Defending the Orthodox Faith: The Life of Saint Athanasius the Great

From the time of the Apostles there proceeds a line of Church Holy Fathers and teachers. It is customary to refer to the Church Fathers as Church scribes (preeminently in the ranks of Bishops), especially those who distinguished themselves by their holy way of life. Those church scribes who are not acknowledged as saints are referred to as Church Teachers.

The Fathers and Teachers of the Church through their works saved for us the Apostolic tradition and clarified the true teaching of faith and piety. During the difficult times of the fight with heretics and false prophets, they stepped forth as protectors of Orthodoxy; and their life and activity came as a high (worthy) example of spiritual life.

The 4th century in particular was famous for the appearance of great Teachers, who banded for the protection of the holy faith at a time when the peace of the Church was deeply and for a long time shaken by the Arian heresy (the Arians denied the Divine nature of the Lord Jesus Christ).

The first great fighter against Arianism was St. Athanasius the Great (293-373). Having been given by nature unusual gifts, Athanasius received his education under the guidance of the Alexandrian Bishops Peter and Alexander. Athanasius was greatly influenced by the founder of Egyptian monasticism, Anthony the Great, whose life he described. Having judiciously studied the Holy Scripture, the works of early Church scribes and ancient classicists, he held what was considered at that time an important and influential function of archdeacon during the time of archbishop Alexander and was his enviable assistant in the preliminary fight against Arian heresy.

As Bishop Alexander's closest colleague and confidant, Athanasius accopanied him to the First Council of Nicaea where he drew a lot of attention to himself: no one expressed himself so strongly against Arianism and no one surpassed his strength of eloquence. Hardly a year passed when the young archdeacon was elevated to the cathedra of Alexandrian Archbishop. In spite of his young age (28 years), archbishop Athanasius took a firm hand in ruling the surrounding community under his jurisdiction: he visited churches in his vicinity, became close with bishops, ordained Thrumentius as bishop in order to strengthen the church in Abyssinia, visited monasteries scattered throughout Thebes and other regions of Egypt and visited Anthony the Great who had been his tutor during his youthful years.

He was energetic and courteous, unbending in truth, and indulgent toward those who went astray, being endowed with great tact in his dealings with people with a shrewd presence of mind, being diversely educated, Archbishop Athanasius immediately gained public respect and love. However the peaceful time of his patriarchal activity lasted no more than two years; this was followed by a series of trials and misfortunes. Followers of Arianism, at whose head was the Nicodemian Bishop Eusebuis, a friend of Arius, from the school at Antioch, tried by all means to return Arius to the Church and were able to dispose in his favor the sister of Emperor Constantine and with her help the Emperor himself. It was determined to reinstate Arius from exile, who supposedly was repentant of his straying - and have the Archbishop of Alexandria accept him into the Church community. Athanasius having understood the slyness and pretense of the false prophets, refused to accept the heretic who rejected the Divine nature of the Lord Jesus Christ.

From then on, began the persecution of the witness of Christ, with the blackest of calumny being contrived against him. He was accused of embezzlement from the church, and collusion with the enemies of the empire; it was rumored that he had killed a bishop called Arsenius whose cut off hand he used in the practice of magic. St. Athanasius was obliged to defend himself in court since there were some who actually believed this absurd fabrication. Here the enemies of Athanasius displayed the same hand which was supposedly found in his possession. However, to their great embarrassment Arsenius himself showed up. Legend has it that Arsenius was brought in and showed both his hands which had been given him by God. This brought the enemies of Athanasius into an undescribable rage; they beset upon him and almost strangled him. All this happened during the time of Constantine, the protector of the Church. The ensuing rulers, Constantius the Arian and Julian the apostate openly persecuted St. Athanasius but could not destroy his unwavering steadfastness.

There was a time when some of the more fervent accomplices of Athanasius such as Osee, bishop of Cordoba, Liberius, the Pope of Rome who fought against Arianism and who were also exiled from their cathedras and were incarcerated, wavered in their steadfastness and agreed to conceed to the Arians, although St. Athanasius remained the solitary leader of the Christians in the fight with them. During his almost half century of service, he was exiled from Alexandria five times and remained in either exile or incarceration for almost 20 years. Until the last minutes of his life he fervently fought for the establishment of peace and unanimity of thought in the Church.

During difficulties and tumults of his ascetic life, St. Athanasius wrote many apologias in defence of Christianity and edification of believers. His works are published in Russian in 4 volumes. The thoughts and attestations of St. Athanasius to this day have a great meaning and power, - the language is rich and exemplary. The valiant archpriest died at about 75 years of age.

Sources: https://www.fatheralexander.org/booklets/english/saints/athanasius_great.htm