St. Athanasius can help us defend our choices, unpopular as they may be.
In college, I thought entering the seminary would be fun and that I’d learn a lot, maybe even end up a bit holier. Instead I ended up with zero job prospects. Not that it wasn’t, in its own way, exactly the education I needed. I really did need it, and I’ll get to that in a minute. But first I want to relate a moment in class near the end of my time at Yale Divinity School. We were talking about post-graduation plans. The majority of my fellow students were going to be ordained as ministers for the Episcopal Church, which had been my hope at the outset, too. A few were going on to more theological studies. I had to admit, though, that my future wasn’t so bright.
The reason why is a bit complicated. The short version is that the Episcopal Church was in the middle of a nasty conflict and I found myself on the losing side of it. There was no place anymore in the Church I desired to serve. I suppose an adjustment to my beliefs would’ve made life a lot easier, but I’m not wired that way. I’m stubborn and don’t mind being different. In fact, a friend once called me sui generis, [Latin for “of his own kind”] which is a compliment, I think. My high school English teacher said that I’m incorrigible, which is probably less of a compliment.
If anything, I’m stubborn and unwilling to compromise, which is why my time in seminary was exactly the education I needed. I learned to hold beliefs more charitably, keep my blood pressure level down, and accept confrontation more calmly. I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world. If you want to know how the story ends, God took care of me every step of the way and now I’m a Catholic priest at a lovely parish.
Not everyone has that “gift” of stubbornness. Peer pressure, anxiety, and social isolation all have a way of changing minds. Which of us hasn’t, for instance, observed celebrities quickly backtrack once responses reveal their opinion is unpopular? How many of us have changed on social issues simply because it’s the path of least resistance? When the tide of popular opinion arrives, it tends to wash everyone out to sea.
There must be a middle ground, a way to hold beliefs with conviction, but also not be stubborn simply for the sake of never having to change.
Enter St. Athanasius. He lived in Egypt in the 4th century, where he was a bishop. At least, he lived in Egypt during the interludes when he wasn’t in exile for his beliefs. The reason why he was forcibly removed is a bit complicated. The short version is that Athanasius wanted the Church to be Christian but found himself on the losing side. It was so bad at one point that people began saying Athanasius contra mundum – “Athanasius against the world.”
Conflict isn’t a thing of the past. Every day we have choices to make, and some of them may not be popular. Athanasius is a great example of how we can stay strong and stand up for our beliefs.
Be willing to engage in discussion
Athanasius first spoke up at the Council of Nicea in 325 during discussion about what the Church would believe. Many opposed him, but he continued to engage in the discussion. I am often tempted to shut down and refuse to talk about what I believe. Sometimes that’s prudent because it isn’t a good idea to stir up a hornet nest, but even when people want to have an honest conversation I’m reluctant. It’s easier to be quiet, but we owe it to our beliefs and to other people to be willing to talk.
Don’t give in to bullies
Athanasius was viciously bullied. He was accused of starving his enemies by stealing the grain supply, trying to murder another bishop, and chopping off the same bishop’s hand. He proved his innocence by producing the supposedly dead bishop. He showed the crowd both of the man’s hands and quipped that unless people are born with three hands, everything seemed to be fine. He was even physically attacked while in church. Those who are offended at the beliefs of others aren’t always rational about it, and any explanations we offer will fall on deaf ears. Because of this, we may be bullied, but Athanasius is proof that we can stand up to them and maintain our integrity.
Think it through
Athanasius wrote books and worked on precision of thought. His beliefs weren’t blindly held or prejudiced. We too ought to ask ourselves hard questions. Why do I believe what I do? Is it worth it to me to stand up for this even if others seems to be denigrating it? Are any of their objections worth thinking about? The more clear we are about our ideas, the less irrational and emotional we’ll be when defending them.
Find supportive friends
Athanasius did have supportive friends. Particularly, he had St. Anthony of the Desert, the famous Egyptian hermit, who kept him safe during several of his exiles. We don’t want to find ourselves in an echo chamber where all of us think exactly the same. That wouldn’t be good for our mental health and we’d miss out on knowing lots of good people, but it is important to find people who are supportive. That way, we won’t feel entirely isolated.
In the end, we’re human beings and our beliefs shape our worldview. We cherish those beliefs and stand firm when we need to, but always remembering that diversity is a beautiful thing and we can all learn from each other. Whether others return that respect or not, our particular beliefs make us who we are, and being who you are is a pretty special gift to the world.
10 Inspiring Quotes from St. Athanasius