Sunday, May 03, 2009

St. Athanasius

posted by Amy Welborn

The story of St. Athanasius is instructive in many areas, an important one for those seeking to understand the warp and weave of life in the Church as well as the mystery of the Church, in its shadows and light.

As the Universalis entry for Saturday says:

Athanasius's passion for the truth seems tactless to many of us today, to the point where some Catholic devotional works even express embarrassment over it. This is grotesque. Before we congratulate ourselves on being more gentle and civilised than Athanasius and his contemporaries, we should look at the lack of charity that characterizes academic controversies today (from string theory to global warming) and the way that some of the participants are willing to use any weapon that comes to hand, from legal persecution to accusations of madness to actual assault. The matters in dispute with the Arians were more important than any of these scientific questions. They were vital to the very nature of Christianity, and, as Cardinal Newman put it, the trouble was that at that time the laity tended to be champions of orthodoxy while their bishops (seduced by closeness to imperial power) tended not to be. The further trouble (adds Chadwick) is that the whole thing became tangled up with matters of power, organization and authority, and with cultural differences between East and West. Athanasius was accused of treason and murder, embezzlement and sacrilege. In the fight against him, any weapon would do.
Athanasius, patriarch of Alexandria, defender of orthodoxy against Arianism, was banished five times. These paragraphs are dense, but give a succinct summary:

The first few years of the episcopate of Athanasius were tranquil; but the storms in which the remainder of his life was passed soon began to gather around him. The Council of Nicaea had settled the creed of Christendom, but had by no means composed the divisions in the church which the Arian controversy had provoked. Arius himself still lived, and his friend Eusebius of Nicomedia rapidly regained influence over the Emperor Constantine. The result of this was a demand made by the emperor that Arius should be re-admitted to communion. Athanasius s tood firm, and refused to have any communion with the advocates of a "heresy that was fighting against Christ."

Constantine was baffled for the moment; but many accusers soon rose up against one who was known to be under the frown of imperial displeasure. The archbishop of Alexandria was charged with cruelty, even with sorcery and murder. It was reported that a Meletian bishop in the Thebaid, of the name of Arsenius, had been unlawfully put to death by him. He was easily able to clear himself of such charges, but the hatred of his enemies was not relaxed, and in the summer of 335 he was peremptorily ordered to appear at Tyre, where a council had been summoned to sit in judgment upon his conduct.

He did not venture to disobey the imperial order, and a commission was appointed to inquire into an alleged instance of cruelty urged against him, notwithstanding the explanations which he had made. There appeared plainly a predetermination to condemn him, and he fled from Tyre to Constantinople to appeal to the emperor himself. "He resolved," says Gibbon, "to make a bold and dangerous experiment, whether the throne was inaccessible to the voice of truth." He presented himself suddenly with five of his suffragans before the emperor, while riding into his new capital. Refused at first a hearing, his perseverance was at length rewarded by the emperor's consent to his reasonable request--that his accusers should be brought face to face with him in the imperial presence. The leaders of the Tyrian council, amongst the most conspicuous of whom were the two Eusebii, were accordingly summoned to Constantinople just after they had celebrated, at a great dedication festival at Jerusalem, the condemnation of Athanasius and the restoration of Arius to church communion.

In confronting the former before Constantine they did not attempt to repeat the charge of cruelty, but found a more ready and effective weapon to their hands in a new charge of a political kind--that Athanasius had threatened to stop the Alexandrian corn-ships bound for Constantinople. Here, as in other matters, it is very difficult to understand how far there was any truth in the persistent accusations made against the prince-bishop of Alexandria. Probably there was in the very greatness of his character and the extent of his popular influence a certain species of dominance which lent a colour of truth to some of the things said against him. On the present occasion his accusers succeeded in at once arousing the imperial jealousy; and the consequence was, that, notwithstanding his earnest denial of the act attributed to him, he was banished to Trier, or Treves, the capital of Gaul.

This was the first banishment of Athanasius, which lasted about two years and a half. It was only brought to a close by the death of Constantine, and the accession of Constantine II. as emperor of the West. It is recorded by himself (Apol. 7) that, on his return to Alexandria, "the people ran in crowds to see his face; the churches were full of rejoicing; thanksgivings were offered up everywhere; the ministers and clergy thought the day the happiest in their lives."

But this period of happiness was destined to be short-lived. His position as patriarch of Alexandria placed him, not under his friend Constantine II., but under Constantius, another son of the elder Constantine, who had succeeded to the throne of the East. He in his turn fell, as his father had done, more and more under the influence of the Nicomedian Eusebius, now transferred to the see of Constantinople. A second expulsion of Athanasius was accordingly resolved upon.

The old charges against him were revived, with the addition of his having set at naught the decision of a council. It was further resolved on this occasion to put another bishop in his place. Accordingly, in the beginning of the year 340, a Cappadocian named Gregory, said to be an Arian, was installed by military force on the throne of the great defender of the faith, who, to save his followers from outrage, withdrew to a place of concealment.

As soon as it was possible he repaired to Rome, to "lay his case before the church." He was declared innocent at a council held there in 342, and in another held at Sardica some years later. Julius, the bishop of Rome, warmly espoused his cause, and, generally, it may be said that the Western Church was Athanasian in its sympathies and its creed, while the majority of the Eastern bishops sided with the Eusebian party. This severance was clearly shown at the Council of Sardica, where the Orientals refused to meet with the representation of the Western Church, because the latter insisted on recognising the right of Athanasius and his friends to attend the council as regular bishops. The commonly received date of this council is 347, but the rediscovered Festal Letters of Athanasius have had the effect of throwing back this date for some years. It has been placed by some as early as the end of 343, by Mansi and others in the end of 344. The decision of the Council of Sardica, however, had no immediate effect in favour of Athanasius.

Constantius continued for some time implacable, and the bold action of the Western bishops only incited the Arian party in Alexandria to fresh severities. Gradually, however, the excesses of the Arian party brought their own revenge, while the death of the intruded bishop Gregory, in the beginning of 345, opened up the way for a reconciliation betwixt the Eastern emporor and the banished prelate. The result was the restoration of Athanasius for the second time, amidst the enthusiastic demonstrations of the Alexandrian populace, which is represented by his panegyrist, Gregory Nazianzen, as streaming forth " like another Nile " to meet him in the distance as he approached the city. His restoration is supposed to have taken place, according to the more accurate chronology based upon the Festal Letters, in October 346.

For ten years at this time Athanasius held his ground in Alexandria. But the intrigues of the Arian or court party were soon renewed against him, and the feeble emperor, who had protested that he would never again listen to their accusations, was gradually stimulated to new hostilities. A large council was held at Milan in the spring of the year 356, and here, notwithstanding the vigorous opposition of a few faithful men amongst the Western bishops, a renewed condemnation of Athanasius was procured. This was followed up by the banishment of the faithful prelates, even of Hosius of Cordova, whose conciliatory character and intimate connection with the imperial family had not prevented him from addressing to Constantius a pathetic remonstrance against the tyranny of the Arian party.

When his friends were thus scattered in exile, their great leader could not long escape; and on the night of the 8th of February 356, while he was engaged in service in the church of St Thomas, a band of armed men burst into the sacred building. He has himself described the scene (Apol. de fuga, 24). Here for a time he maintained his composure, and desired the deacon to read the psalm, and the people to respond--" For His mercy endureth for ever; " and how, as the soldiers rushed forward with fierce shouts towards the altar, he at length made his escape in the crowd, and sought once more a place of safe retirement. The solitudes of Upper Egypt, where numerous monasteries and hermitages had been planted, appear to have been his chief shelter at this time. Here, protected from pursuit, he spent his time in literary labors in behalf of his cause; and to this period, accordingly, belong some of his most important writings, above all the great Orations or Discourses against the Arians, which furnish the best exposition of his theological position and principles.

For six years at this time Athanasius continued in exile, till the death of Constantius in November 361 opened once more the way for his return to his episcopate. Julian, the successor to the imperial throne, professed indifference to the contentions of the church, and granted permission to the bishops exiled in the late reign to return home. Amongst others, Athanasius took advantage of this permission, and seated himself once more upon his throne, amidst the jubilations of the people. He had begun his episcopal labours with renewed ardour, and summoned a council to Alexandria to decide various important questions, when an imperial mandate yet again drove him from his place of power.

The faithful gathered around him weeping. " Be of good heart," he said, " it is but a cloud it will soon pass." His forecast proved true; for within a few months Julian had closed his brief career of Pagan revival, and Athanasius "returned by night to Alexandria." He received a letter from the new emperor, Jovian, praising his Christian fidelity, and encouraging him to resume his work.

With the emperor he continued to maintain friendly relations, and even drew out for him a synodal letter embodying the Nicene Creed, which was graciously received. During the brief reign of this bluff soldier-prince, comparative quiet prevailed in the church. But the repose was of short duration. In the spring of 365, after the accession of Valens, troubles reappeared. An order was issued for the expulsion of all bishops who had been expelled by Constantius, and Athanasius was once more forced to take refuge in concealment from his persecutors. His concealment, however, only lasted for four months, when an order came for his return; and from this time (Feb. 366) he was left undisturbed to pursue his episcopal labors.

Those labours were unceasing in refuting heretics, in building churches, in rebuking rapacious governors, in comforting faithful bishops, and in strengthening the orthodox everywhere, till at length, in the spring of 373, "in a good old age," he ceased from all his work. Having consecrated one of his presbyters his successor, he died quietly in his own house.

I think when we engage in fantasies about how bad things are for the Church now, how compromised 21st Catholics from hierarchy to laity (aka us - you and me) seem, a daily dose of history is in order.