THE storm of persecution which was to fall with such fury upon St. Athanasius was already gathering.
Constantia, the Emperor's favorite sister, who had always been strongly in favor of the Arians, became very ill. The priest who attended her on her deathbed, a friend and tool of Eusebius of Nicomedia, induced her to persuade Constantine, who visited her continually during her illness, that Arius and his friends had been unjustly condemned and that the judgment of God would fall on him and his empire in consequence. Constantine, always easily influenced by his immediate surroundings, began to waver. Constantia soon died, but the Arian priest continued the work that had been so successfully begun. Arius believed all that the Church believed, he pleaded; let him at least be allowed to come into the presence of the Emperor; let him have a chance to prove his innocence.
Although Constantine had heard with his own ears the blasphemies of the heresiarch, although he had approved so heartily of the decision of the Council which condemned him and had enforced it with the power of the State, he gave way before the persuasions of this stranger.
|If Arius can assure me that he believes the profession of Faith set forth by the Council of Nicea,| he said, |he may return.|
The good news was instantly made known to the heretic and his friends, and Arius hastened to Constantinople, where he was admitted into the Emperor's presence.
|Is it true that you believe what the Church teaches?| asked Constantine.
|I take my solemn oath that I believe what I hold in my hand,| replied Arius, unfolding the Nicene Creed.
In the hollow of his palm was concealed a statement of his own false doctrines, but this the Emperor could not know. He professed himself satisfied, and thus the seed was sown which was to bring forth bitter fruit during centuries to come.
With Arius recalled, there was no longer any reason why Eusebius and Theognis, who declared that they shared his opinions, should remain in banishment. Once in Constantinople, Eusebius regained all his old influence over the Emperor.
From that day forth, the Constantine of the heavenly vision, the Constantine of the Council of Nicea, noble, wise and humble, disappears from the pages of history, and a man changeable, capricious and uncertain takes his place.
The first act of Eusebius and Theognis was to drive out the Catholic Bishops who had been elected to replace them in their sees; the second was to look about them to see who was likely to stand in their way. Eustathius, the Bishop of Antioch, an intrepid defender of the Faith, must be gotten rid of at once, they decided, and they proceeded to plot his ruin.
They started for Jerusalem to visit -- or at least, so they said -- the beautiful Church of the Holy Cross which the Emperor had just built. On their way home, they announced that they would stay for a short time at Antioch, and they invited all the Bishops who were likely to be friendly to meet them there in council. They were received with the greatest courtesy by Eustathius, who did all that he could to make their visit pleasant. They had, however, bribed an abandoned wretch of the town to enter while the council was sitting and accuse Eustathius before all present of a scandalous crime.
Affecting to be greatly grieved and horrified at the accusation, they deposed Eustathius and elected an Arian in his place, silencing those who opposed their unjust and unlawful conduct by declaring that they acted by command of the Emperor. Constantine was then appealed to, but in vain. The Arians were all-powerful.
The next obstacle to be removed was Athanasius, but Eusebius was clever enough to realize that this would be no easy task. Athanasius was not only the chief Bishop of the Eastern Church, but one who had defeated the Arians several times before on their own ground.
He began by writing a letter to the Patriarch in which he informed him that Constantine, having learned that the views of Arius were quite correct, had been pleased to recall him from banishment. It was only just and fair, therefore, that Athanasius should receive him into communion; Eusebius, indeed, had reason to know that the Emperor would be greatly displeased if he refused to do so.
Athanasius' reply to this threatening message was short and decided. Neither threats nor persecution, he said, would induce him to go against the decrees of the Council of Nicea. Arius had been condemned by the universal Catholic Church; by that decision all true Catholics must stand.
Eusebius was not at all discouraged. He wrote to the Emperor and told him how lightly the Patriarch had treated his wishes. |Athanasius is much too young for such a responsible position,| he wrote, |and is of a quarrelsome and obstinate temper. He is the last man in the world to fill a post which, if peace is to be kept in the Church, requires the greatest tact and charity.| Perhaps, he suggested, if the Emperor himself were to write to him, he might be made to see the matter in a different light. A threat of banishment is always a powerful argument.
On receiving this letter, the Emperor -- to his shame, be it said -- wrote to the Patriarch as follows: |Being informed of my pleasure, admit all who wish to communion with the Church. If I hear of your standing in the way of any who seek it, I will send at once those who will depose you from your see.|
The reply of the Patriarch was firm and courageous. |It is impossible,| he answered, |for the Catholic Church to hold communion with those who deny the Divinity of the Son of God and who are therefore fighting against Him.|
Eusebius was absent when the letter arrived, and the changeable Constantine was favorably impressed by its noble and fearless tone; the matter was therefore dropped.
Eusebius, still determined on the Patriarch's ruin, looked about him for a tool. He found the Meletians always troublesome and ready to join in a plot against those in authority. Three of them, appearing suddenly at Nicomedia where Constantine was then staying, accused Athanasius of having usurped the Royal power by levying an unlawful tax upon the people. Unfortunately for the success of this little plot, there were present at Court at that moment two priests of Alexandria who were able to prove to the Emperor that the Patriarch was completely innocent. Constantine even wrote a letter to Athanasius telling him of the false charge brought against him, severely blaming those who had made it and inviting him to come himself to Nicomedia.
This was not at all what Eusebius wanted. He could not prevent the arrival of Athanasius; he therefore set to work once more to prejudice Constantine against him before he came. The Meletians were pressed into service again, and accused the Patriarch of treason. He had sent a purse of gold, they said, to a certain rebel, who had stirred up a rising against the Emperor. But when Athanasius appeared at Nicomedia, he was able to prove that the story was a falsehood; and, to the disgust of Eusebius and his party, he returned to Alexandria bearing a letter from the Emperor fully establishing his innocence and the perfidy of his accusers.
Rumors of what was passing had even reached St. Antony in his desert solitude, and the old man, on hearing of all that his friend and disciple had had to suffer, came down from his mountain cave to praise him for his courage and to speak to the people.
|Have nothing to do with the Arians,| he said; |you are Christians, and they say that the Son of God is a creature.| Crowds came flocking to see the old man, for all had heard of his miracles and of his holiness. He blessed them all and exhorted them to hold fast to the true faith of Christ, so steadfastly upheld by their Patriarch, after which, having done the work he had come to do, he returned to his solitude.
The Arians were still plotting. Some time before, when Athanasius had been visiting that part of his diocese called the Mareotis, he had heard that a certain Ischyras, who gave himself out as a priest although he had never been validly ordained, was causing scandal. He celebrated, so people said, or pretended to celebrate, the Holy Mysteries in a little cottage in the village where he lived, in the presence of his own relations and a few ignorant peasants. Athanasius sent one of his priests, called Macarius, to inquire into the matter and to bring the impostor back with him.
Macarius, on his arrival, found Ischyras ill in bed and unable to undertake the journey. He therefore warned one of his relations that the sick man had been forbidden by the Patriarch to continue his so-called ministry, and departed. Ischyras, on his recovery, joined himself to the Meletians, who, urged on by the Arians, were moving heaven and earth to find a fresh charge against Athanasius. On hearing his story, they compelled him by threats and by violence to swear that Macarius had burst in upon him while he was giving Holy Communion in the church, had overturned the altar, broken the chalice, trampled the sacred Host underfoot and burned the holy books. They reported that all this had been done by order of the Patriarch.
Once more Athanasius had to defend himself, and once more he triumphantly cleared himself of the accusation brought against him.
In the first place, as he proved to the Emperor, there was no church in the village where Ischyras lived. In the second, the man himself had been ill in bed. In the third, even if he had been up and well, he could not have consecrated, since he had never been validly ordained. Ischyras himself, not long after, escaping from the hands of the Meletians, swore in the presence of thirteen witnesses that he had been induced by threats to bear witness to the lie.
But the failure of this plot was only the signal for hatching another. A certain Meletian Bishop called Arsenius, whom Athanasius had deposed for refusing to obey the decrees of the Council of Nicea, was induced to hide himself away in the desert. The Meletians then gave out that he had been murdered by order of the Patriarch, who kept his withered hand for purposes of magic. A wooden box was even produced containing a hand which was said to be that of the dead man.
Constantine seems to have believed the story, for he summoned Athanasius to come to Antioch to stand his trial, at which Eusebius and Theognis of Nicea were to preside. Athanasius did nothing of the sort. He sent trusty men into the desert to make a diligent search for the missing Arsenius, who, after some difficulty, was found. The fact was made known to the Emperor, who wrote once more to the persecuted Patriarch, affirming his innocence and threatening the Meletians with severe punishment if they invented any more calumnies against him. Arsenius himself, having repented of his part in the matter, asked pardon of Athanasius and promised obedience for the future.