St. Athanasius | 6. A Royal-Hearted Exile


6. A Royal-Hearted Exile

ATHANASIUS had prevailed once more over his enemies, but Eusebius was always at the Emperor's side and knew how to play upon his weakness:

Was it possible, he asked, that so many and such various charges could be brought up against a man if he were innocent?

Athanasius was clever and had many friends, he continued, who were ready to swear that black was white for his sake. Let him be forced to appear alone before his accusers, and the Emperor would soon find out the truth.

As a matter of fact, such charges could only be dealt with by a council; let one be held at once, and let Athanasius be summoned to attend.

Constantine fell into the trap. A council was summoned, and letters were sent to Alexandria.

Athanasius, however, clearly saw that he could expect no justice in the midst of his enemies, and for a long time refused to leave his see.

In the meantime the place of meeting had been changed from Caesarea to Tyre, and Athanasius was accused by Eusebius of having obstinately resisted the Emperor's orders.

His reasons, they added, were plain to all; conscious of his guilt, he dared not face the assembly. The Emperor threatened to send and bring him by force if he did not come. Further resistance was useless, so he set out for Tyre.

It was a strange Council. Of the sixty Bishops present, nearly all were Arians and open enemies of Athanasius. The Meletians were also present. Jailers were at the doors instead of deacons.

The priest Macarius, to whose innocence Constantine himself had testified, was brought in guarded by soldiers and loaded with chains.

Athanasius himself was obliged to stand as a criminal before his judges. A few of the Egyptian Bishops who were present loudly protested against such behaviour, but their protests were insultingly set aside.

The old charges were brought up one by one. Athanasius was accused of being violent and cruel in conduct, a perpetual centre of strife. To this he answered that the trial was not a fair one, considering that nearly all who were present were his enemies.

The affair of Ischyras was then brought up, but nothing could be proved.

Lastly, a Meletian Bishop told, with thrilling and tragic details, the story of the cruel murder of Arsenius.

“Here is the very hand of the murdered man,” he concluded, producing and opening the famous box. A cry of well−feigned horror burst from the Arians.

“Did any of you know Arsenius?” asked Athanasius calmly. Several rose to their feet. “Then, behold my witness,” said the Patriarch, signing to a priest who stood near the door.

A man was brought in whose face and figure were hidden in a long cloak, which Athanasius drew slowly away. It was Arsenius himself who stood before them!

“Here is one hand,” continued the Patriarch, drawing it out from the cloak, “and here is the other. I presume that to no man God has given more. Perhaps those who maintain that that severed hand is the hand of Arsenius can show us where it was affixed.”

There was a moment of general confusion, during which the Meletian who had so graphically told the story of Arsenius' murder concluded that prudence was the better part of valour and hastily disappeared from the assembly.

But the Arians were never at a loss. It was by magic, they declared, that Athanasius had caused the dead man to appear in their midst.

It was useless to continue the argument against such persistent injustice. Athanasius left the Council abruptly and set out for Constantinople to place himself, a stern and accusing figure, in the Emperor's way as he rode out from his palace.

Constantine, recognizing who it was, tried to pass in silence, but Athanasius stood firm.

“The Lord judge between me and you,” he said solemnly, “if you take the part of my enemies against me.”

The Emperor halted. “What do you wish?” he asked.

“Let me be tried by a lawful council, or let me meet my accusers face to face in your presence,” said Athanasius.

“It shall be done,” replied Constantine.

The Arians, meanwhile, had declared Athanasius guilty of all the charges brought against him and had deposed him from his see:

They were congratulating themselves on the success of their enterprise when they received an alarming letter from the Emperor accusing them of concealing the truth and bidding them come at once to Constantinople.

Several of them, seized with fear, returned to their homes; a few others, who were bolder, headed by Eusebius and Theognis of Nicaea, set out for the Imperial city.

They made their plans on the way:

Once arrived, instead of bringing up the old charges, they accused Athanasius of having prevented the sailing of the grain vessels from Alexandria to Constantinople in order to cause a famine.

It was a clever trick. Constantine was extremely touchy about the prosperity of his new city and had just condemned to death a friend of his own for the same crime. He turned on Athanasius in anger.

“How could I, a poor man and a Bishop, do such a thing?” asked the Patriarch.

“You are rich enough and powerful enough for anything,” retorted Eusebius bitterly.

As for Constantine, he declared that he would uphold the decisions of the Council. Athanasius deserved to lose his life, but he would show indulgence. He therefore banished him to Treves in Gaul, and the Arians triumphed.

There was mourning and lamentation in Alexandria and throughout all Egypt when the tidings came. Many appeals were made for justice, but in vain. Even St. Antony, though he wrote to Constantine, could not move him.

One thing alone the Emperor would not do in spite of all the persuasions of the Arians—appoint a successor to the absent Patriarch.

Athanasius, indeed, continued to govern the diocese from his distant exile, writing continually to his Bishops and clergy, exhorting them to stand fast in the Faith and reminding them that the road to consolation lay through affliction.

Eusebius, in the meantime, was trying to force Alexander, the aged Bishop of Constantinople, to admit Arius to communion:

Although ninety years old, he stood firm, and neither threats nor persuasions could move him. The Emperor was at last induced to fix a day on which Alexander was to receive the heretic or be driven from his see.

The Bishop appealed to Heaven. He ordered a seven days' fast throughout his diocese, during which the faithful were to pray that God would prevent such a sacrilege.

On the eve of the appointed day, the aged prelate, having heard that Arius had arrived in the town, prostrated himself on his face before the altar:

“Lord,” he prayed, “if Arius must be received to communion in this church tomorrow, take me, I beseech Thee, from this world. But if Thou hast pity on Thy Church, suffer not, I pray Thee, that such a thing should be.”

Arius at that very moment was being escorted in triumph around the city by his followers. Suddenly the heresiarch turned pale and trembled. He did not feel well, he said; he would re-join them presently. The time passed, and he did not return.

At last they went to look for him. It was but a dead body which they found, a sight before which even they turned pale. Arius had been overtaken by a sudden and horrible death.

The fate of the heresiarch made a great impression on the Emperor, who had himself but a short time to live. During his last illness he was haunted by the thought of Athanasius.

His eldest son, Constantine II, who held his court at Treves, was a firm friend of the exiled Bishop; the dying Emperor sent him a secret message to restore Athanasius to his see.

He then received Baptism at the hands of Eusebius of Nicomedia, and died a few days later.

Constantine's empire was divided between his three sons, Constantine, Constans and Constantius. The two former, who were staunch friends of Athanasius, would die within twelve years of their father.

Then Constantius, who had inherited all the weakness and none of the good qualities of Constantine the Great,

and was, moreover, the tool of the Arians and the bitter enemy of those who were true to Athanasius, would be left master of the whole Roman Empire.

One of the first acts of Constantine II was to bring Athanasius back to Alexandria. He had been absent for over two years, and the rejoicings attending his return were great.

They were not to last long, however, for Egypt and the East made up that part of the Empire which had been left to Constantius, who was completely in the toils of Eusebius.

Now, Eusebius had long been coveting the see of Constantinople; he therefore proceeded, with the Emperor's assistance, to depose the rightful Bishop and to install himself in his place.

He was, as he thought, in a position to carry all things before him, when Athanasius, firm and undaunted as ever, appearing suddenly on the scene, upset all his plans. Both Constantine and Constans were Athanasius' friends, and Constantius was not strong enough to resist them.

Eusebius determined to take a bold step—he would appeal to the Pope, and he promptly set to work to compose a letter which was a masterpiece of deceit.

“Athanasius has been deposed by a Council of the Church,” he wrote. “His return was therefore unlawful.” An account of all the charges brought against the Patriarch at the Council of Tyre followed. “Ink does not stain the soul,” observed Eusebius lightly, as lie after lie took shape upon the paper.

The letter was sent to Rome by three trusty friends, but Pope Julius was not so easily deceived. He knew more about the matter than the Arians thought—

so much, indeed, that the chief of the three envoys left suddenly during the night, fearful of what might come to light on the morrow. The two others, losing their heads completely, agreed to meet Athanasius at a synod at which the Pope himself should preside.

Eusebius was beside himself when he heard of this arrangement:

To appear in some Western town, with no Emperor to back him up, and to urge against Athanasius, in the presence of the Pope, charges which he knew to be false, was a program which did not appeal to him at all.

Taking the law into his own hands, he called a council of his friends and elected an Arian called Gregory in Athanasius' place.

Even if the Patriarch had been rightly deposed, the Egyptian Bishops alone could have elected his successor; but Eusebius and his party had long since ceased to care for right or justice.

Theodore, the Governor of Egypt, was known to be a good Catholic and friendly to Athanasius. He was therefore removed, and an apostate called Philagrius, notorious for his violence and cruelty, was put in his place:

The first act of this man was to publish an edict stating that Gregory was the Patriarch of Alexandria and that Athanasius was to be treated as an enemy.

With armed troops he then took possession of the city churches, while Gregory, with a strong escort of soldiers, made his entrance into the town. All who resisted were imprisoned, scourged or slain.

To prevent further bloodshed, Athanasius left Alexandria and set out for Rome. The first news that he heard on reaching Italy was that his friend and patron Constantine II was dead.