Athanasius Contra Mundum: The Courage to Act Alone

May 5, 2014 | 11 comments

Who among us does not long to go back and witness first-hand certain moments in Catholic history? Certain decisive moments. 

Here are a few of mine: On the eve of the battle of Lepanto, Don John of Austria silenced his quarrelling admirals without raising his voice. “Gentlemen,” he said.  “The time for counsel has passed. Now is the time for war.” Imagine the stunned—yet impressed—look on the face of the Venetian sea veteran Sebastian Veniero, three times Don John’s age. Or imagine hearing the Carmelites of Compiègne chant the Veni Creator Spiritus as they processed to the scaffold.  Days later the Terror ended. Or imagine watching the diminutive Catarina Benincasa tell, with typical Sienese grit, Pope Gregory XI comfortably set up in Avignon, “Esto vir!” and point him back to Rome. Great moments all.

And here is one more to fire the heart. Imagine being present on the floor at the Council of Nicaea. See the splendor of Constantine’s court. See the heroic survivors of the Diocletianic persecution bearing their scars (perhaps comparing them with a little bravado as men will do), some without eyes and some without tongues. See St. Nicholas delivering a roundhouse blow to the jaw of the heresiarch Arius. See Bishop Alexander of Alexandria holding forth in defense of the divinity of Jesus Christ. And see, amidst it all, a brilliant deacon, not yet thirty, eyes flashing, confident in God: Athanasius.

Athanasius. He was decisive.

I do not mean that he was good at making decisions, although he was. I mean that at the moment when “the whole world groaned and was amazed to find itself Arian,” as Saint Jerome put it, God raised up one man to grasp and hold high the banner of orthodoxy. Like all heroes whom history later locates at decisive moments, Athanasius was larger than life. Epic, as young men say today.

The life of Athanasius is an epic. His clerical career spanned over a half a century.  He served as bishop of Alexandria, the See of Saint Mark, for forty-five years. He knew five popes and five emperors. He endured five exiles totaling nearly two decades. His exiles and adventures took him all over the empire, from Rome in the southwest corner to Trier, Germany in the northwest, to Constantinople and Nicaea in the northeast, and to Tyre and Alexandria and the deserts south in the southeast. His mind was honed among the fathers at the Alexandrian School, where Revealed Truth and Greek thought sparred and united to give Christendom the first extra-scriptural formula to plumb—in so far as possible—an unfathomable mystery: the relationship between the Father and the Son: “homousion.” Or, as Catholics are now blessed to say, “consubstantial.”

Whatever thoughts this improved translation of this line of the Credo causes to surface in our imaginations every Sunday, we might include some contemplation of the full-bore street riots with which the faithful reacted to the heterodoxy of Arius and his followers. In our own impoverished age, it is difficult to conceive of ordinary men coming to blows over a theological question, but to cast our minds back to such a time can help. The persecutions of the first three centuries of the Church tempered the heart of the Bride of Christ. The unwelcome heresies that exploded at the very moment when the Church was at last free of political tyranny threatened to break that heart.

If Athanasius’s mind was formed in the school at Alexandria, the forging of his heart came a little later in the company of Saint Anthony of the Desert and the ascetics who formed a community around him. The proto-monastics, whose practices Athanasius would bring to Rome on his second exile (nearly two centuries before Saint Benedict) took seriously the injunction in the Gospel of Mark—Our Lord’s words to the rich young man: “Go, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

In and out of season, Athanasius followed our Lord.  Nicaea should have settled the matter, but the Libyan priest Arius—the first Christian Rock Star—loved too much the limelight his theological novelties brought him. A tall, thin, and not terribly attractive fellow with stringy hair, he had a peculiar but seductive speaking style that attracted, especially, the attention of women. He carefully cultivated the appearance of one who led a life of severe austerity. He was the chief promoter, if not the author, of the greatest threat the Church had yet faced and would face until the Protestant rebellion: the heresy that there was a time when the Son did not exist and that he was created by the Father. It is easy to see where it leads: a creature can change. If a creature can change, he can sin. If the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity was created, he could sin.  This heresy has not disappeared, by the way. It is a principle tenet of both the Mormons and the Jehovah Witnesses.

In the Age of Athanasius, however, the heresy was hardly confined to the followers of warmed-over Seventh Day Adventism. It captured most of the episcopacy, and even Pope Liberius was badgered into signing a semi-Arian formula.  Arius came to a very bad end, suffering a death so undignified that any God-fearing man could see that it was a divine judgment upon him, but by then the heresy had taken hold in most of the halls of power, secular and religious. Inseparable as Church and State were in the Fourth Century, the heresy threatened the eternal salvation of souls, and also the temporal peace of the Empire. Ever in the eye of the storm was Athanasius whose fortitude and perseverance fired the hearts of his flock. On two occasions when emperors intruded Arian bishops into Athanasius’s see, the faithful of Alexandria took matters into their own hands.

An endless supply of calumniators attempted to discredit Athanasius. If we cannot disprove a man’s arguments, they thought, let us attack his character.  Their accusations were fantastic. They said he had severed the hand of a certain Bishop Arsinius to use it in rites of necromancy. Producing a withered hand at a public hearing they sought to entrap him. When Athanasius produced the allegedly dismembered bishop, alive and well, he enjoyed the moment a little, first drawing the intact left hand from the bishop’s cloak, and then the right.  “Perhaps, Arsinius was born with three hands?” he suggested with a smile.

He had ravished a nun, they said. The girl held forth in great detail all she had suffered at the hands of Athanasius. One of his entourage, posing as Athanasius, approached her. “And did I do this to you and this?” he asked.  “And this?” “Yes, you did!” the girl responded before seeing she had been trapped. She fled the court.

Still the accusations came. He had withheld, they said, Alexandria’s grain allotment to the imperial city Constantinople. He had harassed his clergy. When all these failed, he was accused of just plain not getting along: he was divisive. Like Thomas More who stood in the face of the Church’s next great trial twelve centuries later, Athanasius cared little for going along to get along. He cared for the Truth. And like More, Athanasius not only had the courage to suffer for the Truth, but also the courage to act alone.

In his Arians of the Fourth Century, Blessed Cardinal Newman calls Athanasius the “one who, after the Apostles, has been a principal instrument, by which the sacred truths of Christianity have been conveyed and secured to the world.” Newman’s history is the place to go to know Athanasius, but it can be heavy lifting. The Catholic seeking an understanding of this giant of a saint might start with Athanasius’s Life of Saint Anthony. (I recommend the Penguin collection that also contains the lives of other early Fathers.) Next, pick up a favorite of C.S. Lewis’s, Athanasius’s On the Incarnation of the Word. Of Athanasius, Lewis wrote, “only a master mind could, in the fourth century, have written so deeply on such a subject with such classical simplicity.” Athanasius concludes the work with the very words by which he so ardently lived:

“For the . . . right understanding of the Scriptures there is need of a good life and a pure soul, and for Christian virtue to guide the mind to grasp, so far as human nature can, the truth concerning God the Word. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life . . . . Anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds. Thus united to them in the fellowship of life, he will understand the things revealed to them by God and, thenceforth escaping the peril that threatens sinners in the judgment, will receive that which is laid up for the saints in the kingdom of heaven.”

A version of this appeared at Crisis.com in 2012.

 


Christopher Check is Director of Development at Catholic Answers. A graduate of Rice University, for nearly two decades he served as vice president of The Rockford Institute. Before that he served for seven years as a field artillery officer in the Marine Corps, attaining the grade of captain. He lectures...

Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  Christopher Travis - Huntsville, Alabama

From one Christopher to another...great article!! I havn't read much about St Athanasius yet, but after reading this article I will seek a book or two so that I may get to know him better. It certainly gives me encouragement and makes me feel better for the times I've had to "rock the boat" with my fellow Protestant and Catholic friends who some times over use the phrase "it doesn't matter" on issues such as Blessed Mary remaining a virgin. To me every Truth of my Catholic faith, even the small ones are worth defending, even if it means going at it alone and feeling rejected. It matters to me because of who revealed the Truth, and not accepting those Truths to me is the same as not fully accepting Christ. Compromising with a half truth or lie for the sake of "getting along" may be an act of humility, but it for sure isn't an act of courage and honesty. This courageous and great saint will for sure be at the top of my intecessory prayer list, right beside St. Francis DeSales. Isn't it great to be Catholic and be in the company of such great saints!!!! They are only a prayer away :)

May 5, 2014 at 5:32 am PST
#2  Christopher Check - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Christopher--

Thank you for your kind comments. There are so many giants in our past. Alas, our age does not seem to create such men, so we can only imagine what it must have been like to know someone so willing to suffer for the Truth.

I was troubled recently to hear an interview between a man prominent in Catholic media and the head of a protestant megachurch that seems to specialize in mixing the "prosperity gospel" with personal success. The megachurch pastor scored a point when he said something to the effect: we agree on the important stuff; the rest is minutia. "Here's your chance," I thought of the interviewer. But silence. The Real Presence, minutia? The Sacraments, minutia?

I mention this to encourage you not to be silent and to caution you against the idea that holding your tongue on certain occasions might be an act of humility. It's possible. Or it may be an act of prudence if you think that in the long run you will help to bring someone along to the fullness of the Truth. But I tend to be of the-hour-is-late school.

I was once with the president of a small Catholic college. We were having drinks with a man, something between an unbeliever and a cultural protestant. The man, however, had very good instincts and was deeply interested in education, and could have written this college president a six-figure check. He started holding forth about the usual blather about the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes: that it was no such thing, merely everyone just started sharing. The college president cut him off and shut him down. Charitably, of course.
I've tried to keep that experience to the fore in my thoughts when I find myself in the company of folks confused about the truth.

And St. Athanasius, as you will rightly observe, will back you up.

Do you have Chris Blum's translation of Francis de Sales, THE SIGN OF THE CROSS? (We carry it in our shop.) I wrote the introduction. De Sales was another one with the courage to act alone. Another epic figure! Good choice!

May 5, 2014 at 7:22 am PST
#3  Christopher Travis - Huntsville, Alabama

I would have offended the megachurch pastor by telling him the truth, the exact words he doesn't want to hear. When my faith was not important to me years ago I did the church hopping thing and one of the megachurches I went to asked if there was any Catholics in the church, I looked around and no one raised their hand or stood up, I remained silent, then he proceeded to preach about how Catholics worship Mary and so on. What I wouldn't do to have that moment to do all over again with the faith I now have. If it were to happen today hundreds of people would have heard me tell about how much I love the Mother of my Savior, and I would have scolded them for trying to defile her in such a way.

That college president will be blessed many times over for not compromising even when there was so much money at stake. Those are the moments when we truly pick up the cross of Christ and accept what ever may be coming our way for standing by His side.

I dont have Chris Blum's translation of THE SIGN OF THE CROSS, but you can bet I will be ordering it first chance I get. I don't know if you have read my other posts and picked up on how and why I came back to the Church after 25 years but I have a real cool miracle to tell you about involving St. Francis de Sales. Three years ago when I came back to Christ, and what an experience that was, I found my faith under attack, relentllessly just days after. Before long I found St. Francis de Sales (or he found me) and fast became my favorite saint. No one knew this but me, I didnt mention it to anyone. My conversion just so happened one week before I was told my father had terminal cancer, I have no doubt God did what He did to me, and when He did, to me for that reason... so my dad would have a faithful son when he needed it most. My father finally passed away after the best two years we ever had together, it was a beautiful moment and his last words to my mother, my brother, and my wife and I were "I love you." Days later after his funeral, my mother called me back in the rear room of her house and said she wanted to talk to me...she pulled out a little velvet bag and said "here son, I want you to have this, your grandmother had this and I want to give it to you." I opened it up and I couldnt believe what I was seeing...it was a first class relic of St. Francis de Sales. I like to think of my dad sitting right next to him saying "that's my boy!" There are thousands of saints and relics and I end up with this one? It is one of my most cherished possesions and I will treasure it always. One of these days it will end up in the hands of someone who defends and loves their faith as much as I do, hopefully one of my three boys. So any time I get to feeling beat down from defending the Church that our Lord Jesus so graciously established for us, I just pull out that relic and think about how this saint had guts, passion, and love for the Truth, he was a true disciple who wasn't affraid, and if he could do what he did, then I will work my tail off and not let up to honor this great saint. Amen and Alleluia, keep on keeping on and God Bless the staff at Catholic Answers.

May 5, 2014 at 1:58 pm PST
#4  Christine Hurdle - Seattle, Washington

Thanks for this article. St. Athanasius is one of my favorites. He's just about as relevant today as you can get :) .

May 5, 2014 at 6:22 pm PST
#5  Christopher Check - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Christopher!
What a magnificent story. I could feel the hair standing up in the back of my neck!
God has big plans for you.
Thank you so much for sharing that and for all of your thoughtful writebacks on our blog.
Pax et bonum.
Chris

May 6, 2014 at 6:30 am PST
#6  Christopher Travis - Huntsville, Alabama

Christopher Check, I just finished reading the book you suggested, Chris Blums translation of St Francis de Sales SIGN OF THE CROSS. Your forward was absolutely awesome!! It amazes me the paralllels between this great saint and the way I think about and approach my faith. What I wouldn't do to get in a time machine and spend some time with this great disciple. He always makes his defense simple and unquestionable, only those who are dishonest with their intellect could dare disagree with him. Page 134 really grabbed my attention since it was talking about how many Fathers of the Church say the Sign of the Cross is a great weapon against demons. Perhaps that is one reason why on the night of my conversion the tide turned and the evil immediatly left our prescence. You can sure bet the Sign of the Cross will become more visable for me and a bigger part of my life. Now I'm off to read more about St Athanasius!! God bless and keep up the great work !!

May 12, 2014 at 8:50 pm PST
#7  Yohannan Walensis - Woodstock, New York

Personally, I would call it Christian history for the abundance of rich spiritual tradition within the Ancient Eastern church of the era when we were still one. Of all the material to read, modern Christians would loose greatly without the Philokalia -- the collection of Ancient church Fathers from the 4th through 15th centuries that handle practical topics relating to everyday life with a simplicity that exposes the action of the Holy Spirit-- Ruach HaKodesh.

Anyone planning a visit to Rome can go back in time to the hours our Salvation by visiting the Scala Santa in the old Lateran Palace right across from the ArchBasilica. These are believed to be the stairs leading up to the praetorium of Pontius Pilate that Jesus walked up. Be prepared for this pilgrimage, as spiritually prepared as you can be. The experience has been known to bring about life changing experiences to the faithful who just kneel on them, even without ascending them all.

Our friends in the Eastern tradition of the Roman Catholic Church have an free sacred music app available where songs are chanted in the ancient tradition, without accompaniment of instruments. If you hear a monk whose voice is other worldly, he is Father Apostolos Hill who was gifted with a voice fit for the Heavenly praises of our Saviour, Adonai Yeshua HaMashiach.

If you really want to go out on a holy limb, you can learn the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic:
Avvon d-bish-maiya, nith-qaddash shim-mukh.
Tih-teh mal-chootukh. Nih-weh çiw-yanukh:
ei-chana d'bish-maiya: ap b'ar-ah.
Haw lan lakh-ma d'soonqa-nan yoo-mana.
O'shwooq lan kho-bein:
ei-chana d'ap kh'nan shwiq-qan l'khaya-ween.
Oo'la te-ellan l'niss-yoona:
il-la paç-çan min beesha.
Mid-til de-di-lukh hai mal-choota
oo khai-la oo tush-bookh-ta
l'alam al-mein. Aa-meen.

You can learn the proper pronunciation on YouTube by going to Aramaicnt.org.
Shalom aleikhem! Hebrew: ??????? ????????? (Aramaic: Shlam 'lekhon)

May 13, 2014 at 3:10 pm PST
#8  Yohannan Walensis - Woodstock, New York

Sorry, the Hebrew isn't set on your server.

May 13, 2014 at 3:11 pm PST
#9  Yohannan Walensis - Woodstock, New York

The digital radio station app is called Ancient Faith Radio. You can also stream live from your browser by typing ancientfaith.com.
It's incredible to hear their praising; Holy Theotokos is Blessed Mother, Miriam

May 13, 2014 at 3:27 pm PST
#10  Christopher Travis - Huntsville, Alabama

If you like that you might also like Gregorian Chant Radio on Pandora.

May 13, 2014 at 4:36 pm PST
#11  Yohannan Walensis - Woodstock, New York

We enjoyed your article and learned some interesting items about more recent martyrs of the Church. We have noticed there is a longing for greater intimacy with Jesus including calling him by the name he would have heard himself be called by, to praying the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic, probably resulting from the film, Passion of the Christ. After researching these topics online, we found a greater than anticipated interest by nonChristians -- Jews in Israel who had a translation of the Lord's Prayer into Aramaic accompanied by commentary on how the prayer had been inadvertently changed by Gospel writers from its original meaning and how we got satans role wrong as they painted him as the much more loveable furry kind of divine helper for the prosecution -- the 'devil' advocate rather than devil's advocate. He was there to remind God of our sins as if Heaven had a strict quota to manage. They concluded by offering a Jewish-lite for Christian fence sitters that excluded the problematic and messy crucifixion as untenable. Then there were translations into Aramaic that were new age oriented that changed God into 'Our Creator Mother Being' that was outright terrifying. Then there was a very good presentation of the prayer, until the yoga-centric new age Eastern twist to Yeshua the Yogi. What was disappointing was we didn't know what the words meant, did they create some Aramaic prayer or some other language hailing a Hindu diety. Finally, we saw Christians in a more modern version of the prayer from the Syriac Church of Syria where they have been great targets of the war from both sides of the conflict.
While we admit our tradition is Latin, one who has worshipped with any number of Eastern Orthodox in communion with Rome, still offer a view on ancient traditions. We did discover we still haven't come to the absolute agreement on what Jesus heard himself being called; is it Yeshua, Jeshua, or Eashoa' M'sheekha has been thoughtfully introduced by one who speaks a variant of Aramaic. Yet language is complicated in that there are different sects, and so far as we can tell, we are looking for the Galilean Jewish Aramaic from the first century, none of those were found among the choices.

Yet, there are people who feel praying using His true name adds to their experience as an expression of love and care in how they call his name, and pray with him. It's respectful, intimate and causes one to become more intimately aware of the ancient church of which we are faithful to. Perhaps within the church there are some scholars ancient Aramaic who could assist us in our research in preserving customs from the ancient church. We believe they lived in communities shared resources equally. There is no shortage of people looking for such an arrangement as they expand in Europe. As more people choose chaste lives certainly there is a great interest in that group to adapt customs for their particular spiritual discipline. Perhaps Catholic.com can be of assistance in directing us to those best suited to respond to our requests? In the mean time, Thank you! Yohannan Walensis de Serrant

May 13, 2014 at 8:33 pm PST

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