One of the Most Vivid Descriptions Of St Athanasius I Have Ever Read

050213A couple of brief thoughts about St. Athanasius whose feast we celebrated today.

First, I have served in African American Parishes most of my priesthood. And in this context, I have often wondered why there are not more African American Parishes named for this North African Saint. So many black parishes are named for  Augustine or Cyprian, both of whom, while denizen’s of North Africa, were likely of Berber stock, and looked more European than African. Athanasius, on the other hand, while certainly not a sub-Saharan African, is described as having dark, even blackish skin. Yet  almost no African American Catholic commentary claims him, and I have never heard a Black Parish named for him.

Just a curiosity on my part. I once wrote a rather prominent historian who has written on African American Catholicism to ask why this was so, but I never heard back.

My favorite description of Athanasius comes from Robert Payne’s The Holy Fire. The Book is out of print now but I just love Payne’s style. He is at his best in describing St. Athanasius. Enjoy this vivid excerpt:

There are times when the dark heavy syllables of his name fill us with dread. In the history of the early Church no one was ever so implacable, so urgent in his demands upon himself or so derisive of his enemies. There was something in him of the temper of the modern dogmatic revolutionary: nothing stopped him. The Emperor Julian called him “hardly a man, only a little manikin.” Gregory Nazianzen said he was “angelic in appearance, and still more angelic in mind.” In a sense both were speaking the truth. The small dauntless man who saved the Church from a profound heresy, staying the disease almost single handed, was as astonishing in his appearance as he was in his courage. He was so small that his enemies called him a dwarf. He had a hook nose, a small mouth, short reddish beard which turned up at the ends in the Egyptian fashion, and his skin was blackish. His eyes were very small and he walked with a slight stoop, though gracefully as befitted a prince of the Church. He was less than thirty when he was made Bishop of Alexandria.  He was a hammer wielded by God against heresy.

There were other Fathers of the Eastern Church who wrote more profoundly or more beautifully, but none wrote with such a sense of authority or were so little plagued with doubts….He wrote Greek as though those flowing syllables were lead pellets….His wit was mordant. He did not often employ the weapon of sarcasm, but when he did, no one ever forgot it. When Arius, his great enemy died, he chuckled with glee and wrote off a letter to Serapion giving all the details of Arius’ death, how the heretic had talked wildly in church and was suddenly “compelled by a necessity of nature to withdraw to a privy where he fell, headlong, dying as he lay there.” As for the Arians, Athanasius hated them them with too great a fury to give them their proper names. He called them dogs, lions, hares, chameleons, hydras, eels, cuttlefish, gnats and beetles, and he was always resourceful in making them appear ridiculous….At least twice Athanasius was threatened with death, and he was five times exiled. He was perfectly capable of riding up to the Emperor and holding the emperor’s horse by the bridle while he argued a thesis.

In the end he had the supreme joy of outliving all his enemies and four great emperors who had stood in his path, and must of known, as he lay dying, that he had preserved the Church….It was a long triumph of one man against the world – Athanasius contra mundum! pp. 67-68

Here’s a video that shows a softer side to St. Athanasius.

32 Replies to “One of the Most Vivid Descriptions Of St Athanasius I Have Ever Read”

  1. I love the name-calling. I think he and I would have gotten along fabulously. 🙂

  2. We need an Athanasius right now. I can think of a number of public figures who could benefit from his head on defense of the truth.

  3. Wonderful description of Athanasius, the great defender of orthodoxy in the fourth century. Two thoughts on this great Confessor and Doctor of the Church. Firstly, Athanasius is a sign of unity, between races and cultures and people of every sort of ethnic mix. Blessed John Henry Newman reminds us that he bound the Church together in unity, not division: “His resolute resistance of heresy had been but one portion of his services; a more excellent praise is due to him, for his charitable skill in binding together his brethren in unity. The Church of Alexandria was the natural mediator between the East and West; and Athanasius had well improved the advantages thus committed to him.”–Newman, “Arians of the Fourth Century.” Secondly, Athanasius did not live to see the triumph of orthodoxy. it took a very long time for semi-Arianism to be put to rest, long after Athanasius’s death: Ecumenical Councils at Constantinople (381) and Chalcedon (451) still had to struggle with semi-Arian attacks on the person and nature of Jesus. In our own struggles today, with cafeteria Catholics on the “left” and with Traditionalists on the “right,” we need to work and pray for unity. But we also need to take the long view: these divisions too shall pass. Meanwhile we should pray to St. Athanasius to intercede for us with the Holy Trinity to heal our divisions, so that we can see that in Christ there is no East or West, no North or South, no Black or white, no liberal or conservative.

    1. The Son of God calls on us to pray to Him.

      As for “liberal or conservative,” the fault for division lies on those in error.

      (And Athanasius would agree.)

  4. A man surrounded by rejection due to his unwillingness to surrender truth to contemporary consensus.

  5. Africa does not = black skin. The term “African American” is really a misnomer, since there are some many ethnic varieties that exist on the continent (Barbers, Arabs, Bedouins, Copts, Semites, Pygmies, etc.). In fact, northern Africa was almost entirely white and was once one of the centers of the Roman Empire.

  6. Athanasius has been one of my favorite saints since I took a theology class at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh with Father Jim Wehner, STD and (then Bishop) Archbishop Donald Cardinal Wuerl.

    My favorite statue ever is of St. Athanasius in St. Paul’s Cathedral in Pittsburgh. The statue is located right above the confessional on the East side of the Cathedral, closest to the altar. The statue shows Athanasius stepping on a book with the name Arius on the spine, and Athanasius has a stern look on his face as he looks and points directly at the pulpit. It is an absolutely amazing work of art, rich with symbolism.

  7. The disparity between Egyptian and African-American should be obvious, as should the difference between sub-Saharan African, whence came most African-Americans, and Berber.

  8. What a guy!
    I, too, think the ‘alternate name’ calling rather genius. For some odd reason, –and no disrespect meant here — the old vaudeville comedians came to mind — Groucho Marx, George Burns/Gracie Allen, W.C. Fields — these were expert at the ‘alternate name’ calling in order to avoid censure and still get their point across.

  9. Enjoyable read. FYI: the video didn’t load into your webpage.

  10. Thank you for the book reference, Mgr Pope. There are a few copies for sale on Amazon, with more on the way. Maybe someone’s republishing the work (if I was looking at the correct edition). Originally published 1957.

  11. St. Athanasius also shows that the Faith doesn’t equal nice, suburban attitudes (which is certainly my background). His condemnation by a Pope and refusal to accept the validity of excommunication prove that theological problems are not always squeaky-clean or easy to resolve.

    St. Athanasius, give us courage to uphold the orthodox Catholic Faith!

  12. I am black and this is good to know. I hope black people claim him, not only for his skin color, but for the good man he was.

  13. I have had two events in my life dealing with St. Athanasius. One, Sister Athanasius was my 5th grade teacher. The other was in discussing the creeds I checked the Athanasian Creed. I was surprised to see such fierce orthodoxy. This has since been debated and resolved. As I read this article on how he felt about the Arians, it fits his profile as he put forth in the creed he is purported to have written

  14. Chad is in North Africa and the people are black. Some Berbers are black. There is also a St. Athanasius church in the Bronx.

    1. Well I don’t know if I would call Chad North Africa, I guess I associate that term more with the part that touches the Med. I wonder if St A’s in Bronx was founded as an African American Parish?

  15. Chad is North Africa. Not sure if St. Athanasius church in the Bronx was started by African Americans. May not be.

  16. St. Athanasius is awesome, I love him! He is sooo intense!
    If the world is against the truth than Athanasius is against the world!

  17. “He called them dogs…” Would Cdl Dolan invite Athanasius to the Al Smith Dinner?
    Would Athanasius attend?
    ; > )

  18. St Athenasius has been my friend since I came back to the Catholic Church in the 80s. Like him I have fought like a dog tooth and nail defending the Church; use his fiery language when I have to, just can’t abide the wussy pc that some in the Church do; like Athenasius, tell it like it is! ” I’am Catholic’.

  19. Athanasius is hardly known by the pew-sitting western Catholic. He should be the patron of orthodox resistance. But, again, who’s teaching our children? That’s the rub.

  20. I am not Catholic. I am Episcopalian but interested in Catholicism. Reading about the Early Church Fathers is eye-opening. Good article on Athanasius.

  21. Men such as this today receive the ultimate modern condemnation: unpastoral and uncharitable.

    1. Don’t forget: Not “winsome.”

      We do have to be careful about name-calling, unnecessarily-harsh language, etc. The Apostles admonish us to be always ready with an answer for the hope that is within us, but with gentleness and respect. And Christ Himself warns us against the danger of hell for calling someone (only) a “fool.”

      It is true that Jesus was harsh on occasion, but as God Incarnate, He has both a special knowledge of our wickedness and a right to judge that none of us possess. And He used pointed language against the religious experts who knew better but misled the people of God anyway, not against repentant sinners.

      John the Baptist, Stephen, and St. Paul were forceful too; of the three, Paul is the only one who went too far. (Probably.)

  22. The incredible fact is that he was exiled multiple times before he was vindicated by the the Council of Nicaea. It proves the Holy Spirit is in control. Contemporary thought may be popular but it may not withstand God’s Will.

    Clearly, to stand alone in faith is extraordinary. Athanasius is a warrior in his defense of our authentic faith.

    Yes, Archbishop Lefebvre certainly is a modern day defender of the faith. He was certainly out of the mainstream and he may someday be recognized for exceptional devotion to the Church. The Holy Spirit will corrects all error in time.

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