St. Athanasius | 10. The Last Exile


10. The Last Exile

IT was not safe for Athanasius to remain long in the neighbourhood of Alexandria, for the pagans were now having it all their own way.

Two of the bravest and most faithful of his clergy had been seized and exiled, and Julian's troops were searching everywhere for the Patriarch. Athanasius made his way to the Thebaid, where he was received with all the old enthusiasm.

Under cover of the night, he came up the river to Hermopolis, intending to stay there for some time to preach to the people. The banks of the river were crowded with bishops, monks and clergy who had come out to welcome their Father.

Athanasius landed and, mounted on an ass led by Theodore, Abbot of Tabenna, proceeded to the town escorted by a vast throng of people carrying torches and singing hymns of praise. Here he dismounted, and the monks asked him for his blessing.

“Blessed indeed and worthy of all praise are these men who carry always the cross of the Lord,” he replied.

After having stayed for some time at Hermopolis, he went with the Abbot Theodore to his monastery of Tabenna, where he was already beloved by all.

He took the keenest interest in everything that related to the religious life, even to the work of the humblest brother. “It is these men, devoted to humility and obedience,” he would often say, “who are our fathers, rather than we theirs.”

Round about him lay the great cities of ancient Egypt—“Thebes of the Hundred Gates” and Memphis, the old capital of the kingdom—cities of the dead whose glories had already passed away.

The glory that these men had come to seek in their humble monasteries was one which is eternal. The things of this world were small and fleeting to those who lived in the thought of eternity.

It was a country full of holy memories:

On the banks of that Nile that flowed so tranquilly among the ancient cities of Egypt, Moses himself had stood lifting hands of prayer for the deliverance of his people.

Later, the Salvation of the world Himself had come to dwell for a time beside it, sowing the seeds that were now bringing forth so great a harvest.

It was midsummer, and Athanasius was at Arsinoe when the news came that the enemy was on his track once more.

The Abbot Theodore, who was visiting the Patriarch, persuaded him to embark in his covered boat and to return with him to Tabenna.

Tide and wind were against them; the monks had to land and tow the boat; progress was slow, and the soldiers of Julian were not far off. Athanasius was absorbed in prayer, preparing for the martyr's death that, this time at least, seemed very near.

“Fear not,” said one of the monks called Ammon, “for God is our protection.”

“I have no fear,” answered Athanasius; “for many long years I have suffered persecution, and never has it disturbed the peace of my soul. It is a joy to suffer, and the greatest of all joys is to give one's life for Christ.”

There was a silence during which all gave themselves to prayer.

As the Abbot Theodore besought God to save their Patriarch, it was suddenly made known to him by a divine revelation that at that very moment the Emperor Julian had met his death in battle against the Persians, and that he had been succeeded by Jovian, a Christian and a Catholic.

At once he told the good news to Athanasius, advising him to go without delay to the new Emperor and ask to be restored to his see.

In the meantime they had arrived in safety at Tabenna, where the monks had assembled with joy on hearing of Athanasius' approach.

Great was their sorrow when they learned that he had only come to bid them farewell. They gathered around him weeping, begging that he would remember them in his prayers.

“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,” cried Athanasius in the words of the Psalmist, “let my right hand be forgotten.”

The Emperor Jovian had been an officer in the Roman Army, where his cheerful good nature had so endeared him to the soldiers that he was proclaimed Emperor immediately on Julian's death.

There was no need to plead for justice with such a man; scarcely had Athanasius arrived in Alexandria when he received a cordial letter from the Emperor himself.

“Jovian—to Athanasius, the faithful servant of God,” it ran:

“As we are full of admiration for the holiness of your life and your zeal in the service of Christ our Saviour, we take you from this day forth under our royal protection.

We are aware of the courage which makes you count as nothing the heaviest labours, the greatest dangers, the sufferings of persecution and the fear of death.

You have fought faithfully for the Truth and edified the whole Christian world, which looks to you as a model of every virtue.

It is therefore our desire that you should return to your See and teach the doctrine of salvation. Come back to your people, feed the flock of Christ and pray for our person, for it is through your prayers that we hope for the blessing of God.”

Another letter followed shortly afterward from the Emperor, asking Athanasius to tell him plainly what was the true faith of the Catholic Church and inviting him to visit him at Antioch.

The faith of Nicaea was alone to be believed and held, replied the Patriarch; it was that of the whole Catholic world, with the exception of a few men who still held the doctrines of Arius.

Nevertheless, he thought it prudent to accept the Emperor's invitation and set out shortly afterward for Antioch.

It was well that he did so, for the Arians were already on the spot:

They had brought with them a man called Lucius in the hope that they would be able to induce Jovian to name him Patriarch of Alexandria in place of Athanasius.

“We are Alexandrians,” they declared, “and we beseech your Majesty to give us a Bishop.”

“I have already ordered Athanasius to return to his See,” was the reply.

“We have proofs against him,” they said; “he was condemned and banished by Constantine and Constantius of blessed memory.”

“All that was ten or twenty years ago,” answered the Emperor; “it is too late to rake it up again now. Besides, I know all about it by whom he was accused and how he was banished. You need say no more.”

The Arians persisted. “Give us whomever you like as Patriarch,” they said, “as long as it is not Athanasius. No one in the town will hold communion with him.”

“I have heard a very different story,” said Jovian; “his teaching is greatly appreciated.”

“His teaching is well enough,” they retorted, “but his heart is full of malice.”

“For his heart he must answer to God, who alone knows what is in it,” replied the Emperor; “it is enough for me if his teaching is good.”

The Arians at last lost patience. “He calls us heretics!” they exclaimed indignantly.

“That is his duty and the duty of all those who guard the flock of Christ” was the only reply they got.

The Emperor received Athanasius with the deepest respect and listened eagerly to all he had to say on the subject of the true Faith.

After a short stay in Antioch, the Patriarch returned to Alexandria, where he related to the people the success of his enterprise and spoke much in praise of the new Emperor.

Their joy was not destined to be lasting. Jovian had been but a few months on the throne when he died suddenly on his way from Antioch to Constantinople.

He was succeeded by Valentinian, who, unfortunately for the peace of the Church, chose his brother Valens to help him in the government, taking the West for his own share of the Empire and leaving the East to his brother.

Valens, who was both weak and cruel, had an Arian wife and declared at once in favour of the Arians. The East was once more to be the scene of strife and persecution.

The Emperor, who had not yet been baptized, received the Sacrament at the hands of Eudoxius, the Arian Bishop of Constantinople, a worthy successor of Eusebius,

who, in the middle of the ceremony, made Valens take an oath that he would remain faithful to the Arians and pursue the Catholics with every rigor.

The Emperor thus won over, the Arians began to persecute and slander those who were faithful to the Church; several were even put to death.

The Catholics, in desperation, resolved at last to send an embassy to Valens to ask for justice, eighty priests and clerics being chosen to make the petition.

The Emperor, who pretended to listen patiently to their complaints, had given secret orders to Modestus, the Prefect of the Pretorian Guard, to put them all to death.

Modestus was as cruel as his master; but even in Nicomedia, where Arius and Eusebius had been so active in preaching heresy, the bulk of the people remained true to the Faith of Nicaea.

Such a wholesale slaughter of innocent ecclesiastics would be almost certain to cause a rising; the thing must be done secretly.

Summoning the doomed men to appear before him, Modestus informed them that the Emperor had sentenced them to banishment.

Glad to suffer something for the Faith, they received the news with joy and were promptly embarked on a ship which was supposedly to carry them to the country of their exile.

The crew, however, had received their orders from Modestus. They set the ship on fire and escaped in the only boat, leaving the eighty martyrs to perish in the flames.

After this, it was evidently useless to appeal to Valens for justice.

The Governors of the different provinces soon received orders to drive out all the Bishops banished by Constantius who had returned during the reign of Julian.

The people of Alexandria, however, protested that Athanasius had not returned in the reign of Julian but had been personally recalled by Jovian.

The Governor of Egypt dared not insist, for the citizens had gathered in force, determined to defend their Bishop; but he warned the Emperor of the Catholic spirit of the Alexandrians.

A few days later, Athanasius left the city to stay for a short time in a country house in the neighbourhood. It was a providential thing that he did so:

That very night the Governor, with a body of armed troops, broke into the church where the Patriarch was usually to be found at prayer. They searched everywhere and were much astonished to find that their prey had escaped them.

Athanasius, in the meantime, warned by friends, had concealed himself in his father's tomb, a fairly large vault, where a man might remain for some time in hiding.

The secret was well kept by the faithful, who brought food to the Patriarch during the night and kept him informed of all that was passing in the city.

For four long months he remained in concealment:

at the end of which time the Governor, fearing an outbreak among the people—for the whole of Egypt was in a ferment—persuaded Valens to let him return in peace to his see.