St. Athanasius | 4. The Calm before the Storm


4. The Calm before the Storm

WITH the enemies of the Church in exile, for a time there was peace.

The heathen came flocking from every side to embrace the Faith. Pagan temples were overthrown and Christian churches were erected in their place.

The Emperor himself built no less than eight in Rome, under the direction of Pope St. Sylvester, and furnished them with all that was required for the worship of God.

But Constantine was a stranger in the capital of his kingdom; he had spent his youth at the court of Nicomedia, and looked upon the East as his home.

Rome, moreover, had tragic associations for him. It was there that he had caused his young son Crispus, falsely accused of treason by his stepmother Fausta, to be put to death.

The young Caesar had been brave and upright and a favourite with all. Too late did his father learn that he was innocent. Fausta paid the penalty for her evil deed, but her death could not give life to the innocent victim.

Constantine resolved, therefore, to build himself an Imperial city in the land which he loved, far from the scene of the tragedy:

He laid its foundations in Byzantium and gave it the name of Constantinople, or the city of Constantine. Everything was done to make the new capital the most magnificent city in the world:

Works of art were brought from afar, the most skilful artists and builders were assembled from all the cities of Europe and of the East, enormous sums of money were spent, Christian churches were built;

but Constantine could not give to his Imperial city what was wanting to himself—a pure and steadfast faith. Constantinople was destined to be the home of every heresy.

In the meantime the holy Patriarch Alexander had gone to his rest. As he lay on his deathbed he called for his beloved Athanasius, but there was no reply:

Athanasius had fled from the city, fearing from certain words of the old man that he would be chosen to succeed him.

“Athanasius!” called the Patriarch once more.

There was one present who bore the same name, a not uncommon one in the East; they brought him to the bedside of the dying Bishop, but his eyes looked past him into space.

“Athanasius!” he called once more, “you think you can escape, but it shall not be so.” And with these words he died.

The same thought had been in the hearts of all:

Athanasius was known for his zeal and learning, his mortified life and his ardent love of God. He was young, it was true, but he was wiser than many older men.

When the Bishops of the Church assembled to elect their new Patriarch, the whole Catholic population surrounded the church, holding up their hands to Heaven and crying, “Give us Athanasius!” The Bishops asked nothing better.

Athanasius was thus elected, as St. Gregory tells us, by the suffrages of the whole people and by the choice of the Bishops of the Church.

It was a heavy burden to be laid on the shoulders of a young man scarcely thirty years of age. There were trials and combats ahead before which, if Athanasius had seen them, even his bold and undaunted spirit might have quailed.

But the will of God, once made known to him, was accepted bravely. He would bear the burden with all the courage of his strong heart until the time came to lay it down.

The first few years of Athanasius' rule were years of peace during which he devoted himself to the work he loved, the conversion of the pagans and the visitation of his huge diocese, the Patriarchate of Alexander.

He travelled from city to city confirming and strengthening the Church and making friends with the holy men over whom he had been called to rule.

One day, when he had been but a few months Patriarch, a message was brought to him from a stranger who wished to speak with him. His name was Frumentius, and he had travelled from a distant country.

Athanasius was presiding at a meeting of Bishops. “Let him be brought in,” he said, “and let him tell us what he desires.”

The stranger was a man of noble bearing and gentle manners. He had a wondrous tale to tell:

He and his brother Ædesius, left orphans at an early age, had been adopted by an uncle who was a learned man and a philosopher.

Desiring greatly to undertake a voyage to Abyssinia to study the geography of the country and unwilling to interrupt the education of his two young charges, he took them with him, that they might continue their studies under his care.

His work finished, he set sail for home with the two boys, but the boat, having put into a port for provisions, was set upon by savages, and everyone on board was killed.

Now, it happened that the boys had landed and were reading together under a tree on the shore. The savages had pity on their youth and, instead of killing them, carried them off and presented them to their King as slaves.

The boys, who were intelligent and lovable, soon gained the affections of their barbarian master.

Arrived at manhood, they were given positions of trust in the kingdom and loaded with every honour. Frumentius, the elder, was especially beloved by the King, over whom he gained a great influence for good.

But the King fell sick and, being near to death, called his wife, to whom he had left the guardianship of his young son. “Let Frumentius help you in the government,” he said; “he is wiser and more faithful than any in the kingdom.”

The Queen Mother accordingly appointed Frumentius as the tutor of the young King, and Governor of the State, while his brother Ædesius was given a less important position.

Frumentius, whose earnest desire was to see the land that he governed Christian, summoned all the Christian merchants who came to trade in the country

and, giving them presents, begged them to build houses of prayer and to do their utmost to win the barbarians to the Faith.

There were many conversions, and by the time the young King had reached his majority, several Christian communities were scattered throughout the State.

His task being now at an end, Frumentius asked leave to return to his own land with his brother Ædesius. They had a hard task to persuade the King and the Queen Mother to let them go, but at last they prevailed.

Frumentius, whose heart was yearning over the country to which he owed so much, had come straight to the Patriarch of Alexandria

to beg of him that he would send a Bishop to preside over the growing number of churches in Abyssinia and to preach the Faith in the districts where it was not yet known.

The Patriarch and the Bishops had followed the story with the greatest interest. When Frumentius ceased speaking, there was a moment of silence, broken suddenly by Athanasius himself:

“Who is more worthy of such a ministry,” he cried, “than the man who stands before us?”

The suggestion was approved by all. Frumentius was ordained by the Patriarch, who gave him his blessing and bade him return to his mission.

He was honoured as a Saint in Abyssinia, where he laboured zealously all his life for Christ. Ædesius, his brother, became a priest also and helped in the good work.

Athanasius, as we have already seen, had spent a part of his youth with the monks of the desert. It was his proudest boast that he had acted as acolyte to the great St. Antony.

He resolved, therefore, to visit the district known as the Thebaid, where St. Pachomius, the father of monasticism in the East, had founded many monasteries and drawn up a rule for the monks.

Pachomius had been one of a body of young soldiers seized against their will and forced to fight in the wars between Constantine and Maxentius.

It happened one day during a journey that they landed at Thebes in Egypt, where they were treated with harshness and cruelty.

Hungry, poorly clad and miserable, the young soldiers were lamenting their ill fortune when a party of strangers approached them from the town, welcoming them as friends and brothers and giving them food, garments and all that they so badly needed.

“Who are these good men?” asked Pachomius of a bystander.

“They are Christians,” was the answer. “They are kind to everyone, but especially to strangers.”

“What is a Christian?” persisted the young soldier.

“A man who believes in Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, and does good to all,” was the reply.

Pachomius reflected for a few minutes and then withdrew a little way from his companions:

“Almighty God, who have made Heaven and earth,” he cried, lifting his hands to Heaven, “if You will hear my prayer and give me a knowledge of Your Holy Name, and deliver me from the position in which I am, I promise You that I will consecrate myself to Your service forever.”

Not long after, Pachomius was set free and, seeking out a Christian priest, received Baptism and instruction. Then, going at once to the cell of an old hermit called Palemon, famous for his holy and mortified life, he knocked at the door of his hut.

“Who are you, and what do you want?” asked the old man, opening his door a few inches.

“I am called Pachomius, and I want to be a monk,” was the answer.

“You cannot be a monk here,” said Palemon. “It is a hard thing to be a true monk, and there few who persevere.”

“Perhaps so,” replied Pachomius; “but all people are not alike.”

 “I have already told you,” repeated the old man, “that you cannot be a monk here. Go elsewhere and try; if you persevere you can come back.”

“I would rather stay with you,” said Pachomius.

“You do not know what you are asking,” answered Palemon. “I live on bread and salt; I pray and do penance the greater part of the night - sometimes the whole night through.”

Pachomius shivered, for he was a sound sleeper, but he replied sturdily enough:

“I hope in Jesus Christ that, helped by your prayers, I shall persevere.”

Palemon could resist him no longer. He took the young man to live with him and found him a humble and faithful disciple.

After some years, the two hermits went together to the desert of the Thebaid and began the work to which God had called Pachomius, for Palemon died soon after.

Many monasteries were founded, and men flocked to the desert to give themselves to God:

They slept on the bare ground, fasted continually and cultivated the barren earth or made baskets and mats of the coarse reeds that grew in the marshes, selling them for the profit of the poor.

Twice during the night the weird blast of the horn that summoned them to prayer broke the vast silence of the desert.

Hearing of the arrival of Athanasius, Pachomius came down from his lonely monastery of Tabenna, surrounded by his monks; but he hid himself among them from humility, or from the fear that Athanasius would do him too much honour.

The Saint, however, detected the Saint, and they were soon firm friends. To the Patriarch, the monks of Egypt represented all that was best and strongest in the national spirit.

On these men he knew he could rely, and his hopes were not disappointed. The solitaries of the desert, to a man, would be faithful to Athanasius during the years of trial that followed.

Indeed, wherever Athanasius went throughout his vast diocese, the hearts of all loyal and noble men went out to him instinctively. He was a precious gift of God to Egypt—a precious gift of God to the whole Catholic Church.