“Similarly, anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds.”
- Saint Athanasius, Saint, Bishop and Doctor of the Church
Saint Athanasius was born in Alexandria between 293 and 298 AD into a wealthy, Greek family that was able to provide him with a rigorous secular education as he grew. Not only did Saint Athanasius have a very knowledgeable command of the Greek language but he was also fluent in the Coptic language spoken in Alexandria. The monk and historian Tyrannius Rufinus wrote a famous story of Saint Athanasius's childhood. One day the then Bishop of Alexandria, Bishop Alexander, stood at his window that overlooked the seashore. He could see a group of boys playing in the water pretending to baptize other children. Bishop Alexander sent a messenger to the boys and found their leader to be Saint Athanasius. Though he instructed them that they should stop performing the baptisms as they were valid (they were using the correct formulas but the children being baptized were not being taught the Christian lifestyle properly beforehand) Bishop Alexander was so moved by the group that he instructed Saint Athanasius and the group to start preparing for clerical careers.
Saint Athanasius was invited to serve as secretary to Bishop Alexander as he continued his schooling. In 319, the Bishop ordained Saint Athanasius as a Deacon and brought him to the council of Nicaea to serve as secretary. Saint Athanasius also took the opportunity while serving as deacon to learn from the desert fathers, especially from Saint Anthony the Great. It was also during this time that the Bishop Arius began to promote his own theological theories, especially the main theory of the so called Arian Heresy - that Christ was made and not begotten. Bishop Alexander was instrumental in excommunicating Arius.
When Bishop Alexander lay on his deathbed he summoned Saint Athanasius to his room. Saint Athanasius fled and did not come to the room for he feared in his heart that he would be named the new Bishop. When the other Bishops of the Church assembled for the new election, the Catholic population surrounded the church and began to shout "Give us Athanasius!". The Bishops unanimously elected Saint Athanasius to fill the vacant seat. Saint Athanasius argued at length that he should not be elected but reluctantly accepted on May 9th, 328. As Bishop, Saint Athanasius set out immediately to visit the churches in his domain which included all of Egypt and Libya at the time.
In 328, Arius was allowed to return from his exile but Saint Athanasius refused to lift the order of excommunication, setting up the first of many conflicts with the adherents of Arianism. At the First Synod of Tyre in 335 Eusebius of Nicomedia deposed Saint Athanasius for his refusal to lift the excommunication order and accused him of mistreating Arians. Both sides were invited to Constantinople to argue their case to Emperor Constantine I. After their discussions, Arius came in secret to the Emperor and accused Saint Athanasius of plotting to cut off grain supplies from Egypt to the Empire and the Emperor immediately ordered Saint Athanasius into exile. He arrived to begin in first exile in Gaul and found shelter with a friend, Saint Maximin of Trier in 336 AD for the next two years alongside Saint Paul I of Constantinople (who had also been banished by Arius's plots).
There was hope for a return to Alexandria when Emperor Constantine I died but that hope was dashed with the new Emperor, Emperor Constantius II, son of Constantine, renewed the order of banishment in 338. Saint Athanasius departed immediately for Rome and made his appeals to Saint Pope Julius. Saint Julius agreed with Saint Athanasius and would defend his rights as bishop until his death. A synod was called in Rome that proclaimed Saint Athanasius's innocent to the entirety of the Christian world. In 340, nearly one hundred Bishops met at Alexandria and again declared Saint Athanasius innocent and the rightful Bishop of Alexandria. The council of of Serdica again found him innocent despite a rival council given that tried to condemn both Saint Athanasius and the Serdica council. In June of 345 messengers from the council arrived back at the court and Emperor Constantius was forced to reform his decision. Saint Athanasius was allowed to return to his see and he quickly travelled back to Alexandria. For the next 10 years he was Bishop of Alexandria in peace.
In 356 though, this would all change dramatically. An Arian bishop, George of Cappadocia was appointed by the Imperial court to be the new Bishop of Alexandria and Saint Athanasius was forced to withdraw into the deserts of Upper Egypt. While he stayed in several monasteries, Saint Athanasius completed Four Orations against the Arians and the Apology to Constantius and Apology for his Flight. Shortly afterwards, Pope Liberius was ordered into Banishment to Thrace. Emperor Constantius declared a new creed that agreed with the Arian ideals but Saint Athanasius held fast to the Christian Orthodox Creed. On November 4th, 361, The Emperor Constantius died and Julian was named in his place. A pagan uprising in Alexandria at the announcement of the new Emperor put the Bishop George into prison (before being murdered). Emperor Julian issued a new edict allowing the previously banished Bishops to return to their towns and Saint Athanasius returned to a very welcoming flock in Alexandria on February 22nd, 362.
His triumphal return was again met with exile. Emperor Julian began to grow jealous of the influence Saint Athanasius had in Alexandria. He issued an order to the Prefect of Egypt ordering Saint Athanasius be forced back into exile on the grounds that his original clemency order did not specifically include Saint Athanasius. Saint Athanasius urged the people of Alexandria to submit themselves to the Emperor's demands and promised them it would be only a short exile. He again left for Upper Egypt and found shelter with the many desert monks. When Emperor Julian died on June 26th, 363, Saint Athanasius returned in secret to Alexandria until the new Emperor, Jovian, reinstated him. He Immediately convened a council to reaffirm the Nicene creed.
In October of 364, Emperor Jovian died. The new emperor, Emperor Valens, favored greatly the Arian position and exiled Saint Athanasius again. Sensing such an exile would be short, Saint Athanasius spent his time at his family's ancestral tomb on the outskirts of the city until Emperor Valens rescinded the order. For the next several years Saint Athanasius spent his final years repairing the damage that had been done to the Christian community from the many years of exile, instability of leadership and the influences of Arianism. On May 2nd, 373 AD, Saint Athanasius died peacefully in his bed.
Saint Athanasius was buried originally in Alexandria but his remains were later moved to the Chiesa di San Zaccaria in Venice Italy. Saint Gregory of Nazianzus wrote of Saint Athanasius -
"When I praise Athanasius, virtue itself is my theme: for I name every virtue as often as I mention him who was possessed of all virtues. He was the true pillar of the Church. His life and conduct were the rule of bishops, and his doctrine the rule of the orthodox faith."
Saint Athanasius is considered a Doctor of the Church by the Roman Catholic Church and his feast day is celebrated on May 2nd, the date of his death. In Coptic Christianity he is honored on the 7th of Pashons and in Byzantine Christianity on January 18th.