St Athanasius the Athonite

Monk (entered heaven in 1003)

Dear Nathan,

I think you are misinterpreting St Ignatius.  True, he did compare perfect religious obedience with the obedience of a corpse to its undertaker, but every simile has its defects.  First of all, he was writing for the members of his own religious community, who made a vow of obedience, which is somewhat different than the virtue of obedience that you ought to be living right now as a lay Christian.  But there’s also a shortcoming in the comparison itself.  A corpse is obedient only in one way: it doesn’t resist the will of the whoever moves it.  This is one characteristic of Christian obedience: the Christian ought not to put up any resistance to God’s will.  But there is another dimension as well, which corpses lack.  Christians ought to put their creativity, intelligence, freedom, and spirit of initiative at the service of the cause of Christ.  Thus, while they never resist the orders of God (and of his Church), they don’t simply wait for messages from heaven; they consider the Gospel itself to be the most committing message of all, and they take the initiative to put it into action.  A quick look at today’s saint will illustrate the point.

Athanasius was educated in the imperial court of tenth century Constantinople.  He did well, and had a brilliant civil career ahead of him.  But his heart heard the small whisper of God calling him to serve a higher Kingdom.  He went off to become a monk in Macedonia.  He made steady progress there, so much so that when the abbot died he fled, fearing that they would want to make him the next abbot.  He not only relocated, but also changed his name and pretended to be illiterate.

Eventually he made his way to Mt Athos, the picturesque mountain on the easternmost Chalcedonian peninsula, which had long been occupied by Christian hermits (and recluses).  While he was there a friend of his from school (who was now an official in the imperial court) enlisted his assistance as almoner (distributor of supplies) during a military campaign against the Saracens.  He did this work extremely well, and the campaign succeeded.

When this same friend (Phocas) was later named Emperor, Athanasius fled once again, fearing that he would be called to serve in the imperial court.  But Phocas searched him out (he was hiding on the island of Cyprus) and assured him that Athanasius would be free to continue building his monastery at Mt Athos, supported morally and financially by the Emperor himself.

Athanasius had begun the daunting task of putting some order in the many communities of hermits and monks that dwelt around Mt Athos, beginning what was to be called an idiorhythmic monastery: one in which the different monks were permitted to follow individual schedules and disciplines.  Overcoming strong resistance (he was almost murdered twice by miffed monks), he succeeded, eventually becoming the superior of 50 different monastic communities.  Today the tradition continues, and 20 monasteries with thousands of monks continue to enrich the Christian world (although they are now in separated from Rome, since they maintained their allegiance to the Byzantine Emperor at the time of the Great Schism in 1054).

I hope you see my point.  Here was a man who became a saint not by sitting around waiting for angelic breathes to sweep him off to holiness-land, but by sincerely pursuing God’s will through a deep spiritual life and an active use of all his God-given talents.  May we all be so blessed.

Your loving uncle,


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