(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press.Today's saint, Athanasios, comes from Volume 4 of the series.)
"On the Orthodox calendar, which marks the commemoration of St. Athanasios the Patriarch, can be added a footnote that on this day in 1940, a demand for the surrender of the Greeks to the invading Axis armies was met with the answer, 'Oxi,' meaning 'No,' to which the thirteenth-century saint must have added a resounding 'amen' from his hallowed grave. The oustanding characteristic of this unyielding theologian was his fierce resistance to change in the name of expediency, or for any other reason, which meant he would retreat not one inch from the conservative stand he staunchly refused to compromise.
Born with the name of Alexios about 1250 in the city of Adrianopolis to middle-class parents named George and Euphrosyne, the young Alexios evinced religious leanings by preferring to pore over ecclesiastical books and papers instead of the fun and games of other youngsters of his age. While still a boy, he refused to wear the extravagant clothes his parents could well afford, and he began a lifelong habit of wearing plain and simple clothing which always lent an air of austerity to him. He had no use for the ostentatious, either in apparel or immediate surroundings, for which he was stamped throughout his lifetime as an arch-conservative.
Excelling in his studies, Alexios came of age with every indication that he was to become a man of the Church; but he chose the more rigorous training of monasticism to the easier route of the elite schools accessible to him. A proven Christian who had felt the call to service of the Lord, he was admitted to a prestigious monastery on Mt. Athos for the intensive training attached to the monkpriest, which he took in very easy stride. He thrived on asceticism, amazing his fellow monks with his capacity for learning and mastery of the most abstract subjects, which had most of his companions in Christ scratching their heads. In the classroom he was the most recognized for his erudition and, in the field, the most easily recognized by the tattered robe which bore mute testimony to the severe approach he had chosen. Standing as he would in church service, he refused to be seated at a meal, preferring to remain standing after the customary prayer of thanksgiving.
On being tonsured a monk with the name of Athanasios, he spent the next eighteen years in asceticism and advanced study which earned him a reputation for learning which today would have added a string of degrees to his name. A veritable doctor of the Church, he was consulted by the most seasoned monks and referred to by hierarchs, all of whom respected him as much for the severity of his life as for the depth of wisdom, a combination in cerebral and physical hardihood which stayed with him all the days of his noble life. At home with aristocrats, hierarchs, or peasants, he had only to enter a room full of people and they would come to a hushed silence at his appearance. His presence was overwhelming, irrespective of his attire; and conversations had a habit of revolving around this commanding man of God.
When the reigning emperor, John Kantakuzinos, expelled Patriarch John Bekkos, the logical successor to the patriarchal throne was the eminent Athanasios. Knowing that his extreme conservatism would endear him to many, but alienate a powerful few, he assumed the post with confidence, but with somewhat of a tongue-in-cheek attitude. He found the Patriarchate in a sorry state where favors could be bought and where the highest offices of Eastern Christendom were scarcely more than meeting rooms for the privileged few.
With sweeping reforms Athanasios restored order and integrity to the Patriarchate in a rapid-fire reformation after being officially installed on October 14, 1289. After more than a score of wearying years in which he had his fill of the intrigue and criticism that go with the office, he withdrew and returned to his beloved Mt. Athos to renew a spiritual vigor which had been severely drained in Constantinople. His serenity was short-lived when he was summoned again to Constantinople. Although he found the Patriarchate had suffered little in his absence, the same intrigue and maneuvering was as firmly entrenched as before. He was adamant as ever in church conservatism, always critcizing those who did not adhere strictly to the rules from which he allowed no one to stray, not even the emperor, Andronikos Palaiologos. He finally retired from office in 1311, returning to Mt. Athos, where he lived to be one hundred years old. He died peacefully on October 28, 1350."
(From Orthodox Saints, Vol. 4, by Fr. George Poulos.)