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Athanasius Against the World

Fr. Samuel Keyes

Today the Church celebrates St. Athanasius, the great defender of Nicene orthodoxy—most especially the central doctrine of the divine Son’s consubstantiality with the Father. Athanasius’ trials and tribulations with the Arians, especially in his home diocese of Alexandria, are rightly famous. Athanasius contra mundum, goes the saying—Athanasius against the world. Certainly it seemed for a time that the whole world was Arian. But this faithful confessor and doctor held the line, preserving the apostolic doctrine for us today.

The following is a fascinating excerpt from the traditional legend (legenda means “to be read”) in the Roman office of Matins. Whether or not it is accurate in all its historical details, the story certainly gives us a taste of the period’s conflict:

Various stories are told of the hatred by which the Arians ever honoured him, such as the following. In 335 there had been called together an assemblage at Tyre, composed largely of Arian bishops, where they suborned a wretched woman to charge Athanasius with having raped her. Whereupon a certain priest arose, as though he were Athanasiius, and asked her, saying: Woman, was it I that was thy guest, and thus mistreated thee? And she cried out indigantly under oath: Yea, thou it was.

Upon this discovery of her perjury, they were obliged to drive the shameless woman from their presence, but nevertheless they slacked none of their efforts to blacken his name. For they also accused him of having murdered the Bishop Arsenius; and it is said that they introduced as evidence a dead man’s hand, which they declared had been his, and had been cut off by Athanasius to use in sorcery. But Arsenius, whom they had kidnapped, made his escape and appeared before all the Council whole and sound; whereupon they attributed this appearance to black magic on the part of Athanasius, and persisted still in their attack on him.

Never did the vindictiveness of the Arians leave him alone, so that he was sent wandering all about the Roman world.

St. Athanasius, pray for us!

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