Friday, 29 May 2015

Chartres Meditation 1: St Athanasius and St Hilary

I have been asked to post the English versions of the meditations given on the Chartres pilgrimage this year, so here is the first.

It should be noted that each meditation was written by a different priest, so the style varies substantially.

This was the first meditation on the first day of the pilgrimage: a day placed under the patronage of St Athanasius and St Hilary of Poitiers. It was also one of the longer (and more difficult to translate!) meditations.

St Athanasius and St Hilary: Defenders of the Faith of the Church

Did you have a son before having given birth?’ the Arian propagandists asked the Fulani women. ‘No, you did not. Well, in the same way, the Son of God did not exist until he was conceived.’ False reasoning, but it does touch the heart of the Christian faith, the very person of the Lord Jesus, the Son of God; and it calls into question both the Incarnation and the Redemption. The Arian crisis broke out in the 4th Century, but we find similar arguments throughout the history of the Church. Didn’t a book come out, just a few years ago, with the revealing title of ‘Jesus: the man who became God’? So it is very educational for us today, to study Arius’ teachings, and above all to see how Providence raised up two great bishops, St Athanasius in the East and St Hilary in the West, to defend the Faith received from the Apostles. Despite the interference of the political powers, their courageous and persistent action allowed the truth to triumph.

The principal points of Arian teaching
With the Edict of Milan, promulgated in 313 by the emperor Constantine, the violent persecution of Christians came to an end. One could have hoped that the Church was going to grow in peace, gradually Christianising society. But opposition to the Faith came to light; denying not Christ’s humanity, as the earliest heresies had done, but His divinity. A rationalist tendency, which challenged the mystery of the Trinitarian God, found its mouth-piece in a priest from Alexandria, Arius. 

Around 320, he started to teach openly that the Son was not uncreated, but that He started to exist ‘before all time and centuries’ and that He was made out of nothing. Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, removed him from his post, along with his followers. Arius retreated to be near Eusebius, the bishop of Nicomedia, one of his early supporters, and got his teaching approved by a synod.

It was during this period of exile that he expressed his ideas in The Thalia (literally, The Feast), a partly versified work; he also composed popular songs which workers and sailors crooned.

For Arius, the Logos (Word) of which St John’s Gospel speaks, is not God by nature, but was created out of nothing, and there was a time when He did not exist. The Son, therefore, is a creature, still distinct from the rest of the created world,  an ‘intermediary between God and man – which would mean that the true God was always inaccessible to us’ as Pope Benedict XVI stressed. As the argument quoted in the introduction to this meditation made clear, it was a matter of explaining the mystery of God with human logic and ways of thinking. Notice, too, that it is the same logic which is at work in Islam, when Moslems reproach Christians with associating Christ with God.

The Church’s Response: the ‘consubstantial’ of Nicea
Confronted by these errors, which were dividing Christendom, the emperor Constantine convened an Ecumenical Council in 325, the first in the history of the Church, in the town of Nicea. Reuniting more than three hundred priests, above all from the East, with a few from the West, the Council reaffirmed the Faith of the Church against Arius, and declared Anathema anyone who held with Arius that the Son of God was born of nothing, that there was a time when He did not exist, or that He is a creature, that is a created being. In a solemn profession of faith, the Fathers reiterated an ancient formula of baptismal faith, adding to it that the Son of God, begotten, not created, is of the same substance as the Father, ‘consubstantial’ with the Father. Alexander of Alexandria attended the Council, to see his efforts through, and was attended by a young deacon, Athanasius, who was to continue the fight after him.

Athanasius of Alexandria
Born in Alexandria at the very end of the third century, Athanasius benefited from an excellent education, and became the secretary to his bishop. When the bishop died, in 328, he was chosen to succeed to the bishopric, at the age of thirty. From the very start, he was a defender of the doctrine of the Council of Nicea. He was very aware that Arius’ error would affect the salvation of mankind, writing: ‘If the Son were a creature, man would remain purely mortal, without being united to God.’  Meanwhile, despite the clarity of the dogmatic definition of 325, Arianism reared its head again. The emperor Constantine was trying to unite the empire and wanted to impose, under the influence of Eusebius of Nicomedia, an Arian version of the Faith which he thought would be acceptable to all his subjects. Using a classic technique, his opponents tried to discredit the doctrine defended by the bishop of Alexandria by contesting his election, and by falsely accusing him of having used violence to govern his diocese. Pope Benedict XVI observed that ‘the intransigence of Athanasius, tenacious and even at times very tough against the opponents of the Nicene Creed, whilst necessary, earned him the implacable hostility of the Arians.’ At the Synod of Tyre in July 335, Athanasius was deposed by his adversaries, allegedly for disciplinary reasons, and exiled by the Emperor to Trier; in September the Synod of Jerusalem rehabilitated Arius, who had managed to sign an ambiguous Profession of Faith. But in fact, the Nicene faith, which Athanasius championed, was rejected. The Arians having claimed that Saint Anthony, the father of the Egyptian monks, was favouring their views, Anthony left his desert to come to Alexandria, to make clear his submission to the Nicene faith, and to Athanasius.

The Second Exile
After the death of the Emperor, in May 337, Athanasius was pardoned by his young son Constantine the Second, who lived at Trier, and was able to return to Alexandria, where he was given a triumphal welcome in November of that year. He lived there for a little over a year, writing his treatises ‘Against the Pagans’ and ‘On the Incarnation of the Word.’ But soon he had to go into hiding, and finally travelled to Rome in March 339, where he was welcomed by Pope Julius, and supported by the Synod of Rome which met in the winter of 340-341; however the Synod of Antioch of 339 had renewed his condemnation, and provided for his replacement as bishop. Amidst much turmoil, he then entered a long period of exile, which lasted for seven years, during which he composed his Treatises against the Arians.  In these, he not only refuted the heresy, but also explained the truths of the Faith, and gave the authentic interpretation of those passages of Scripture which the Arians had quoted to lend weight to their theories. Finally, in October 346, Athanasius was able to return to Alexandria.

The Neo-Arian Reaction
In the meantime, several synods had promulgated various professions of faith; whilst these avoided the word ‘consubstantial’ on the basis that it was not found in Sacred Scripture, they reaffirmed the anathemas of the Council of Nicea against the Arian doctrines. Soon, with the victory of Constantius over his enemies in 351, which made him the sole emperor of Rome, the political climate changed. The emperor, favouring the heresy, convoked a Council at Sirmium, on the Danube, with a view to imposing religious unity on the whole empire. In 351, once again they tried to take the middle way, which had already been followed. Advised by two Arian bishops, Ursacius and Valens, Constantius wanted to impose a disciplinary unity on the bishops of the West, that is to say, agreement with the condemnation of Athanasius, and by means of that, implicit agreement with the faith of his adversaries. At the Councils of Arles (353) and Milan (355) the few recalcitrant bishops were exiled, including the legates of Pope Liberius. Between 356 and 362, which were the most perilous years of all, Athanasius had to hide himself: sometimes in his own Episcopal city, sometimes out in the desert with the monks, but always continuing the fight by means of his writing. In particular, he published a dossier that contained the texts of the different synods. It was also at this time that he wrote the Life of Anthony, his friend, who had died in 356.

Hilary of Poitiers
But in the midst of all these difficulties, he was to find support in the person of the bishop of Poitiers, Hilary. We don’t know a great deal about the early part of his life. He was born in Poitiers, probably to a pagan family, and had a good education, based on the great classical writers. He was baptised as an adult, around the year 345, and was elected bishop of Poitiers about five years later, possibly as the first bishop of that city.

Around that time, he composed a eulogy of Athanasius, even though Gaul was keeping aloof from the doctrinal quarrels. Hilary himself tells us that he knew nothing about the Nicene Creed until just before his exile. But he rightly adds that he had the Gospel and the apostles to guide his Faith… At the end of 355, he separated himself from communion with the Arian bishops, Saturninus, Ursacius, and Valens. But then he was condemned to exile at the Synod of Béziers, without being able to make himself understood there, and that exile was confirmed by an imperial decree.  Therefore he left for Phrygia, in Asia Minor, in the summer of 345, although we don’t know in what city he ended up. He doesn’t seem to have been subject to the vexations on the part of his enemies that many of his fellows suffered.  In this enforced solitude, Hilary continued his theological studies, and wrote his most important works: ‘On the Trinity’ and ‘On the Synods’, a book which tells the story of the controversy against the Arians. As well as that, he gathered the documents he needed to write a further book on the same subject, but only a few fragments of that have reached us.

He kept up a correspondence with the bishops of Gaul, and warned them about the profession of Faith emerging from a new synod , held in 357 in Sirmium, Constantius’ capital, which he called ‘the blasphemy of Sirmium.’ The bishops of Gaul wrote back to say that they had kept the faith, that they had broken with Saturninus, and almost unanimously rejected the profession of Sirmium, as it omitted the ‘consubstantial’ of Nicea.  He tried to act as a peace-maker, by giving an acceptable meaning to a formula which he found inadequate, but which could have helped towards unity (the affirmation that the Son was similar to the Father in substance).  But immediately, the Emperor’s advisors composed a new formula at Sirmium, in May 359, which was happy to say that the Son was similar to the Father in all things; it was to be imposed on all bishops in the West as well as the East, with the Western bishops meeting at Rimini, and those of the East at Silifke the following summer.

Hilary attended the second of these synods, where the suggested formula was agreed, but was in fact understood by some as a simple agreement of good will. One bishop even explained himself: “Christ isn’t similar to God, but is similar to the Father,’ which ends up making the Son a creature again, ‘the Son of the Will of the Father more than of His Divinity.’ Hilary then went to Constantinople with the delegates to the Synod, and tried to meet the Emperor, but could not get an audience with him. After January 1st 360, Constantius had the Rimini formula proclaimed as official doctrine. That simply affirmed that the Son was similar to the Father. The bishop of Poitiers considered this definition to be ‘a shipwreck of Orthodoxy’ and did not hesitate to say so; as his continued presence proved embarrassing, he was ordered to return to Gaul.  He then set about writing a very vigorous work: “Against Constantius” whose doctrine inspired the Synod of Paris, which was loyal to the Nicene Creed (at the end of 360, or early the following year). Against Constantius was published after the death of Constantius on 3rd November 361.

The Pacification of the Gauls
Power then passed to Julian, who has already had his troops proclaim him to be Augustus in the spring of 360, and who recalled from exile all those who had been condemned by his predecessor. Hilary was already back in his own diocese, and dedicated himself to pastoral work and his works of exegesis, in particular a commentary on the Psalms and composing hymns for the liturgy. But although Gaul had rejected heresy, a pocket remained at Milan, which had had the Arian Auxenius as Bishop since 353.

After the death of Julian in 363, Hilary and Eusebius of Verceil tried to get close to the new Emperor, Valentinian 1st, who lived in Milan, in order to get Auxentius deposed. But the Emperor was happy to obtain an ambiguous profession of faith signed by Auxentius, and allowed him to stay in his post. Even before his exile, Hilary had drawn Martin, the converted Roman soldier, to his side; around 361 he installed him in the hermitage at Ligugé, close to Poitiers, to found the first monastery in Gaul. He had in mind the evangelisation of the country districts, which were still, too frequently, pagan. Hilary finally gave up his soul to God in 367, by which time Gaul was pacified and united in the Nicean Faith.

The Synod of Alexandria in 362
But what was happening to Athanasius during all this time? Thanks to the Emperor Julian’s general amnesty, in February 362, he returned to Alexandria, where he organised a Synod of Reconciliation, as certain pro-Arian bishops were noticing that the tide was turning. He showed his greatness of soul by refusing to allow the condemnation of a formula used by the Arians, but also by others, that of the three hypostases; on condition that it was thoroughly understood that it did not imply any inequality between the Father and the Son. For himself, he held that it was best to hold fast to the Faith of Nicea, but he could not impose a single formula. Equally, he set himself to make people recognise the Divinity of the Holy Spirit. And on this point he was to be supported by the Cappadocian Fathers, and especially by Saint Basil the bishop of Caesarea.

Meanwhile, Julian forced Athanasius to go into exile once again, but only for a short time as the Emperor died in 363. Soon afterwards, Athanasius, in Antioch, met the philanthropic Emperor Jovian, in Antioch. Unfortunately he was soon replaced by the Arian, Valens, who vigorously reinstated the condemnations of  Constantius. But the bishop of Alexandria did not obey this fifth command to go into exile, hiding himself in the suburbs of his city. For some unknown reason, the Emperor Valens allowed him to return and a crowd made a procession to seek him out in his hiding place. His final years were peaceful, and he too dedicated them to commenting on the psalms and doctrinal writing.

A Cantata for Two Voices
With Pope Benedict XVI, we can emphasise St Hilary’s firmness of faith, coupled with a gentleness in his interpersonal relationships. By his interpretation of certain doctrines proclaimed by the eastern synods, he was able to give an orthodox meaning to ambiguous formulas, which Athanasius had no hesitation in describing as semi-Arian, in order to lead others to a fuller Faith. Nonetheless he was quite capable of using severe language, especially when he was denouncing the fraudulent manoeuvres of the Emperor Constantius, whom he characterised as a false sheep, a rapacious wolf, and the Anti-Christ.

By contrast, many see in Saint Athanasius an intransigence which they think to be misplaced. Nonetheless we have seen how in 362 he was shown to be understanding of formulas which he did not like. In this way, we could say that in defence of the divinity of the Son of God, we have a cantata for two voices, in which each has its part to play. The bishop of Poitiers was able to attempt to bring people together in ways impossible to the Archbishop of Alexandria. In his eulogy for Saint Athanasius, before he went into exile, Saint Hilary called him ‘veri tenax’ This concise Latin phrase captures the soul of the man for whom it was more important to witness to the truth of Christ the Saviour, consubstantial with the Father, as had been defined by the Fathers at Nicea, than to worry about all the exiles and indignities heaped upon him. We can see why Bernini has placed St Athanasius  as one of the four Doctors of the Church, who support St Peter’s reliquary in the Vatican… Once again, much later, St Hilary would be called on to uphold the true Faith: on the eve of the Battle of Vouillé, at the gates of Poitiers, a bright ray of light shone forth from the basilica where St Hilary’s body reposed, as an omen for the army of Clovis, who had just embraced the Catholic Faith, assuring victory the next day over the Visigoths of Alaric, who was a follower of Arianism. Every time we affirm, in the Creed, that the Son is Consubstantial with the Father, let us remember these two great champions of the true Faith, St Hilary and St Athanasius, who did so much for the sake of that truth.

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