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ATHANASIUS


36


ATHANASIUS


in the See of Alexandria. While Alexander was wait- ing for his guests to arrive, he stood by a window, watching a group of boys at play on the seashore l)elow the house. He liad not observed them long before he discovered that they were imitating, evi- dently with no thought of irreverence, the elaborate ritual of Christian baptism. (Cf. Bunsen's "Christian- ity and Mankind", London, 1854, VI, 465; Denzinger, "Ritus Orientahum" in verb.; Butler's "Ancient Coptic Churches", II, 268 et sqq.; " Bapteme chez lesCoptes", " Diet. Theol. Cath. ", Col. 244, 245). He therefore sent for the children and had them brought into his presence. In the investigation that followed it was discovered that one of the boys, who was no other than the future Primate of Alexandria, had acted the part of bishop, and in that character had actually baptized several of his companions in the course of their play. Alexander, who seems to have been unaccountably puzzled over the answers he received to his inquiries, determined to recognize the make-believe baptisms as genuine; and decided that Athanasius and his plaj-fellows should go into training in order to fit themselves for a clerical ca- reer. The BoUandists deal gravely with this story; and writers as difficult to satisfy as Archdeacon Farrar and the late Dean Stanley are ready to ac- cept it as bearing on its face "every indication of truth" (Farrar, "Lives of the Fathers", I, 337; Stanley, "East. Ch.", 264). But whether in its present form, or in the modified version to be found in Socrates (I, xv), who omits all reference to the baptism and says that the game was "an imitation of the priesthood and the order of consecrated per- sons", the tale raises a number of chronological difficulties and suggests even graver questions.

Perhaps a not impossible explanation of its origin may be found in the theory that it was one of the many floating myths set in movement by popular im- agination to account for the marked bias towards an ecclesiastical career which seems to have character- ized the early boyhood of the future champion of the Faith. Sozomen speaks of his "fitness for the priesthood", and calls attention to the significant circumstance that he' was "from his tenderest years practically self-taught". "Not long after this," adds the same authority, the Bishop Alexander "in- vited Athanasius to be his commensal and secretary. He had been well educated, and was versed in gram- mar and rhetoric, and had already, while still a young man, and before reaching the episcopate, given proof to those who dwelt with him of his wisdom and acumen" (Soz., II, x\-ii). That "wisdom and acu- men" manifested themselves in a various environ- ment. While still a levite under Alexander's care, lie seems to liave been brought for a while into close relations with some of the solitaries of the Egj-ptian desert, and in particular with the great St. Anthony, whose life he is said to have written. The evidence both of the intimacy and for the authorship of the life in question has been cliallenged, chiefly by non- Catholic «Titers,on thegrovmd that the famous " Vita " shows signs of interpolation. Whatever we may think of the arguments on the subject, it is impos- sible to deny that the monastic idea appealed power- fully to the young cleric's temperament, and that he himself in after years was not only at liome when duty or accident threw him among the solitaries, but was so monastically self-disciplined in his habits as to be spoken of as an "ascetic" (.\pol. c. Arian., vi). In fourtli-century usage the word would have a definiteness of connotation not e:isily determinable to-day. (See Asceticis.m.)

It is not surprising that one who was called to fill so large a place in the history of his time should have impressed the very form and feature of liis personality, so to say, upon the imagination of his contemporaries. St. Gregory Nazianzen is not the


only writer who has described him for us (Oral., xxi, 8). A contemptuous phrase of the Emperor Ju- lian's (Epist., li) serves unintentionally to corrob- orate the picture drawn by kindlier observers. He was slightly below the middle height, spare in build, but well-knit, and intensely energetic. He had a finely shaped head, set off witli a tliin growth of auburn hair, a small but sensitively mobile mouth, an aquiline nose, and eyes of intense but kindly brilliancy. He had a ready wit, was quick in intui- tion, easy and affable in manner, pleasant in conver- sation, keen, and, perhaps, somewhat too unsparing in debate. (Besides the references already cited, see the detailed description given in the January Mrimioi' quoted in the Bollandist life. Julian the Apostate, in the letter alluded to above sneers at the diminutiveness of his person — iitioi iv-qp, dXX' avSpia- irtoKos eirreXiJs, he wTites.) In addition to these qualities, he was conspicuous for two others to which even his enemies bore unwilling testimony. He was endowed with a sense of humour that could be as mordant — we had almost said as sardonic — as it seems to have been spontaneous and unfailing; and his courage was of the sort that never falters, even in the most disheartening liour of defeat. There is one other note in this highly gifted and many-sided personality to which everything else in his nature literally ministered, and which must be kept steadily in view, if we would possess the kej' to his character and WTiting and understand the extraordinary sig- nificance of his career in the history of the Christian Church. He was by instinct neither a liberal nor a conservative in theology. Indeed the terms have a singular inappropriateness as applied to a tempera- ment like his. From first to last he cared greatly for one thing and one thing only; that one thing was the integrity of his Catholic creed. The religion it engendered in him was obviously — considering the traits by which we ha\e tried to depict him — of a passionate and consuming sort. It began and ended in devotion to the Divinity of Jesus Christ. He was scarcely out of his teens, and certainly not in more than deacon's orders, when he published two treat- ises, in which his mind seemed to strike the key-note of all its riper after-utterances on the subject of the Catholic Faith. The "Contra Gentes" and the "Ora- tio de Incarnatione " — to give them the Latin appella- tions by which they are more commonly cited — were written some time between the years 318 and 323. St. Jerome (De Viris Illust.) refers to tliem under a common title, as "Adversum Gentes Duo Libri ", thus leaving his readers to gather the impression. which an analysis of the contents of both books certainly seems to justify, that the two treatises are in reality one.

As a plea for the Christian position, addressed chiefly to both Gentiles and Jews, the young deacon's apology, while undoubtedly reminiscent ial in methods and ideas of Origen and the earlier Alexandrians, is, nevertheless, strongly indi-vidual and almost pietistic in tone. Though it deals with the Incarnation, it is silent on most of those ulterior problems in defence of which Athanasius was so soon to be summoned by the force of events and the fervour of his own faith to devote the best energies of his life. The work con- tains no explicit discussion of the nature of the Word's Sonship. for instance; no attempt to draw out the character of Our Lord's relation to the Father; noth- ing, in short, of those Christological questions upon whicli he was to speak with such splendid and coura- geous clearness in a time of shifting formularies and undetermined views. Yet those ideas must have been in the air (Soz., I, xv) for, some time between the years 318 and 320, Arius, a native of Libya (Epiph., Haer., Ixix) and priest of the Alexandrian Church, who had already fallen under censure for his part in the Meletian troubles which broke out during the