IT was indeed the hour of darkness, and it seemed as if the powers of evil were let loose upon the world. The Arians, with the Emperor on their side, were carrying everything before them. Nearly all the Bishops who had upheld the Nicene faith were in exile or in prison.
St. Antony, over a hundred years old, was on his deathbed. His monks, crowding around the dying Saint, groaned over the evil days that had befallen the Church.
|Fear not,| replied the old man, |for this power is of the earth and cannot last. As for the sufferings of the Church, was it not so from the beginning, and will it not be so until the end? Did not the Master Himself say, 'They have persecuted Me, they will persecute you also'? Did not the 'perils from false brethren' begin even in the lifetime of those who had been the companions of Christ? And yet, did not the Master Himself promise that, although she must live in the midst of persecution, He would be with His Church forever and that the gates of Hell should not prevail against her?|
With these words of hope and comfort on his lips, St. Antony passed to his reward, and they laid him in his lonely desert grave. His coat of sheepskin, given him by Athanasius long years before, he sent with his dying blessing to the Patriarch, who cherished it as his most precious possession.
The Alexandrians had not given in without a struggle. They had protested openly against the violence of Syrianus, proclaiming throughout the city that Athanasius was their true Patriarch and that they would never acknowledge another. It was of no use; a new reign of terror began in which all who refused to accept the Arian creed were treated as criminals. Men and women were seized and scourged; some were slain. Athanasius was denounced as a |runaway, an evildoer, a cheat and an impostor, deserving of death.| Letters came from the Emperor ordering all the churches in the city to be given up to the Arians and requiring the people to receive without objections the new Patriarch whom he would shortly send them.
As time went on, things grew worse. The churches were invaded; altars, vestments and books were burned and incense thrown on the flames. An ox was sacrificed in the sanctuary; priests, monks and nuns were seized and tortured; the houses of the faithful were broken into and robbed. Bishops were driven into exile and their sees filled by Arians, those who were ready to give the most money being generally chosen. Some of them were even pagans; the people were ready to bear any suffering rather than hold communion with them.
When the Emperor Constantius considered that the resistance of the Alexandrians had been sufficiently broken, he addressed them in a conciliatory letter.
Now that the impostor had been driven out, he said, he was about to send them a Patriarch above praise. They would find in the venerable George of Cappadocia the wisest of teachers, one who was fit in every way to lead them to the kingdom of Heaven and to raise their hearts from earthly to heavenly things.
The |venerable| George was not unknown to them by repute, at least. He had begun his career as seller of pork to the Roman army. It was a position in which a clever man might have made a comfortable fortune. But George was not a clever man, and he was in too great a hurry to get rich. Such impudent dishonesty as his could not pass unnoticed; a precipitate flight alone saved him from a State prison. He was said to have been ordained a priest by the Arians before he was even a Christian. In that case he was no priest, but a useful tool in their hands, for he was capable of anything.
Ignorant and unlettered, he had studied neither theology nor the Scriptures; he was, moreover, a man of bad life, heartless, cruel and greedy. His aim both as Patriarch and as pork-butcher was to make money -- as much and as quickly as possible. This was the |wise teacher who was to raise them from the things of earth to those of Heaven.| The faithful, with true instinct, prepared for the worst.
They had not long to wait. Even Gregory had been humane compared with George of Cappadocia. Monasteries were burned down; Bishops, priests, virgins, widows -- all, in fact, who were faithful to the Church -- were insulted, tortured or slain. Many died in consequence of the treatment they had received; others were forced into compliance. The troops of the Emperor, with an Arian at their head, were there to do George's bidding.
The new Patriarch, undisturbed by the sufferings of his victims, was busy enriching himself. Gradually he got control of all the trades in the city; he even made himself chief undertaker and passed a law by which those who dared to bury their dead in a coffin not of his providing could be severely punished. That his coffins cost a small fortune was only to be expected. At the end of two years he had exhausted the patience of the Alexandrians, pagans and Christians alike. There was a popular rising, in which the Patriarch, not having the qualities of a hero, fled for his life. For the next three years he wandered about in the East, lending a hand to every Arian scheme.
In the meantime, where was Athanasius? No one knew or, at least, so it seemed. He had vanished into the darkness of the night. He was invisible, but his voice could not be silenced, and it was a voice that moved the world. Treatise after treatise in defense of the true Faith; letter after letter to the Bishops of Egypt, to his friends and to the faithful -- was carried far and wide by the hands of trusty messengers. The Arians had the Roman Emperor on their side, but the pen of Athanasius was more powerful than the armies of Constantius.
|God will comfort you,| he wrote to his people in Alexandria on hearing that the churches were in the hands of the Arians. |If they have the temples, you have the Faith of the Apostles. If they are in the place, they are far from the Faith; but you, even if you are cast out from the churches, possess the Faith in your hearts. Which is the greater, the place or the Faith? The place is good only when the Faith of the Apostles is taught there; it is holy only when it is the home of holiness.|
Rumor said that Athanasius was in hiding in the Thebaid among the monks. The Arians searched the desert foot by foot to find him, but in vain. The monks themselves might have thrown some light upon the matter, but they were silent men, given to prayer and labor; they did not seem to understand what was asked of them, even when questioned with a dagger at their throats.
Silent but faithful, their sentinels were everywhere, watching for the enemy's approach. Athanasius was always warned in time and led by trusty guides to another and a safer place. Sometimes it was only by a hair's breadth that he escaped, but for six years he eluded his enemies. There was not one of the monks who would not gladly have laid down his life for him. He lived among them as one of themselves, and they learned more from him of the religious life than they could teach. As mortified as the holiest among them, always serene and forgetful of self in the midst of hardships and danger, forced sometimes to hide for months in the mountain caves where his only food was what the faithful could bring him, his one thought was the Church. The Arians had made Constantius their spiritual head. They had given him that title of |Eternal| which they had denied to the Son of God. Their Bishops and teachers were everywhere; but Athanasius, like Antony, leaned strongly on Christ's promise.
It would have been madness to return openly to Alexandria while Constantius lived, but several times during those dreadful years Athanasius visited the city in secret and at the risk of his life. In hiding, with a price on his head, he was as formidable an enemy to the Arians as he would have been at Alexandria. His spirit was abroad among the people, encouraging them to persevere, cheering them when downcast, comforting and consoling them in suffering. Though absent, he was their Father and their Bishop still. His voice reached even to distant Gaul, where it encouraged St. Hilary of Poitiers and others, who were striving, even as he was, against heresy.
The Arians were behaving in their usual way -- |always slippery, always shuffling,| as one who knew them asserted.* At one council, having been accused of denying the Divinity of Christ, they had said: |Let anyone who says that Jesus Christ is a creature like unto other creatures be anathema| (accursed). At another which followed it closely -- for the Arians and Constantius held a council every few months to gain their ends -- they openly stated that Jesus Christ was not God, but a creature. Someone present who had been at the previous council reminded them of the statement they had made on that occasion. |We never meant that Jesus Christ was not a creature,| they retorted, |only that he was a different kind of creature from the others!|
* The Arians, seeing that their original doctrines were offensive to all Catholic consciences, had now taken up the position known as |Semi-Arian.| The Son was like the Father, they declared, though not of one substance with Him.
In the meantime, as things had quieted down a little in Alexandria, George of Cappadocia resolved to return and see if he could not make a little more money. He was received in an ominous silence, for he was held in abhorrence almost as much by the pagans as by the Christians. A few days later the news reached the city that Constantius was dead and that his nephew Julian had succeeded him as Emperor.
The moment of reckoning had come. George was seized by the pagan population and literally torn to pieces; his body was burned and its ashes scattered to the winds. Thus perished Constantius' |prelate above all praise,| and it was not likely that the new Emperor would take much trouble to avenge his death.
Julian, known as |the Apostate,| had been a pupil of Eusebius of Nicomedia and a model of youthful piety; but the Christianity of which Eusebius was a living example had struck but shallow roots. Later he went to Athens, where St. Basil and St. Gregory, the two great doctors of the Church, were his fellow students. |What a viper the Roman Empire is cherishing in its bosom!| exclaimed Gregory, no mean judge of character, |but God grant that I prove a false prophet.|
No sooner was Julian crowned Emperor than he threw off the mask and openly declared himself a pagan. The temples of the gods were now rebuilt, sacrifices were offered, and wealth and honors were given to all the Christians who would apostatize.
An edict was published allowing the people to practice whatever religion they chose and recalling everybody who had been banished during the reign of Constantius. This seemed generous, but Julian did not believe in persecution; its results in the past had only been to strengthen the Christians in their faith. His methods were different. Privileges were granted to the pagans which were denied to the Church; the Galileans, as Julian called the Christians, were ridiculed, and paganism was praised as the only religion worthy of educated men.
The results were not what the Emperor had expected, and he complained bitterly that there were so few who responded to his efforts to enlighten them. As for the Church, she knew at least what she had to expect; an open enemy is less dangerous than a false friend.