Chapter 7

CHAPTER VII: ORIGEN (AD 185-254)

The same persecution in which Perpetua and her companions suffered
at Carthage raged also at Alexandria in Egypt, where a learned man
named Leonides was one of the martyrs (AD 202). Leonides had a son
named Origen, whom he had brought up very carefully, and had taught
to get some part of the Bible by heart every day. And Origen was
very eager to learn, and was so good and so clever that his father
was afraid to show how fond and how proud he was of him, lest the
boy should become forward and conceited. So when Origen asked
questions of a kind which few boys would have thought of asking, his
father used to check him, but when he was asleep Leonides would
steal to his bedside and kiss him, thanking God for having given him
such a child, and praying that Origen might always be kept in the
right way.

When the persecution began, Origen, who was then about seventeen
years old, wished that he might be allowed to die for his faith; but
his mother hid his clothes, and so obliged him to stay at home; and
all that he could do was to write to his father in prison, and to
beg that he would not fear lest the widow and orphans should be left
destitute, but would be stedfast in his faith, and would trust in
God to provide for their relief.

The persecutors were not content with killing Leonides, but seized
on all his property, so that the widow was left in great distress,
with seven children, of whom Origen was the eldest. A Christian lady
kindly took Origen into her house; and after a short time, young as
he was, he was made master of the "Catechetical School,", a sort of
college, where the young Christians of Alexandria were instructed in
religion and learning. The persecution had slackened for a while,
but it began again, and some of Origen's pupils were martyred. He
went with them to their trial, and stood by them in their
sufferings; but although he was ill-used by the mob of Alexandria,
he was himself allowed to go free.

Origen had read in the Gospel, "Freely ye have received, freely
give" (St. Matt. x. 8), and he thought that therefore he ought to
teach for nothing. In order, therefore, that he might be able to do
this, he sold a quantity of books which he had written out, and
lived for a long time on the price of them, allowing himself only
about fivepence a day. His food was of the poorest kind; he had but
one coat, through which he felt the cold of winter severely, he sat
up the greater part of the night, and then lay down on the bare
floor. When he grew older, he came to understand that he had been
mistaken in some of his notions as to these things, and to regret
that, by treating himself so hardly, he had hurt his health beyond
repair. But still, mistaken as he was, we must honour him for going
through so bravely with what he took to be his duty.

He soon grew so famous as a teacher, that even Jews, heathens, and
heretics went to hear him; and many of them were so led on by him
that they were converted to the Gospel. He travelled a great deal;
some of his journeys were taken because he had been invited into
foreign countries that he might teach the Gospel to people who were
desirous of instruction in it, or that he might settle disputes
about religion. And he was invited to go on a visit to the mother of
the Emperor Alexander Severus, who was himself friendly to
Christianity, although not a Christian. Origen, too, wrote a great
number of books in explanation of the Bible, and on other religious
subjects; and he worked for no less than eight-and-twenty years at a
great book called the "Hexapla", which was meant to show how the Old
Testament ought to be read in Hebrew and in Greek.

But, although he was a very good, as well as a very learned man,
Origen fell into some strange opinions, from wishing to clear away
some of those difficulties which, as St Paul says, made the Gospel
seem "foolishness" to the heathen philosophers (1 Cor. i. 23). Besides
this, Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria, although he had been his
friend, had some reasons for not wishing to ordain him to be one of
the clergy; and when Origen had been ordained a presbyter (or
priest) in the Holy Land, where he was on a visit, Demetrius was
very angry. He said that no man ought to be ordained in any church
but that of his own home; and he brought up stories about some rash
things which Origen had done in his youth, and questions about the
strange doctrines which he held. Origen, finding that he could not
hope for peace at Alexandria, went back to his friend the bishop of
Caesarea, by whom he had been ordained, and he spent many years at
Caesarea, where he was more sought after as a teacher than ever. At
one time he was driven into Cappadocia, by the persecution of a
savage emperor named Maximin, who had murdered the gentle Alexander
Severus; but he returned to Caesarea, and lived there until another
persecution began under the Emperor Decius.

This was by far the worst persecution that had yet been known. It
was the first which was carried on throughout the whole empire, and
no regard was now paid to the old laws which Trajan and other
emperors had made for the protection of the Christians. They were
sought out, and were made to appear in the market-place of every
town, where they were required by the magistrates to sacrifice, and
if they refused, were sentenced to severe punishment. The emperor
wished most to get at the bishops and clergy; for he thought that,
if the teachers were put out of the way, the people would soon give
up the Gospel. Although many martyrs were put to death at this time,
the persecutors did not so much wish to kill the Christians, as to
make them disown their religion; and, in the hope of this, many of
them were starved, and tortured, and sent into banishment in strange
countries, among wild people who had never before heard of Christ.
But here the emperor's plans were notably disappointed, for the
banished bishops and clergy had thus an opportunity of making the
Gospel known to those poor wild tribes, whom it might not have
reached for a long time if the Church had been left in quiet.

We shall hear more about the persecution in the next chapter. Here I
shall only say that Origen was imprisoned and cruelly tortured. He
was by this time nearly seventy years old, and was weak in body from
the labours which he had gone through in study, and from having hurt
his health by hard and scanty living in his youth, so that he was
ill able to bear the pains of the torture, and, although he did not
die under it, he died of its effects soon after (AD 254).

Decius himself was killed in battle (AD 251), and his persecution
came to an end. And when it was over, the faithful understood that
it had been of great use, not only by helping to spread the Gospel,
in the way which has been mentioned, but in purifying the Church,
and in rousing Christians from the carelessness into which too many
of them had fallen during the long time of ease and quiet which they
had before enjoyed. For the trials which God sends on His people in
this world are like the chastisements of a loving Father, and, if we
accept them rightly, they will all be found to turn out to our good.