Athanasius cut a curious figure, a dwarf-like man with hooked nose, short beard, and fiery temper. Born in A.D. 295 near the Egyptian Nitrian desert far away from the Diocletian persecution in Rome, he was well-educated in the classics and theology. Bishop of Alexandria for many years, he became the Church’s dominant theologian of the fourth century. This Doctor of the Church died in 373, and his feast day is May 2nd.

The Arian Heresy

How is Jesus fully God and fully man? This was a burning question in the fourth century. The priest Arius called into question the divinity of the Son of God. He was not God as the Father was, but was created God by the Father. “There was a time when he was not” went the phrase, meaning that there was a time when Jesus was not God. Arius set this refrain to chant, and through its repetition, the heresy caught on and spread.

Athanasius Struggles up the Mountain

Athanasius spent his entire life, a battle long and difficult, refuting Arianism and defending the dogma of the Incarnation. He was the chief spokesman at the Council of Nicaea (325): The Son of God, the Word-made flesh, is perfectly equal in status  (homo ousios) to the Father. The second Person of the Trinity seeks out humanity and deigns to assume the frailty of human nature that it might be ennobled, transformed into a new creation, and brought to life in full measure. “If Christ were not truly God, he could not have imparted divine life and resemblance to man.” (V.C. DeClercq, “St. Athanasius,” “New Catholic Encyclopedia,” I: 998) Athanasius put it this way: “God was humanized that we might be deified,” also poetically rendered: “God became man that we might become God.”

The Fathers on Image and Likeness

The Eastern Fathers were single-minded about this teaching and never tired of proclaiming the wondrous truth of man and woman being divinized through the Incarnation. Irenaeus had said it before: “Man is the receptacle of God’s goodness. If man and woman make themselves supple and malleable in the hands of the Divine Artist, God can make of them works of art.”

“God has fashioned man in his own image and likeness; he gave him knowledge of himself; he endowed him with the ability to think which raised him above all living creatures; he permitted him to delight in the unimaginable beauties of paradise, and gave him dominion over everything upon earth.” (St. Basil,” From “Detailed Rules for Monks”)

“That we might become what he was,” wrote St. John Chrysostom.

The teaching on the divinization of men and women echoes three biblical verses: “Let us make man and woman in our own image and likeness,” (Gen 1:26) “You have made them a little lower than gods,” (Ps 8:1) and  “We are God’s works of art created in Christ Jesus to live the good life as we were meant to live it.” (Eph 2:10) Through our consent and cooperation, the redemptive work is intended to exalt and restore us to our original beauty.

Moral Erosion

Human nature tends downward. In the film “The Picture of Dorian Grey,” Dorian the aesthete corrupts himself into Dorian the debauchee. Oscar Wilde treats sin in a horrific but masterly way. Dorian’s portrait, painted to reflect his youthful beauty, in time becomes grotesquely disfigured with each sin he commits, a reminder of the effect each has on his soul. The visual corruption is a horror to behold.

There is a profound tension with American society pulling it in two conflicting opposites. The first force is downward. To paraphrase the initial words the “Inferno,” lost in the dark woods of error conveys the voice of popular culture  expressed as: unbridled consumerism, pornographic entertainment, sexual liberation and self-gratification, proneness to violence, moral relativism, the phobia of anti-judgmentalism, the ‘dumbing down’ of our educational system. We have lost the sense of the sacred and even the dignity of the human person. This is one reason why monastic retreat houses and pilgrimages are place of refuge for visitors who, through silence and contemplation, seek temporary respite from this morass.

The second force is that of ascent, the tradition of religious and moral values. The two need to be distinguished. While the former applies to individual faith-traditions, the latter applies in a pluralistic society. These values are learned not through the law or from books but from personal example. A democracy cannot long survive unless there is a basic moral consensus binding at least the majority of its citizens, and to which the majority conforms in behavior most of the time. A pluralistic secular society that is truly democratic organizes public life in such a way that all opinions and religious beliefs are granted equality in freedom of speech, and not merely for non-believers. Otherwise, life turns into a jungle or a police state.

Climb Ev’ry Mountain

In “The Sound of Music,” the character of Mother Abbess intones “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.” The words swell and soar with emotion; the music paints the words as well. It does what the text suggests: it steps upward, it climbs slowly and ascends to reach the dream – the mountain, the place where, according to the Bible, the Lord dwells.

“The Ascent of Mt. Carmel,” a treatise written by St. John of the Cross, the Church’s pre-eminent poet-theologian, describes the way leading to the summit of the mountain. Psalm 24:3-4 offers an insight: “Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord, who shall stand in this holy place? Those with clean hands and pure heart who have not given their souls to useless, worthless things.”

Athanasius trekked up his mountain as everyone must. It means keeping one’s liberty in everything that has no right to command the individual. The ascent to the Lord’s mountain, though  arduous, is exhilarating.