Chapter 12

CHAPTER XII: ST. ATHANASIUS, PART I (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.