ATHANASIUS was back once more in the midst of his people. This time they were determined to keep him at any cost, as they gave the Arians to understand a year later when Lucius, the man who had been recommended to Jovian as a suitable Patriarch, ventured to make his appearance in Alexandria. No sooner did the people hear of his arrival than they surrounded the house where he was lodging, and it would have gone ill with him had not the Governor, with an armed troop, rescued him and hurried him out of Egypt. The roar against him that arose from the multitude as he was escorted by a strong guard out of the city completely cured him of any desire to return, and Athanasius was left in peace for the remaining years of his life.
He had grown old, and his strength was failing, but his soul, still young and vigorous, was undaunted and heroic as ever. The seven last years of his rule at Alexandria were no more years of rest than those which had gone before. He was one of the few bishops still living who had been present at the Council of Nicea. The whole Catholic world, West as well as East, venerated him as a Confessor of the Faith and looked to him for advice and help.
His pen was still busy. One of his first acts on his return to Alexandria was to write the life of St. Antony of the Desert, a last tribute of love and gratitude to the memory of his dear old friend. The book was eagerly read; we are told in the Confessions of St. Augustine how two young officers of the Imperial army, finding it on the table of a certain hermitage near Milan and reading it, were so inspired by enthusiasm for the religious life that they embraced it then and there.
In the other parts of the Eastern empire Valens and the Arians were still at work, and persecution was raging as of old. Many of the persecuted Bishops looked to Athanasius for the comfort and encouragement which they never sought in vain. He was always ready to forget the past and to make advances even to those who had been his bitterest enemies. Let them only accept the Creed of Nicea, he said, and he would admit them to communion.
There was a splendid chivalry about the man who could so generously hold out the right hand of fellowship to those who had never ceased to plot his ruin. The triumph of truth and the salvation of souls was his first, and indeed his only thought; everything else could be safely forgotten. Unfortunately, it was not so with the leaders of the Arians, and they refused to respond to his appeal. There were, however, among them good men who had been deceived into signing false creeds and who were beginning to see things in their true light. Many of these were received back into the Church and became true and firm friends of the Patriarch, who was always more ready to see the good in his fellowmen than the evil.
God had not given to everyone the clear instinct and the wide learning of an Athanasius. It was sometimes really difficult to see where the truth lay, for the Arians always tried to conceal their real doctrines from those who would have shrunk from them in horror. Their old trick of declaring that they believed all that the Church believed had led many astray. For misled men such as these, honest and true of heart, Athanasius had the greatest compassion and sympathy; they could always count on his help.
He carried the same large-mindedness into the affairs of his government. A certain Bishop of Libya having grown too old to carry out his duties to the people's satisfaction, they asked that he should be replaced by a younger and more capable prelate. But they had not the patience to wait till the affair was settled. Siderius, a young Christian officer stationed in the province, had won the hearts of all by his virtue and wisdom; he, and none other, they resolved, should take the place of the old man. A Bishop called Philo was accordingly persuaded to consecrate Siderius, a thing he had no right to do, as the Patriarch had not been consulted; neither were there two other Bishops present, as was required for a lawful consecration.
The news of this irregular proceeding came in due time to the ears of Athanasius, who sent someone to inquire into the matter. Finding, however, that Siderius was worthy in every way of the position in which he had been placed, he ratified the choice of the people and showed much favor to the young Bishop.
Yet a few years later he was ready to brave the Emperor's anger by excommunicating the Governor of Libya, a man whose cruelty and evil deeds had made him hateful to all. As the man was a native of Cappadocia, Athanasius wrote to St. Basil, the Archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, to tell him what he had done. St. Basil replied that he had published the excommunication throughout his diocese and forbidden anyone to hold communion with the unhappy man. He asked Athanasius to pray for him and his people, for the Arians were hard at work among them.
Valens, in the meantime, had decided that the whole empire must be Arian and was trying to obtain his end by force. Arian prelates arrived in Caesarea, and Modestus, Prefect of the Pretorian Guard, informed the Archbishop that he must admit them to communion under pain of banishment. St. Basil, having resisted the order, was brought up before the Prefect's tribunal.
|Why will you not accept the Emperor's religion?| asked the latter. |Do you think it is a small thing to be of our communion?|
|Although you are Prefects and powerful people,| answered the Archbishop, |you are not to be more respected than God.|
|Do you not know that I have power to drive you into exile, even to take your life?| cried Modestus in a rage.
|I am God's pilgrim,| was the answer; |all countries are the same to me, and death is a good gift when it brings me to Him for whom I live and work.|
|No one has ever spoken so boldly to me before,| replied Modestus, astonished.
|You have probably never met a Christian Bishop before,| said Basil, |or he would certainly have answered you as I have done. In all other things we are meek and obedient, but when it is a question of God's worship, we look to Him alone. Threats are of no use, for suffering in His service is our greatest delight.|
|Would you not like to have the Emperor in your congregation?| asked Modestus. |It would be so easy. You have only to strike that word 'consubstantial' out of your creed.|
|Gladly would I see the Emperor in my church,| said Basil; |it is a great thing to save a soul; but as for changing my creed, I would not alter a letter for the whole world.|
The persecution continued, and Basil addressed himself once more to Athanasius, asking for prayers and guidance. |We are persuaded,| he wrote, |that your leadership is our sole remaining comfort in our distress. By the power of our prayers, by the wisdom of your counsels, you are able to carry us through this fearful storm, as all are sure who have in any way made trial of your goodness. Wherefore cease not to pray for our souls and to stir us up by letters; if you only knew how these benefit us, you would never let pass an opportunity of writing. If it were given to me, through your prayers, once to see you, to profit by your gifts and to add to the history of my life a meeting with such a great and apostolic soul, surely I should consider that the loving mercy of God has given me a compensation for all the ills with which my life has been afflicted.|
In 366 Pope Liberius died and was succeeded by Pope St. Damasus, a man of strong character and holy life. Two years later, in a council of the Church, it was decreed that no Bishop should be consecrated unless he held the Creed of Nicea. Athanasius was overwhelmed with joy on hearing this decision. The triumph of the cause for which he had fought so valiantly was now assured.
Athanasius' life was drawing to an end. Five years later, after having governed his diocese for forty-eight years -- years of labor, endurance and suffering -- he passed peacefully into the presence of that Lord for whose sake he had counted all his tribulations as joy.
From his earliest youth Athanasius had stood forth as the champion of Truth and defender of the Faith -- a gallant warrior who had not laid down his arms until the day of his death. Where a weaker man would have lost courage, he had stood firm; suffering had only served to temper his spirit, as steel is tempered by the fire. Among men who were capable of every compromise he had remained loyal and true, and few have been more loved or hated than he. To his own people he was not only their Bishop, but a Saint, an ascetic, a martyr in all but deed; above all, he was an intensely lovable personality, whose very greatness of soul only made him more compassionate. To the outside world he was a guiding light, a beacon pointing straight to God and Heaven. He was a living example of the truth that a man may be large-minded and yet strong; that he may hate error, yet love the erring -- stand like a rock against heresy, yet be full of compassion for heretics.
Scarcely was Athanasius dead when he was honored as a Saint. Six years after his death, St. Gregory Nazianzen speaks of him in one breath with the patriarchs, prophets and martyrs who had fought for the Faith and won the crown of glory. His influence is with us to this day, his memory lingers in the words of that Nicene Creed which was his war cry; for it is largely owing to his valor that we possess it still. And through all his works breathes the same spirit -- the spirit that nerved him to fight and suffer -- an intense love and devotion to Him who was the Lord and Master of his life -- Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever.