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Saint Athanasius by Frances Alice Forbes


THE night before the martyrdom of the Patriarch Peter, as he had lain in prison praying and waiting for that dawn which was to be his last on earth, there had come to him a few of his faithful clergy. They had braved many dangers to look once more upon the face of their beloved Bishop and to obtain his blessing and his last instructions; they had come also to plead for one who had asked their help.

But a short time before, a certain man called Arius had been excommunicated by the Patriarch for having joined the schism of Meletius. He it was who that very day had visited them, beseeching them with tears to use their influence with Peter to obtain his pardon. The clerics knew the tenderness of their Bishop's heart and his readiness to forgive the erring; they were therefore greatly surprised when their petition met with a stern refusal.

|Never,| said Peter. |Arius is separated from the glory of the Son of God both in this world and in the next.|

Then, as Achillas and Alexander, his dearest and most intimate friends, had drawn him apart to ask the reason for such unusual severity --

|This night,| he said, |as I prayed, Our Lord appeared to me in glory, but His robe was rent from top to bottom. 'Who has treated Thee thus, my Lord!' I cried, 'and rent Thy garments?'

|'It is Arius,' He replied, 'who has torn My robe, and tomorrow they will come to you to intercede for him. Therefore I have warned you to keep him from the fold. But you shall die for Me tomorrow.'|

Then Achillas and Alexander, and they that were with them, prayed once more with their Bishop, and he blessed them and bade them depart in peace. And when the morning came, the promise of Christ was fulfilled, and His faithfu1 servant received the martyr's crown.

Achillas succeeded Peter as Patriarch, and in course of time, yielding to the entreaties of Arius and deceived by his apparent good faith, he received him back into the fold and gave him charge of one of the largest churches in Alexandria in a district called Baukalis.

Tall and striking in appearance, with a certain eloquence and a great pretense of holiness, Arius soon became a popular preacher. He had even hoped, it was said, to succeed Achillas as Patriarch; and when, on the death of Achillas, Alexander was elected to take his place, Arius' anger and envy knew no bounds. Since he could find no fault with the conduct of the new Patriarch, whom everyone acknowledged to be blameless and holy, he proceeded to find fault with his doctrine. |In teaching that Christ was the Eternal Son of God,| said the priest of Baukalis, |Alexander and his clergy made a great mistake. Since Christ was the creation of God the Father, how could He Himself be God?|

It was a heresy that struck at the very roots of Christianity. Alexander remembered, too late, the warning of Peter. Gentle and peaceful by nature, he tried at first to win Arius by kindness. |Let him explain his difficulty,| he said, |and discuss the question with theologians|; but all such suggestions were met with pride and obstinacy. Arius at last sent a haughty statement of his opinions, which were condemned by nearly all the Bishops of Egypt. He was therefore deposed and forbidden to preach, but he was not the man to take his defeat humbly.

Hastening to Caesarea in Palestine, where he had influential friends, he gave himself out as |the very famous, the much suffering for God's glory, who, taught of God, has acquired wisdom and knowledge.| Many were seduced by his insidious persuasions, among them Eusebius, the Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, who, thoroughly taken in by the deceits and false holiness of the heretic, wrote a letter to Alexander in his favor.

The Patriarch replied by a detailed account of Arius' teaching and his trial, giving the reasons why the Synod had thought fit to depose him. This letter had an effect on the clergy and Bishops of Palestine which Arius was quick enough to see. He therefore retired into Syria, where he made great friends with another Eusebius, the clever and crafty Bishop of Nicomedia, who had gained an unfortunate influence over the Emperor.

It was now nearly twelve years since Constantine, himself a pagan, though the son of St. Helena, had prayed to the God of the Christians to give him the victory over his enemies. His prayers had been heard. In the brightness of the noonday sky there appeared a sign which outshone the sun in splendor -- the image of the Cross of Christ. |In this sign thou shalt conquer| was traced in fiery letters across it, and the Emperor and all his army saw and believed.

With the Cross as standard, Constantine marched against his enemies and defeated them. From that day forth he became a catechumen and the protector and friend of the Christians. His first act was to publish an edict, the Edict of Milan, which gave them full liberty to practice their religion, build churches and preach. Thus the Church came forth at last from the dark night of persecution, but her life on earth is ever a warfare against the powers of evil, and other dangers lay ahead.

The Emperor began by making humane laws. He abolished the punishment of crucifixion out of reverence for the Son of God, who had died upon the Cross, put a stop to the cruel games of the arena and bettered the condition of the slaves.

Constantine's nature was really a noble one, but there was much in him still of the pagan and the barbarian. Unfortunately for himself and for the world, he fell under the influence of Eusebius, Bishop of Nicomedia.

This man, who was said to have apostatized during the persecution of Maxentius and who had intruded himself, no one quite knew how, into the See of Nicomedia, had begun by winning the good graces of Constantia, the Emperor's sister. During the time when Constantia's husband, Licinius, was at war with her brother, Eusebius was his staunch friend, upholding him in his rebellion against the Emperor; but on the defeat of Licinius, the Bishop at once transferred his friendship to the conqueror, Constantine. Bishop Eusebius resembled Arius in his want of reverence and of honesty, and had taken Arius' side against the Patriarch, Alexander, praising openly the teaching of Arius and declaring that his only wish was that all men should share his opinions. He had even dared to write in Arius' favor to the Patriarch, declaring insolently that he had been unjustly deposed.

Alexander was growing old, but the Faith was in peril; it was a moment for vigorous action. Moreover, at his side, like a faithful watchdog, stood his secretary, the young deacon Athanasius. Circular letters were sent to Pope St. Sylvester and to all the Bishops warning them of the new danger that was threatening the Church. |Since Eusebius has placed himself at the head of these apostates,| wrote Alexander, |it is necessary that it should be made known to all the faithful, lest they should be deceived by their hypocrisy.|

Eusebius and Arius were both astonished and disgusted at the firm attitude of the Patriarch. Athanasius was at the bottom of it, they declared, and they vowed an undying hatred against him. The Emperor Constantine, who happened at this moment to be visiting Nicomedia, where he had spent a great part of his youth, heard Eusebius' version of the story. It was only a question of words, said the wily Bishop; what was really distressing about it was the spite and the venom with which the Patriarch of Alexandria had pursued an innocent and holy man for having dared to differ from him in opinion. Arius was then presented to the Emperor as a faithful and unjustly persecuted priest, a part which he knew how to play to perfection.

It was well known to Eusebius that the great desire of Constantine was to preserve and maintain peace in his empire. If this quarrel were allowed to go on, said the Bishop, there would soon be strife throughout the whole of the East, for there was much bitterness already. On the other hand, Constantine was known to all Christians as the protector and generous benefactor of the Church. Would it not be well for him, suggested Eusebius, to use his influence for good and to write to Alexander, bidding him lay aside this most unchristian dispute and make peace with Arius and his followers? The Emperor, as Eusebius had hoped, took alarm at the prospect of disunion in his dominions. A catechumen himself, and knowing but little of the great truths of Christianity, he was easily deceived by Eusebius' story and hastened to take his advice.

It was a scandalous thing, he wrote, that the peace of the Church should be disturbed for such a trivial matter. Let Alexander and Arius forgive one another; let them each keep their own opinion if they chose, but in concord and in quiet. He ended by begging both to give him peace by making peace among themselves and by putting an end to all such quarrels.

The letter was entrusted to Hosius, Bishop of Cordova, a confessor of the Faith, venerated throughout the Church for his wisdom and holiness. He was to deliver it personally to the Patriarch of Alexandria.

Now, Hosius was a Bishop of the Western Church and had heard but vague rumors of the doings of Arius and his followers in the East. His first interview with the Patriarch of Alexandria opened his eyes to the importance of the matter. It was no question of a war of words or a difference of opinion -- Christianity itself was at stake; the Emperor must be warned, and warned at once. A letter was therefore written by the two Bishops, assisted probably by Athanasius, in which the Emperor was earnestly begged to take steps to summon a universal Council of the Church to decide the question. It was dispatched to him by a trusty messenger and in due time reached his hands.

Constantine, who was really anxious to do what was right, appealed to the Pope, St. Sylvester, to unite with him in summoning a Council. To the Bishops who were too poor to undertake a long journey with the usual attendance of clergy, the Emperor offered the necessary means. He undertook also to house and provide for the members of the Council as long as it lasted. The town of Nicea in Bithynia, about twenty miles from Nicomedia, was chosen as the meeting place. It was hoped by all devout Christians that peace and unity in the Church would be the result.

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