who had been then two years in banishment. He assented, upon condition that he should comply with the bishops then at court. About this time Liberius began to sink under the hardships of his exile, and his resolution was shaken by the continual solicitations of Demophilus, the Arian bishop of Berœa, and of Fortunatian, the temporizing bishop of Aquileia. He was so far softened by listening to flatteries and suggestions, to which he ought to have stopped his ears with horror, that he yielded to the snare laid for him, to the great scandal of the church. He subscribed the condemnation of St. Athanasius, and a confession, or creed, which had been framed by the Arians at Sirmium, though their heresy was not expressed in it; and he wrote to the Arian bishops of the East, that he had received the true Catholic faith which many bishops had approved at Sirmium. The fall of so great a prelate, and so illustrious a confessor, is a terrifying example of human weakness, which no one can call to mind without trembling for himself. St. Peter fell by a presumptuous confidence in his own strength and resolution; that we may learn that every one stands only by humility. Liberius, however, speedily imitated the repentance of the prince of the apostles. And he no sooner had recovered his see, than he again loudly declared himself the patron of justice and truth: and, when the council of Rimini was betrayed into a prevarication, which was construed in favor of Arianism, Liberius vigorously opposed the danger, and by his strenuous active zeal, averted the desolation with which it threatened many churches, as Theodoret testifies.
Constantius, not content to have banished the bishops who favored Athanasius, also threatened and punished all the officers and magistrates who refused to join in communion with the Arians. While his presence in the West filled it with confusion and acts of tyranny, St. Athanasius was at Alexandria, offering up to God most fervent prayers for the defence of the faith. Constantius next turned all his rage against him and against the city of Alexandria, sending orders to Syrianus, the duke, that is, general of the troops of Egypt, to persecute the archbishop and his clergy. He likewise dispatched two notaries to see his orders executed. They endeavored to oblige the saint to leave the city. He answered, that he had returned to his see, and had resided there till that time by the emperor’s express order, and therefore could not leave it without a command of equal authority, (which they owned was not in their power to produce,) or unless Syrianus, the duke, or Maximus, the prefect or governor, would give him such an order in writing, which neither of them would do. Syrianus, convinced of the justice of his plea, promised to give neither him nor the public assemblies of his people any further disturbance, without express injunction from the emperor to that effect. Twenty-three days after this solemn promise, confirmed by oath, the faithful were assembled at the church of St. Theonas, where they passed the night in prayer, on account of a festival to be celebrated the next day. Syrianus, conducted by the Arians, surrounded the church at midnight, with above five hundred soldiers, who having forced open the doors, committed the greatest disorders. The patriarch, however, kept his chair; and, being determined not to desert his flock in their distress, ordered a deacon to sing the 136th psalm, and the people to repeat alternately: For his mercy endureth forever. After this, he directed them to depart and make the best of their way to their own houses, protesting that he would be the last that left that place. Accordingly, when the greatest part of the people were gone out, and the rest were following, the clergy and monks that were left forced the patriarch out along with them; whom (though almost stifled to death) they conveyed safe through the guards and secured him out of their reach. Numbers on this occasion were trampled to death by the soldiers, or slain by their darts. This relation is given by the saint in his apology for his flight, and in his History of the Arians, addressed to the monks. The next step of the Arians was to fix a trusty man of their party in this important see: and the person they pitched upon was one George, who had been victualler to the army, one of the most brutish and cruel of men: who was accordingly placed in the patriarchal chair. His roughness and savage temper made him seem the fittest instrument to oppress the Catholics, and he renewed all the scenes of bloodshed and violence of which Gregory had set the example, as Theodoret relates. Our holy bishop hereupon retired into the deserts of Egypt: but was not permitted to enjoy long the conversation of the devout inhabitants of those parts, who, according to the expression of St. Gregory Nazianzen, lived only to God. His enemies having set a price upon his head, the wildernesses were ransacked by soldiers in quest of him, and the monks persecuted, who were determined rather to sufler death than to discover where he lay concealed The saint, apprehensive of their suffering on his account, left them, and retired to a more remote and solitary place, where he had scarce air to breathe in, and saw none but the person that supplied him with necessaries and brought him his letters, though not without great danger and difficulty.
Constantius died on the 3d of November, in 361; a prince whose memory will be eternally infamous for his heresy, and persecution of the church, his dissimulation, levity, and inconstancy, his weakness of mind, and the treacherous murder of all his uncles. The year following, George, the Arian usurper of the see of Alexandria, was massacred by the pagans for his cruelty. Thus was Athanasius delivered from all his chief enemies. Julian the Apostate, on coming to the empire, granted all the bishops who had been banished by Constantius the liberty to return to their respective churches; not out of any good-will he bore them, but with a view, as his own historian writes, to increase their divisions by this license, and lessen his fears for their uniting against him: also to reflect an odium on the memory and proceedings of his predecessor. Most of the orthodox bishops took their advantage of this permission; and the usurper of the see of Alexandria being massacred by the pagans in July, 362, our saint returned to his flock in August, after an absence of above six years. His entrance was a kind of triumph of the Catholic faith over its enemies, and the citizens hereupon drove the Arians out of all the churches.
In 359, the council of Rimini had the weakness so far to yield to the artifices of the Arians, as to omit in the creed the word consubstantial. The prelates were afterwards surprised to see the triumph of the Arians on that account, and were struck with remorse for their unwary condescension. Their fall was owing, not to any error in faith, but to a want of courage and insight into the artifices of the Arians. Nevertheless, Lucifer of Cagliari, and some other bishops, pretended, by a Pharisaical pride, that the lapsed, notwithstanding their repentance, could no longer be admitted by the church to communion in the rank of bishops or priests. St. Athanasius, on the contrary, being filled with the spirit of tenderness which our divine Redeemer exercised and recommended to be shown towards sincere penitents, condemned this excessive severity: and in 362, assembled a council at Alexandria; at which assisted St. Eusebius of Vercelli, in his return from his banishment in Thebais, St. Asterius of Petra, &c. This synod condemned those who denied the divinity of the Holy Ghost, and decreed that the authors of the Arian heresy should be deposed, and upon their repentance received only to the lay-communion; but that those prelates who had fallen into it only by compulsion, and for a short time, should, upon their repentance, retain their sees. This decision was adopted in Macedonia, Achaia, Spain, Gaul, &c., and approved at Rome. For we learn from St. Hilary, that Liberius, who died in 366, had established this disciple in Italy, and we have his letter to the Catholic bishops of that country, in which he approves what had been regulated in this regard in Achaia and Egypt, and exhorts them to exert their zeal against the authors of their fault, in proportion to the grief they felt for having committed it.
Theodoret says that the priests of the idols complained to Julian, that, if Athanasius was suffered to remain in Alexandria, there would not remain one adorer of the gods in that city. Julian, having received this advice, answered their complaint, telling them, that, though he had allowed the Galileans (his name of derision for Christians) to return to their own country, he had not given them leave to enter on the possession of their churches. And that Athanasius, in particular, who had been banished by the orders of several emperors, ought not to have done this: he therefore ordered him immediately to leave the city on the receipt of his letter, under the penalty of a severer punishment. He even dispatched a messenger to kill him. The saint comforted his flock, and having recommended them to the ablest of his friends, with an assurance that this storm would soon blow over, embarked in a boat on the river for Thebais. He who had orders to kill him, hearing that he was fled, sailed after him with great expedition. The saint having timely notice sent him of it, was advised by those that accompanied him to turn aside into the deserts that bordered on the Nile. But St. Athanasius ordered them to tack about, and fall down the river towards Alexandria; “to show,” said he, “that our protector is more powerful than our persecutor.” Meeting the pursuivant, he asked them whether they had seen Athanasius as they came down the river, and was answered that he was not far off, and that if they made haste, they would quickly come up with him. Upon this the assassin continued the pursuit, while St. Athanasius got safe and unsuspected to Alexandria, where he lay hid for some time. But upon a fresh order coming from Julian for his death, he withdrew into the deserts of Thebais, going from place to place to avoid falling into the hands of his enemy. St. Theodorus, of Tabenna, being come to visit him, while at Antinoë, with St. Pammon, put an end to his apprehensions on this score, by assuring him, on a revelation God had favored him with, that Julian had just then expired in Persia, where he was killed on the 27th of June, in 363. The holy hermit acquainted him also that the reign of his Christian successor would be very short. This was Jovian, who being chosen emperor, refused to accept that dignity till the army had declared for the Christian religion He was no sooner placed upon the throne but he wrote to St. Athanasius cancelling the sentence of his banishment, and praying him to resume the government of his church, adding high commendations of his virtue and unshaken constancy. St. Athanasius waited not for the emperor’s orders to quit his retreat, but on being apprized, as before related, of the death of his persecutor, appeared on a sudden, and resumed his usual functions in the midst of his people, who were joyfully surprised at the sight of him. The emperor, well knowing that he was the chief person that had stood up in defense of the Christian faith, besought him, by a second letter, to send him a full account in writing of its doctrines, and some rules for his conduct and behavior in what regarded the affairs of the church. St. Athanasius called a synod of learned bishops, and returned an answer in their name; recommending, that he should hold inviolable the doctrine explained in the council of Nice, this being the faith of the apostles, which had been preached in all ages, and was generally professed throughout the whole Christian world, “some few excepted,” says he, “who embrace the opinions of Arius.” The Arians attempted in vain to alter his favorable dispositions towards the saint by renewing their old calumnies. Not satisfied with his instructions by letters, he desired to see him; and the holy bishop was received by him at Antioch with all possible tokens of affection and esteem; but after giving him holy advice, he hastened back to Alexandria. The good emperor Jovian reigned only eight months, dying on the 17th of February, in 364. Valentinian, his successor, chose to reside in the West, and making his brother Valens partner in the empire, assigned to him the East. Valens was inclined to Arianism, and openly declared in favor of it, in 367, when he received baptism from the hands of Eudoxius, bishop of the Arians, at Constantinople. The same year he published an edict for the banishment of all those bishops who had been deprived of their sees by Constantius. Theodoret says this was the fifth time that St. Athanasius had been driven from his church. He had been employed in visiting the churches, monasteries, and deserts of Egypt. Upon the news of this new tempest, the people of Alexandria rose in tumults, demanding of the governor of the province that they might be allowed to enjoy their bishop, and he promised to write to the emperor. Saint Athanasius, seeing the sedition appeased, stole privately out of the town, and hid himself in the country in the vault in which his father was interred, where he lay four months, according to Sozomen. The very night after he withdrew, the governor and the general of the troops took possession of the church in which he usually performed his functions; but were not able to find him. As soon as his departure was known, the city was filled with lamentation, the people vehemently calling on the governor for the return of their pastor. The fear of a sedition moved Valens at length to grant them that satisfaction, and to write to Alexandria that he might abide there in peace, in the free possession of the churches. In 369, the holy patriarch convened at Alexandria a council of ninety bishops, in whose name he wrote to the bishops of Africa to beware of any surprise from those who were for preferring the decrees of the council of Rimini to those of Nice.
The continued scenes of perfidy, dissimulation, and malice which the history of Arianism exhibits to our view, amaze and fill us with horror. Such superlative impiety and hypocrisy would have seemed incredible, had not the facts been attested by St. Athanasius himself, and by all the historians of that age. They were likewise of so public a nature, having been performed before the eyes of the whole world, or proved by ocular demonstration in the Arians’ own synods, that St. Athanasius could never have inserted them in his apology, addressed to these very persons and to the whole world, could any circumstances have been disproved, or even called in question. By such base arts and crimes did the Arian blasphemy spread itself, like a spark of fire set to a train of gunpowder; and, being supported by the whole power of a crafty and proud emperor, seemed to threaten destruction to the church of Christ, had it not been built on foundations which, according to the promises of Him who laid them, all the power of hell shall never be able to shake. During more than three hundred years it had stood the most violent assaults of the most cruel and powerful persecutors, who had bent the whole power of the empire to extirpate, if it had been possible, the Christian name. But the more it was depressed the more it grew and flourished, and the blood of martyrs was a seed which pushed forth and multiplied with such a wonderful increase, as to extend its shoots into every part of the then known world, and to fill every province and every rank of men in the Roman empire. By the conversion of the emperors themselves, it appeared triumphant over all the efforts of hell. But the implacable enemy of man’s salvation did not desist in his attacks. His restless envy and malice grew more outrageous by his defeats; and shifting his ground, he stirred up his instruments within the bowels of the church itself, and excited against it a storm, in which hell seemed to vomit out all its poison, and unite all the efforts of its malice. But these vain struggles again terminated in the most glorious triumph of the church. In those perilous times, God raised up many holy pastors, whom he animated with his spirit, and strengthened in the defence of his truth. Among these St. Athanasius was the most illustrious champion. By his undaunted courage, and unparalleled greatness of soul under the most violent persecutions, he merited a crown equal to that of the most glorious martyrs: by his erudition, eloquence, and writings he holds an illustrious place among the principal doctors of the church; and by the example of his virtue, by which he rivalled the most renowned anchorets of the deserts, and the most holy confessors, he stemmed the torrent of scandal and iniquity which threatened to bear down all before it.
St. Gregory Nazianzen gives the following portrait of his virtues in private life. “He was most humble and lowly in mind, as his virtue was most sublime and inimitable. He was most courteous to all, and every one had easy access to him; he was meek, gentle, compassionate, amiable in his discourse, but much more so in his life; of an angelical disposition; mild in his reproofs, and instructive in his commendations; in both which he observed such even measures, that his reproof spoke the kindness of a father, and his commendation the authority of a master; and neither was his indulgence over tender, nor his severity harsh. His life supplied the place of sermons, and his sermons prevented correction. In him all ranks might find enough to admire, and enough to imitate; one might commend his unwearied austerity in fasting and prayer; another his perseverance in watchings and the divine praises; a third his admirable care of the poor; a fourth his courage in checking the injustice of the rich, or his condescension to the humble.” Thus St. Gregory Nazianzen, who says he was a lodestone to dissenters, drawing them to his opinion, unless hardened in malice; and always at least raising in them a secret reverence and veneration for his person; but that he was an adamant to his persecutors; no more capable of impressions against justice, than a rock of marble is of yielding to any slight touch. After innumerable combats, and as many great victories, this glorious saint, having governed the church of Alexandria forty-six years, was called to a life exempt from labor and suffering, on the 2d of May, on a Thursday, according to the Oriental Chronicle of the Copthes, in the year 373, as is clear from the same author, St. Proterius, and St. Jerom; not in 371, as Socrates mistakes. St. Gregory Nazianzen thus describes his death: “He ended his life in a holy old age, and went to keep company with his fathers, the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, who had fought valiantly for the truth, as he had done: and to comprise his epitaph in few words, he departed this life with far greater honor and glory than what he had received in his more than triumphant entries into Alexandria, when he returned from his banishments: so much was his death lamented by all good men; and the immortal glory of his name remained imprinted in their hearts.” He desires the saint “to look down upon him from heaven, to favor and assist him in the government of his flock, and to preserve it in the true faith: and if, for the sins of the world, heretics were to prevail against it, to deliver him from these evils and to bring him, by his intercession, to enjoy God in his company.”
The humility, modesty, and charity of this great saint; his invincible meekness towards his enemies, who were the most implacable and basest of men, and the heroic fortitude, patience, and zeal, by which he triumphed over the persecutions of almost the whole world confederated against him, and of four emperors, Constantine, Constantius, Julian, and Valens, three of whom employed wiles, stratagems, hypocrisy, and sometimes open force to destroy him: these, I say, and all other eminent virtues, have rendered his name venerable in the church to the latest ages, which he ceases not to instruct and edify by his writings.
These and other virtues, Saint Athanasius learned and practiced in the most heroic degree, by studying them devoutly and assiduously in the sacred life, and in the divine heart of Jesus. And in the simplicity of faith he adored the incomprehensible greatness of the Divinity, his infinite wisdom, justice, and sanctity, with the boundless treasures of his love and mercy, in the mystery of his adorable Incarnation. If we have a holy ambition to improve ourselves in this saving knowledge, in this most sublime and truly divine science, which will not only enlighten our understanding, but also reform all the affections of our hearts, and be in us a source of unspeakable peace, joy, love, light, and happiness, we must study in the same school. We must become zealous lovers and adorers of our most amiable Redeemer; we must meditate daily on his admirable life, penetrating into the unfathomed abyss of his love, and his perfect sentiments of humility, meekness, and every virtue in all his actions, and join our homages with those which he paid in his divine heart, and still continues to offer to his Father: we must sacrifice to him our affections in transports of joy and fervor, adoring, praising, loving, and thanking him, and must continually beg his mercy and grace, that we may be replenished with his spirit of humility and every virtue; and, above all, that his love may take absolute possession of our hearts, and of all our faculties and powers. “The Son of God,” says St. Athanasius, “took upon him our poverty and miseries, that he might impart to us a share of his riches. His sufferings will render us one day impassible, and his death immortal. His tears will be our joy, his burial our resurrection, and his baptism is our sanctification, according to what he says in his gospel: For them I sanctify myself, that they also may be made holy in fruits.”