Saints of the East: St. Athanasius

art direction/illustration by P.J. McCue

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The expression, “Athanasius against the world,” is proverbial. This eminent Doctor of the Church, born in Alexandria, Egypt, in A.D. 295, died there 78 years later.

His life was one long battle against Arianism, a heresy which denied the divinity of Christ; it was formally condemned by the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea (325). As a deacon Athanasius attended the Nicene sessions with his bishop whom he succeeded three years later as Patriarch of Alexandria.

Five times during his 45 years as bishop Athanasius was exiled for the faith. Though vindicated and upheld by Rome, he was forced to live as a fugitive in the West defending the orthodox faith by writing and preaching.

In one ten-year period he took refuge in the Libyan desert, and sheltered by his priests and monks, tried to protect his flock from the Arian usurper who held his see.

His theological writings on the holy Trinity and the Incarnation are marked more by clarity and persuasiveness than by literary style. His principal dogmatic text, Discourses Against the Arians, and his Life of St. Anthony are best known; the latter had a powerful influence on the subsequent development of monastic life.

After many trials the last seven years of his life were spent in peace administering a Patriarchate which embraced all Egypt, Ethiopia, and adjacent territory. St. Athanasius is commemorated in the Latin rite on May 2, the anniversary of his death.

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