Chapter 12 - ST. ATHANASIUS, PART 1 (AD 325-337)

Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria by whom Arius had been excommunicated, died soon after returning home from the Council of Nicaea; and Athanasius, who was then about thirty years of age, was chosen in his stead, and governed the Alexandrian Church for six-and-forty years. Every one knows the name of St. Athanasius, from the creed which is called after it. That creed, indeed, was not made by St. Athanasius himself; but, as the Prayer-book says, it is "commonly called" his, because it sets forth the true Christian faith, of which he was the chief defender in his day. And we are bound to honour this learned and holy bishop, as the man by whom especially God was pleased that His truth should be upheld and established against all the craft of Arius and his party, and even against all the power of the emperors of Rome.

For, although Arius had been sent into banishment, he soon managed to get into favour at the emperor's court. One of his friends, a priest, gained the ear of Constantine's sister, and this princess, when she was dying, recommended the priest to the emperor. Neither Constantine nor his sister understood enough of the matter to be on their guard against the deceits of the Arian, who was able to persuade the emperor that Arius had been ill-used, and that he did not really hold the opinions for which the council had condemned him. Arius, then, was allowed to return from banishment, and Constantine desired Athanasius to receive him back into the Church, saying that he was not guilty of the errors which had been laid to his charge. But Athanasius knew that this was only a trick; and he answered that, as Arius had been condemned by a council of the whole Church, he could not be restored by anything less than another such council.

The Arians, on finding that they could not win Athanasius over, resolved to attack him. They contrived that all sorts of charges against him should be carried to the emperor; and in the year 335, a council was held at Tyre for his trial. One story was, that he had killed an Egyptian bishop, named Arsenius, that he had cut off his hand, and had used it for magical purposes (for, among other things, Athanasius was said by his enemies to be a sorcerer!), and the dried hand of a man was shown, which was said to be that of Arsenius. But when the time came for examining this charge, what was the confusion of the accusers at seeing Arsenius himself brought into the council! He was dressed in a long cloak, and Athanasius lifted it up, first on one side, and then on the other, so as to show that the man was not only alive, but had both his hands safe and sound. The leaders of the Arians had known that Arsenius was not dead, but they had hoped that he would not appear. But, happily for Athanasius, one of his friends had discovered Arsenius, and had kept him hidden until the right moment came for producing him.

Athanasius was able to answer the other charges against him, as well as that about Arsenius; and the Arians, seeing that they must contrive some new accusation, sent some of his bitterest enemies into Egypt, to rake up all the tales that they could find. Athanasius knew what he might expect from people who could act so unfairly; he therefore resolved not to wait for their return, but got on board a ship which was bound for Constantinople. On arriving there, he posted himself in a spot outside the city, where he expected the emperor to pass in returning from a ride; and when Constantine came up, he threw himself in his way. The emperor was startled; but Athanasius told him who he was, and entreated him, by the thought of that judgment in which princes as well as subjects must one day appear, to order that the case should be tried before himself, instead of leaving it to judges from whom no justice was to be looked for. The emperor agreed to this, and was very angry with those who had behaved so unjustly in the council at Tyre. But after a time some of the Arians got about him and told him another story--that Athanasius had threatened to stop the sailing of the fleet which carried corn from Alexandria to Constantinople. This was a charge which touched Constantine very closely, because Constantinople depended very much on the Egyptian corn for food, and he thought that the bishop, who had so much power at Alexandria, might perhaps be able to stop the fleet, and to starve the people of the capital, if he pleased. And--whether the emperor believed the story, or whether he wished to shelter Athanasius for a while from his persecutors by putting him out of the way--he sent him into banishment at Treves, on the banks of the Moselle, in a part of Gaul which is now reckoned to belong to Germany. Except for the separation from his flock, this banishment would have been no great hardship for Athanasius, for he was treated with great respect by the bishop of Treves, and by the emperor's eldest son, who lived there, and all good men honoured him for his stedfastness in upholding the true faith.

But, although Athanasius was removed, the Alexandrian Church would not admit Arius. So, after a while, the emperor resolved to have him admitted at Constantinople, and a council of bishops agreed that it should be so. The bishop of Constantinople, whose name was Alexander, and who was almost a hundred years old, was grievously distressed at this; he desired his people to entreat God, with fasting and prayer, that it might not come to pass, and he threw himself under the altar, and prayed very earnestly that the evil which was threatened might be somehow turned away: or that, at least, he himself might not live to see it.

At length, on the evening before the day which had been fixed for receiving Arius into the Church, he was going through the streets of Constantinople, in high spirits, and talking with some friends of what was to take place on the morrow. But all at once he felt himself ill, and went into a house which was near, and in a few minutes he was dead! His death, taking place at such a time and in such a way, made a great impression, and people were ready enough to look on it as a direct judgement of God on his impiety. But Athanasius, although he felt the awfulness of the unhappy man's sudden end, did not take it on himself to speak in this way; and we too shall do well not to pronounce judgment in such cases, remembering what our Lord said as to the Galileans who were slain by Pilate, and as to the men who were killed by the falling of the tower of Siloam (St. Luke xiii. 1-5). While we abhor the errors of Arius, let us leave the judgment of him to God

Although Constantine in his last years was very much in the hands of the Arians, we must not suppose that he meant to favour their heresy. For these people (as I have said already, and shall have occasion to say again) were very crafty, and took great pains to hide the worst of their opinions. They used words which sounded quite right, except to the few persons who, like Athanasius, were quick enough to understand what bad meanings might be disguised under these fair words. And whenever they wished to get one of the faithful bishops turned out, they took care not to attack him about his faith, but about some other things, as we have seen in the case of Athanasius. Thus they managed to blind the emperor, who did not know much about the matter, so that, while they were using him as a tool, and were persuading him to help them with all his power, he all the while fancied that he was firmly maintaining the Nicene faith.

Constantine, after all that he had done in religious disputes, was still unbaptized. Perhaps he was a "catechumen", which (as has been explained before, see page 18) was the name given to persons who were supposed to be in a course of training for baptism; but it is not certain that he was even so much as a catechumen. At last, shortly after the death of Arius, the emperor felt himself very sick, and believed that his end was near. He sent for some bishops, and told them that he had put off his baptism because he had wished to receive it in the river Jordan, like our Lord Himself; but as God had not granted him this, he begged that they would baptize him. He was baptized accordingly, and during the remaining days of his life he refused to wear any other robes than the white dress which used then to be put on at baptism, by way of signifying the cleansing of the soul from sin. And thus the first Christian emperor died at a palace near Nicomedia, on Whitsunday in the year 337.

PART II (AD 337-361)

At Constantine's death, the empire was divided among his three sons. The eldest of them, whose name was the same as his father's, and the youngest, Constans, were friendly to the true faith. But the second son, Constantius, was won over by the Arians; and as, through the death of his brothers, he got possession of the whole empire within a few years, his connexion with that party led to great mischief. All through his reign, there were unceasing disputes about religion. Councils were almost continually sitting in one place or another, and bishops were posting about to one of them after another at the emperor's expense. Constantius did not mean ill, but he went even further than his father in meddling with things which he did not understand.

The Arians went on in the same cunning way as before. I may mention, by way of example, the behaviour of Leontius, bishop of Antioch. The Catholics (that is to say, those who held the faith which the Church throughout all the world held (the word "Catholic", which means "Universal", is not to be confounded with "Roman-Catholic")), used to sing in church, as we do-- "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;" but the Arians sang, "Glory be to the Father, by the Son, in the Holy Ghost"--for they did not allow the Second and Third Persons to be of the same nature with the First. Leontius, then, who was an Arian, and yet did not wish people to know exactly what he was, used to mumble his words, so that nobody could make them out, until he came to the part in which all parties agreed; and then he sang out loudly and clearly-- "As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen." He was an old man, and sometimes he would point to his white hair, and say, "When this snow melts, there will be a great deal of mud," meaning that after his death the two parties would come to open quarrels, which he had tried to prevent during his lifetime by such crafty behaviour as that which has just been mentioned.

The three young emperors met shortly after their father's death. It was agreed between them that Athanasius should be allowed to return to Alexandria; and for this favour he was chiefly indebted to young Constantine, who had known him during his banishment at Treves. The bishop returned accordingly, and was received with great rejoicing by his flock. But in about three years his enemies contrived that he should be again turned out (AD 341), and he was in banishment eight years. He was then restored again (AD 349); but his enemies watched their time and spared no pains to get rid of him. One by one, they contrived to thrust out all the chief bishops who would have been inclined to take part with him; and at length, in the beginning of 356, Constantius sent a general named Syrianus to Alexandria, with orders to drive out Athanasius. The Alexandrians were so much attached to their great bishop that there was a fear lest they might prevent any open attempt against him. But Syrianus contrived to throw them off their guard, and one night, while Athanasius was keeping watch with many of his clergy and people, in one of the churches (as the Christians of those days used to do before their great festivals and at other times), Syrianus suddenly beset the church with a great number of soldiers, and a multitude made up of Arians, Jews and the heathen rabble of the city. When Athanasius heard the noise outside the church, he sat down calmly on his throne, and desired the congregation to chant the hundred and thirty-sixth psalm, in which God's deliverances of His people in old times are celebrated; and the whole congregation joined in the last part of every verse--"For His mercy endureth for ever." The doors were shut, but the soldiers forced them open and rushed in; and it was a fearful sight to see their drawn swords and their armour flashing by the lamplight in the house of God. As they advanced up the church, many of the congregation were trodden down or crushed to death, or pierced through with their darts. Athanasius stood calm in the midst of all the terrible din. His clergy, when they saw the soldiers pushing on towards the sanctuary (as the part of the church was called that was railed off for the clergy), entreated him to save himself by flight; but he declared that he would not go until his people were safe, and waited until most of them had made their escape through doors in the upper part of the church. At last, when the soldiers were pressing very close to the sanctuary, the clergy closed round their bishop, and hurried him away by a secret passage. And when they had got him out of the church, they found that he had fainted; for although his courage was high, his body was weak and delicate, and the dreadful scene had overcome him. But he escaped to the deserts of Egypt, where he lived in peace among the monks for six years, until the death of Constantius. His enemies thought that he might perhaps, seek a refugee in Ethiopia, and Constantius wrote to beg that the princes of that country should not shelter him, and that the bishop, Frumentius (see page 41), might be sent to receive instruction in the faith from the Arian bishop who was put into the see of Alexandria. But Athanasius was safe elsewhere, and Frumentius wisely stayed at home.

The new Arian bishop of Alexandria was a Cappadocian named George. He was a coarse, ignorant, and violent man, and behaved with great cruelty to Athanasius's friends--even putting many of them to death. But Athanasius from his quiet retreat, kept a watch over all that was done as to the affairs of the Church, both at Alexandria and elsewhere; and from time to time he wrote books, which reached places where he himself could not venture to appear. So that, although he was not seen during these years, he made himself felt, both to the confusion of the Arians, and to the comfort and encouragement of the faithful.

PART III : (AD 361-371)

Constantius had no children, and after the death of Constans (AD 350), his nearest male relation was a cousin named Julian. The emperor gave his sister in marriage to this cousin, and also gave him the government of a part of the empire; but he always treated him with distrust and jealousy, so that Julian never loved him. And this was not the worst of it; for Julian, who had lost his father when he was very young, and had been brought up under the direction of Constantius, took a strong dislike to his cousin's religion, which was forced on him in a way that a lively boy could not well be expected to relish. He was obliged to spend a great part of his time in attending the services of the Church, and was even made a reader, (which was one of the lowest kinds of ministers in the Church of those times,) and, unfortunately, the end of all this was, that instead of being truly religious, he learned to be a hypocrite. When he grew older, and was left more to himself, he fell into the hands of the heathen philosophers, who were very glad to get hold of a prince who might one day be emperor. So Julian's mind was poisoned with their opinions, and he gave up all belief in the Gospel, although he continued to profess himself a Christian for nine years longer. On account of his having thus forsaken the faith he is commonly called the "Apostate."

At length, when Julian was at Paris, early in the year 361, Constantius sent him some orders which neither he nor his soldiers were disposed to obey. The soldiers lifted him up on a shield and proclaimed him emperor; and Julian set out at their head to fight for the throne. He marched boldly eastward, until he came to the Danube; then he embarked his troops and descended the great river for many hundreds of miles into the country which is now called Hungary. Constantius left Antioch, and was marching to meet Julian's army, when he was taken ill, and died at a little town in Cilicia. Like his father, he was baptized only a day or two before his death.

Julian now came into possession of the empire without further dispute; and he did all that he could to set heathenism up again. But in many parts of the empire, Christianity had taken such root that very few of the people held to the old religion, or wished to see it restored. Thus, we are told that once, when the emperor went to a famous temple near Antioch, on a great heathen festival, in the hope of finding things carried on as they had been before Constantine's time, only one old priest was to be seen; and, instead of the costly sacrifices which had been offered in the former days of heathenism, the poor old man had nothing better than a single goose to offer.

Julian knew that in past times Christians had always been ready to suffer for their faith, and that the patience of the martyrs had always led to the increase of the Church. He did not think it wise, therefore, to go to work in the same way as the earlier persecuting emperors, but he contrived to annoy the Christians very much by other means, and sometimes great cruelties were committed against them under his authority. Yet, with all this, he pretended to allow them the exercise of their religion, and he gave leave to those who had been banished by Constantius to return home,--not that he really meant to do them any kindness, but because he hoped that they would all fall to quarrelling among themselves, and that he should be able to take advantage of their quarrels. But in this hope he was happily disappointed, for they had learnt wisdom by suffering, and were disposed to make peace with each other as much as possible, while they were all threatened by the enemies of the Saviour's very name.

The first thing that the heathens of Alexandria did when they heard of the death of Constantius had been to kill the Arian bishop, George; for he had behaved in such a way that the heathens hated him even more than the Catholics did. Another Arian bishop was set up in his place; but when Julian had given leave for the banished to return, Athanasius came back, and the Arian was turned out.

The Alexandrians received Athanasius with great joy and he did all that was in his power to reconcile the parties of Christians among themselves. For, although no one could be more earnest than he in maintaining every particle of the faith necessary for a true Christian, he was careful not to insist on things which were not necessary. He knew, too, that people who really meant alike were often divided from each other by not understanding one another's words; and he was always ready to make allowance for them, as far as he could do so without giving away the truth. But Julian was afraid to let him remain at Alexandria, and was greatly provoked at hearing that he had converted and baptized some heathen ladies of rank. So the emperor wrote to the Alexandrians, telling them that, although they might choose another bishop for themselves, they must not let Athanasius remain among them, and banishing the bishop from all Egypt. Athanasius, when he heard of this, said to his friends, "Let us withdraw; this is but a little cloud which will soon pass over;" and he set off up the river Nile in a boat. After a while, another boat was seen in pursuit of him; but Athanasius then told his boatmen to turn round, and to sail down the river again; and when they met the other boat, from which they had not been seen until after turning, they answered the questions of its crew in such a way that they were allowed to pass without being suspected of having the bishop on board. Thus Athanasius got safe back to the city, and there he lay hid securely while his enemies were searching for him elsewhere. But after a little time he withdrew to the deserts, where he was welcomed and sheltered by his old friends the monks.

In his hatred of Christianity, Julian not only tried to restore heathenism, but also showed favour to the Jews. He sent for some of them, and asked why they did not offer sacrifice as their law had ordered? They answered that it was not lawful to sacrifice except in the temple of Jerusalem, which was now in ruins, and did not belong to them, so that they could no longer fulfil the duty of sacrificing. Julian then gave them leave to build the temple up again, and the Jews came together in vast numbers from the different countries into which they had been scattered. Many of them had got great wealth in the lands of their banishment, and it is said that even the women laboured at the work, carrying earth in their rich silken dresses, and that tools of silver were used in the building. The Jews were full of triumph at the thought of being restored to their own land, and of reviving the greatness of David and Solomon. But it was not to be. An earthquake scattered the foundations which had been laid; balls of fire burst forth from the ground, scorching and killing many of the workmen; their tools were melted by lightning; and stories are told of other fearful sights, which put an end to the attempt. Julian indeed, meant to set about it once more after returning from a war which he had undertaken against the Persians. But he never lived to do so. Athanasius was not mistaken when he said that his heathen emperor's tyranny would be only as a passing cloud, for Julian's reign lasted little more than a year and a half in all. He led his army into Persia in the spring of 363, and in June of that year he was killed in a skirmish by night.

Julian left no child to succeed him in the empire, and the army chose as his successor a Christian named Jovian, who soon undid all that Julian had done in matters of religion. The new emperor invited Athanasius to visit him at Antioch, and took his advice as to the restoration of the true faith. But Jovian's reign lasted only eight months, and Valentinian, who was then made emperor, gave the empire of the East to his brother Valens, who was a furious Arian, and treated the Catholics with great cruelty. We are told, for instance, that when eighty of their bishops had carried a petition to him, he put them on board a ship, and when it had got out to sea, the sailors, by his orders, set it on fire, and made their escape in boats, leaving the poor bishops to be burned to death.

Valens turned many "orthodox" bishops (that is to say, bishops "of the right faith") out of their sees, and meant to turn out Athanasius, who hid himself for a while in his father's tomb. But the people of Alexandria begged earnestly that their bishop might be allowed to remain with them, and the emperor did not think it safe to deny their request, lest there should be some outbreak in the city. And thus, while the faith of which Athanasius had so long been the chief defender, and for the sake of which he had borne so much, was under persecution in all other parts of the eastern empire, the great bishop of Alexandria was allowed to spend his last years among his own flock without disturbance. He died in the year 373, at the age of seventy-six.