Athanasius
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St. Athanasius

 

St. Athanasius was an early 4th century Alexandrian Bishop, Confessor and Doctor of the Church. He lived during a tumultuous time in the church, one that saw persecution and heresies, but one that also saw the Edict of Milan promulgated by Constantine in 313 C.E., the Council of Nicea shape the Nicene Creed in 325 C.E., and Christianity taking hold in his area. He was exiled five times during his lifetime and fought and argued against certain heresies of his time, especially Arianism, the teaching that Jesus Christ was only a creature, greater than us, but lesser than God. Athanasius is most remembered for his writings.

 

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Life of St. Antony

He wrote a biography of St. Antony of the Desert, one of the first hermits in the early Church and one that was to become a model for Eremitic monks. In Christianity, monasticism developed in two different ways: the Eremitic monks were those who sought to live the solitary life of a hermit. They grew their own foods and were as self-sufficient as possible, practicing rigorous methods of self-discipline and were almost always silent. The other types of monks were the Coenobitics, which were groups of men who chose to live in community and create a rule of living with common prayer. They also worked in practical areas, often agriculture or businesses, in order to sustain themselves, and took vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability. The last one, stability, meant they gave their commitment to remain with that one community for life.

 

Athanasius tells us for the first time what the life of Antony looked like. It was an austere quiet life. Antony was a larger than life hero and wise man for Athanasius, and he was one who engaged in warfare, the warfare of the soul. Self-scrutiny and struggles with demons characterized Antony’s quest to understand his sinful nature and the incomplete nature of the human race. Antony was convinced we were on the road to divinization, but human beings needed to be born again to Christ.   Antony lived the Paschal mystery, and Athanasius viewed him as a role model for himself and other monks. He wrote in the biography, The Life of Antony:

 

Therefore, my children, let us hold to the discipline and not be careless. For we have the Lord for our co-worker in this as it is written, ‘God works for good with everyone who chooses the good (Rom. 8:28). And in order that we not become negligent, it is good to carefully consider the Apostles’ statement, ‘I die daily’ (1 Cor. 15:31). For if we so live as people dying daily, we will not commit sin (1).

 

Antony cured the ill and was said to perform miracles. He was sought after as a wise man who knew the ways of the Lord, and it was Athanasius who brings his story and his life to light. Seven letters emerged later that may have been dictated, for most though Antony was unlettered. In those letters,

 

the reader gradually distinguishes the dominant themes in St. Antony’s teachings: the witness borne by the Holy Spirit in the conscience of each person; the need to attain self-knowledge – to discover and to love our true self, made in God’s image, man’s integral salvation of body as well as soul; the call to follow the Lord Jesus in his radical self-emptying and humility; the unity of the Church; embracing the Old as well as the New Testament, the angels and saints as well as the living; our mutual coinherence as members one of another in the Body of Christ (2).

 

Letter to Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms

Athanasius also wrote a letter to Marcellinus about the interpretation and beauty of the psalms, and a treatise, De Incarnatione, on the beauty and logic of the mystery of the Incarnation.

In www.prayerfoundation.org/Athanasius one finds a sample from Athanasius’ letter to Marcellinus about the psalms:

 

 

My Dear Marcellinus,

I once talked with a certain studious old man, who had bestowed much labour on the Psalter, and discoursed to me about it with great persuasiveness and charm, expressing himself clearly too, and holding a copy of it in his hand the while he spoke. So I am going to write down for you the things he said.

Son, all the books of Scripture, both Old Testament and New, are inspired by God and useful for instruction, as the apostle says; but to those who really study it the Psalter yields especial treasure. Within it are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul. It is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed and, seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given.

In the Psalter you learn about yourself. You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries. Moreover, whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you do not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill. Prohibitions of evildoing are plentiful in Scripture, but only the Psalter tells you how to obey these orders and refrain from sin.

 

Athanasius was convinced that even though “The entire Holy Scripture is a teacher of virtues and of the truths of faith, the Book of Psalms possesses somehow the perfect image for the soul’s course of life” (3).

 

De Incarnatione

Nativity003-300pxIn his treatise on the Incarnation, Athanasius argued that the Incarnation of the Word of God was God’s best available way of restoring humankind from the death that followed the transgressions from the first fall. Death had been its punishment and God needed to break the law of death to redeem his creatures. Athanasius equated Jesus Christ with the “Word” of God present in Genesis. God was faced with a Divine dilemma. God needed to break the law of death and he had to do this through death. If He, as an immortal died in mortal form, he would be able to break the rules of death without truly dying. God couldn’t use a living human, because he would not contain the Word of God. God couldn’t use an angel, because angels were only the spirit of God and not the image of God. If God were to become incarnate, human beings could see the image of God more clearly in the Son of God, and death could be destroyed through him. Jesus had to die to overcome the punishment. Athanasius also speculated that Jesus had to die by crucifixion, not just from some disease. His death had to be very public, so that people could see and know about his death. The resurrection had to wait three days, because people needed to realize he was actually dead and not just hidden somewhere. His death had to be brutal to show that he was suffering for others. When he dies on the cross, he conquers death, opens the gates of heaven for everyone, Jews and Gentiles alike. Christ’s death wrapped a cloth around Christians. They were protected from death.

 

Prayer:

     Loving God, kindly wrap a cloth of faith and grace around us as we listen to the words of Athanasius. Help us to die daily, to embrace the Christ and to imitate him in his self-emptying. Assist us in giving of ourselves to others and in offering praise and thanksgiving for so wonderful a mystery as your gift of the Incarnation. Through him, in him and with him, may we continuously praise you. Amen

Notes:

1. Richard J. Payne, Editor in chief, The Classics of Western Spirituality, Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, (New York: Paulist Press, 1980) paragraph 19, p. 45.

2. The Letters of St. Antony the Great, tr. Derwas J. Chitty (Fairacres, Oxford, SLG Press, 1975).

3. Richard J. Payne, Editor in chief, The Classics of Western Spirituality, Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, (New York: Paulist Press, 1980) paragraph 14, p. 112

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Mysticism, according to its historical and psychological definitions, it that direct intuition or experience of God; a mystic is a person who has, to a greater or less degree, such a direct experience – one whose religion and life are centered not merely on accepted belief or practice, but on that which the person regards as first hand personal knowledge.                    

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