Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Athanasius Contra Mundum

Emerging from the midst of a treacherous and cruel age, the Early Church was plagued by a variety of factors which threatened to unleash the legions of hell upon an as-of-yet groggy and scattered people. There were the Roman Emperors, skilled in the art of torture, who threw Christians to the lions and gave them up to be killed for the sport of their bloodthirsty soldiery. There, too, were the various heresies which assailed the Mystical Body from all manner of directions: the Arians, the Docestists, Pelagians and Monophysites; Caesaro-papists, Monotheletites, Tritheists and Manichaean Gnostics. Such was the environment that suckled the Church in her infancy. It was an age of barbarism and distress, far from the comforts that Christians of the modern world today enjoy.

It was in the middle of all the chaos and confusion when the hour of the Church Fathers dawned, and there was no more foul-tempered, irascible and thoroughly orthodox man than St. Athanasius of Alexandria, the lion of orthodoxy, who almost single-handedly crushed the Arian heresy. The life of this holy man is certainly the stuff of legend; if stories are to be believed, he and a handful of bishops were the only ones who still clung to orthodox Christology in those troubled times. His temper and stubbornness caused him to be exiled from his own diocese three times, earning for him the immortal words Athanasius contra mundum—Athanasius against the world.

I have met many people, Catholics specifically, who fancy themselves a modern day Athanasius. While certainly an admirable thing, I have always maintained a sense of suspicion about these people. Indeed, in this very secularized society of ours, one could not but help but pine for a little more peace and solitude—perhaps a garden somewhere to alleviate all those problems, or a quaint neighborhood where everyone minded their own business. Most of all, people clamor for beauty in their lives: the Church has always provided them with this, but in the years immediately after Vatican II, even this started to deteriorate. Gone are the days of brocade vestments lined with thread of gold and Baroque altars and their majestic theatre.

In retrospect, I find it harder and harder to blame people for wanting a little more peace and beauty in their lives. Is it because I have the luxury of living in a society that is still capable of bowing to the Divine that I am overly critical of most traditionalists sometimes? I admit, this thought has crossed my mind before. But then I am jolted back to reality by the sight of a stick-thin man, blind and festering with sores, walking the traffic-jammed streets of Manila like a doomed leper. He doesn’t have the time or the luxury to afford modest clothing or know the history and nuances of Eucharistic theology. Does this make him less of a Catholic then? Can he really be blamed for treating sacramentals like talismans?

Let us briefly recall that heresy starts not out of a theological dispute, but as a result of a dispute in livelihood. If you think about it, most of the times, it will be the simple—the unlettered and the uncatechized—who will sooner leave the Church and join another, more ‘sensible’ sect. In the Philippines, this is a social fact: to give you an idea, two of the most popular television stations here belong to two rival religious groups, who each have their hands upon each others’ necks. And as can be expected, there is occasional Catholic bashing as well (though admittedly not as much as their bashing of each other). I am not saying that the upper classes are not capable of being seduced into heresy. History tells us that they are often more vulnerable to such traps: it was the nobility that primarily supported Luther in his ‘Reformation’, and it was the established mestizo families that first started attending ‘Born Again’ fellowships in this country. I think the fundamental difference here is that we have no excuse at all. Most Protestants I know left Catholicism for the most trivial of reasons: a scandalous priest, an excess of devotion, spiritual dryness. The poor, on the other hand, have everything to lose.

We are all familiar with the story of Martin Luther, but we should also remember that it was Melancthon and the rest of his followers that started what we know as the Lutheran church today. Though Luther provided the impetus, he clung to many trappings of the Roman religion even after his heresy, among the most significant of which are his Marian spirituality and belief in the Mass (not as a proprietary sacrifice). What was going on in his head while sitting on his toilet, however, is an entirely different matter. Perhaps he was fancying himself an heir of St. Athanasius? It is an interesting thought; after all, all heresy essentially starts out as spiritual reform.

The main problem I have with most traditionalists today is that, for them, Tradition is something that necessitates a return to the grassroots level. It is thus turned into something that is fossilized, unchanging, rigid and untouchable. Of course, in most cases, it is frozen in the environment of Tridentine Catholicism, that epoch in history where the Church was more concerned with the apologia than actual praxis of the faith—so much so that it comes dangerously close of becoming the religion itself. It is the essence of a bully culture, where Tradition is wielded as an excuse to maintain a vicious hegemony of being willfully stuck in the past. Tradition does not work like that because it was never in the hands of men to decide it in the first place. At worst, Traditionalism seems nothing more than an excess of zeal gone awry; and in most cases, it is more akin to self-righteousness than actual charity. A return to Tradition does not guarantee a panacea from all the woes of this world because such a thing is simply impossible; as long as each man is born into original sin, we will always have need of God’s help. Frankly, it seems to me as if Tradition is fast becoming a byword for Utopia.

The essential flaw in assuming a contra mundum mindset is that it presumes that the one holding this ideology is the only one right. Not only that, it also facilitates a detachment from the world, but not the detachment willed by Our Lord in the Gospels, but one that is more akin to living under a rock. Thus, the person is cut off from the world, from his fellow human beings, from his fellow Christians. As we know, our religion is very much a social one, proof of which is the doctrine of the communion of saints. How can we honestly call ourselves in communion with St. Athanasius and the other great defenders of the Church if we ourselves cannot even begin to recognize other Christians outside the framework we are in? The Church is far greater than any of us; to think that it is contained within the network of a few time zones and area codes is an incredibly preposterous idea. It is a religion that is lonely and bitter, and one that shirks from challenges more than it does face them.

When St. Athanasius proclaimed his undying words, ‘They have the buildings; we have the Faith’, they were said in an entirely different situation than the one we are in right now. True, many bishops out there are scoundrels whose skulls would gladly fill a niche in the floor of hell, and it is also true that many priests today are being drawn into a life of selfishness and corruption. But let us at least be grateful that no Catholic bishop (at least, that I know of) has ever explicitly taught that Jesus was mere man, or that God is essentially metaphor and myth. Let us be thankful that Tradition is far greater than any of us: it has witnessed wars, schisms, heresies and other scandals in the past, surely, our situation is not confined to this day and age alone. In the saint’s day, everything was simply at stake: there was no Christendom to speak of back then. Had Arianism won out, there is no telling what treasures would have been lost to us forever.

It is true that it is necessary to thump some heads some time, and it is likewise true that Traditionalism has had some good results: without the ‘defiance’ of Archbishop Lefebvre, would Catholics today even have heard of Mass in Latin? I don’t think so, especially since the preceding generation (these baby-boomers) have asserted themselves as being far superior to their own fathers. It is this same pride that also manifests itself in the actions of many involved in traditionalism, though admittedly in a more muted way. Such is how the Devil works, when he turns even our genuine love for the Church’s heritage into a nest for his vipers.

So is it really possible to be traditional without isolating ourselves? Is it possible to appear more than just a theological clique, but as an actual, legitimate advocacy for a just and noble cause (and one that most of ‘us’, i.e., ‘them’, are content to disparage, anyway)? I do think so. But it will not be possible without a huge dose of humility first. It is only when we weep for it that our love for the timeless heritage of the Church will reveal itself to be true. Until such time that we realize Tradition is not ours to wield in whatever way we choose to, we will never cease to be bitter. ‘To whom much is given, much shall be expected in return’.


Daniel Mitsui said...

A return to Tradition does not guarantee a panacea from all the woes of this world because such a thing is simply impossible; as long as each man is born into original sin, we will always have need of God’s help. Frankly, it seems to me as if Tradition is fast becoming a byword for Utopia.

True traditionalism is not utopian. It is reform that implies trying to make things perfect ~ the enthusiasm animating Gaudium et Spes.

True traditionalism is about being in love with the small, the ancient, and the broken.

Archistrategos said...


This reminds of a story about a monk who traveled to a certain, distant monastery for seven years only to find it a ruined and desolate abbey. Worse, the only secret it held was that its own monks were his own brothers, whom he tried to get away form in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful, and very educational while spiritually uplifting. It can be hard to fight problems in the Church, and this is very encouraging in that area. I will link your article on a post at Mount Carmel Bloggers.

Archistrategos said...

Thank you Paul VI! I consider it an honor :)