The Church and Social Reform, The Policies of the Patriarch Athanasios of Constantinople, by John L. Bookamra, is a very unique book in that it captures a very crucial part of Orthodox history, with a Saint that, in my opinion, receives far too little attention.
Boojamra begins the book with a fine introduction that describes the main thrust of the work of Saint Athanasios’ motive and character as a late 13th century Patriarch of Constantinople, shortly before the nation fell to Islam. He explains on the first page, “many Byzantines were convinced that only a moral regeneration would save it from total subjugation to an alien religion and an alien people.” Boojamra does not hesitate, even in this Introduction, to explain the philosophy of Athanasios in his own words; but not without supporting his explanations with many quotes and references.
The Second Chapter immediately embraces Athanasios’ philosophy of what many of us now know as issues of “Church and State.” This I think is a brilliant way to begin this book since it is imperative to understand what type of influence the people of the Empire were under during his reign. It also helps the reader appreciate Athanasios in a special way so as not to dismiss him as some type of radical when beginning to read the very things that he instituted. Athanasios’ goal within the patriarch was to successfully merge the hierosyne and the basileia, the priestly authority and the imperial authority. For Saint Athanasiois, the State was to be the guardian of the Church and the Church was to be the counselor of the State. Both authorities were to have a mutual relationship for the bettering of God’s kingdom and the culture at large.
Boojamra moves on to explain in Chapter Three, that the Church was to have freedom, according to Athanasios, and that she was commissioned to have a certain task within society. On page 41 we see Boojamra quote Athanasios regarding God’s gift to the Church: “crowned Her with the supreme imperial power, so that she might be served in all matters pleasing to God and be supported by [the imperial power].” He goes on to say: “For Athanasios, the church was the essential substratum without which the empire could not exist,” and “The immunity of the church enjoyed was so central to Athanasios’ ecclesiology and his notion of freedom of the church the he placed violations of it among the sins that were the cause of the loss of Anatolia.”
In Chapter Four, Boojamra writes about what he calls “Foundations of Athanasios’ Reforms.” The fascinating thing about Saint Athanasios’ philosophy to reform the Roman Empire was the fact that he heavily relied upon monasticism as a model for economical development. And not only did he rely on monasticism as a model for reform but he relied on it as a tool to get the reform done! In a letter to an abbot, Athanasios urged the monks to eat no more than one meal a day so in order to save food and money for the poor people of Constantinople. He also urged the monks to sacrifice various donations that were given to them in order to help the poor of the communities. But Saint Athanasios’ model of society was not based on getting the monastics to work harder and sacrifice more, rather his model was to encourage and in some cases command the general population to emulate the monastics.
Chapter Five explains the very measures of Athanasios’ reforms, focusing on some of the very specific things that were done. Boojamra says in the first page of the chapter: “Using his position, he became involved in such matters as fortifying the city, maintaing its grain supply, and hiring the Catalan Gran Company as mercenaries, as well as monitoring the behavior of bishops and priests.” It is clear that Athanasios was not comfortable with two things: the suffering of the needy and the arrogance of the clergy. Regarding the needy, Boojamra point out some of the more miraculous things about Athanasios: “As he distributed the wheat, his supplies miraculously help our, as in the multiplication of the loaves (Matt. 14:17-20; Mark 6:38-44). To supply all the poor convents. In a second incident, he similarly ordered Christodoulos to distribnute one measure of grain to each poor person o with the result that a total of six measures sufficed for two thousand persons.” (p.121)
If acting as a true “deacon” was not enough for Athanasios, and guarding the church through teaching and rebuke, as a priest and bishop, Athansios also played a judicial role in the empire, as outlined in the 6th Chapter: “Athanasios continued to play a quasi-judicial role throughout his second patriarchate, with several outstanding examples of involvement in secular affairs to his credit.” (p. 137) Athansios’ Neara letter spells out a variety of civil and moral ethics for the empire, including issues such as “marriage, rape, adultery, prostitution, murder, monastic discipline, the functioning of taverns and bathhouses, and the observations of fasts.” (p.140) An example of the kind of moral reform that he imposed: “those who give or take abortions to destroy children” were subject to the same penance as murderers.”
The last Chapter, Chapter Seven, draws a very nice conclusion about Saint Athanasios and his reform on the empire. It is very clear through Boojamra’s writing that Saint Athanasios was adopting the theology of the early fathers before him, particularly that of Saint Basil the Great, and Saint John Chrysostom. To these giants, the gospel of Jesus Christ is that which is not to be limited to personal piety but personal piety exercised in the community.
Boojamra explains the weaknesses of Athanasios in this last chapter by pointing out how he “alienated large numbers of powerful persons bith in the church and in the civil bureaucracy.” As Boojamra says, “The prophetic saint is not always the best person to initiate change, Had Athanasios been more amenable, more flexible, and more politically astute, he might have been less saintly but more successful.” I am of the opinion that his saintliness was necessary and that he would have had no momentum to do the things he needed to do without his commitment to Christ, and that number one element in my mind is his sainthood in and of itself. Athanasios is now canonized as a saint because of the way he did not compromise and insisted on practicing his godliness in his office, something that does not always happen with bishops. Let us learn from his example as leaders and demonstrate to the community what being a Christian is all about.