January 18 – Athanasius the Great; Margaret of Hungary

Fresco of Anthony the Great, Panagia Episkopi Church, Santorini, Greece, 12th centuryAthanasius the Great, Patriarch of Alexandria (ca. 296–373), was also called Athanasius of Alexandria, Athanasius the Apostolic, the Father of Orthodoxy, the Father of the Canon, Athanasius Contra Mundum[1], and so on. He was greatly embarrassed by these titles and kept them out of sight in a drawer. He wrote many theological treatises, letters, and hagiographies, including that of his beloved friend and spiritual guide Anthony the Great (Jan 17). In 319 he published his greatest work, On the Incarnation. So great was his erudition—he quoted Plato and Aristotle, for goodness’ sake—that his editor got none other than C.S. Lewis to write the introduction[2]. Lewis famously pronounced the book easier to read than Xenophon, which is certainly true since a lot of English readers have trouble with words starting with “X.”

At the Council of Nicea (AD 325) he introduced and defended the doctrine that the Son and the Father are the same substance, homoousios[3], a word he took from Origen, who no longer needed it, being some 75 years dead. This was to combat the heresy of Arianism which taught that Christ was created by the Father. This ultimately led to his exile, and to being sought by sword-wielding Arians who probably weren’t wanting to invite him to tea. At the end of his life things calmed down, and he was able to die in peace.

In the West he is celebrated as a Doctor of the Church, and feted on May 2. He is beloved among the Copts as the first Patriarch to write in Coptic as well as Greek (write what? shopping lists? our sources don’t say). His relics reside in Venice.

Stained glass window of Margaret of Hungary, Basilica di San Domenico, Siena, Italy, date unknownMargaret of Hungary (1242–1271) was the eighth daughter of King Bela IV of Hungary, which at the time had a bit of a Mongol infestation. Her parents promised God they would dedicate her to religion* if He would do something about it. God came through, so when she turned four, little Margaret was trundled off to a monastery. She took to monastic life like a duck, memorizing the Divine Office and singing it to herself as she played, for instance, which says something about the advantages of a bilingual childhood. All parents should speak Latin at home, if only for the sake of their children.

As the years went on, it became clear that she had settled in to stay. Sadly, no one told the king, and when Margaret turned twelve, he found a useful marriage for her, having forgotten his promise to God in thanks for the Mongolectomy. Meg said no. Then, for reasons I was not able to ascertain, Dad built a monastery just for her on an island in the Danube between Buda and Pest[4], where she took her vows and her veil. King Ottokar of Bohemia turned up on the beach on her 18th birthday with a dispensation from the Pope releasing her from her vows if only she would be his bride. “What’s the King of Bohemia compared to the King of Heaven?” she said, and that settled it. Dad gave up.

She shunned discussion of her royal parentage, preferring to talk about her aunt, St. Elizabeth of Hungary[5] and other saintly relatives, presumably on the theory that it’s more humble to brag about how holy your family is than how royal it is. Unable to go on pilgrimages, she created virtual pilgrimages by finding out how far away various holy places were, and saying one Hail Mary for every mile of the journey, making her the only pilgrim in history who would have traveled farther under the metric system had it been invented. She died young, and was proclaimed a saint by her acquaintances almost immediately, and by the Church in 1943 (the in-box was very full). She is the patroness against floods.

[1] Against the world. Seeing as he wrote in Greek and Coptic, not Latin, this seems partly unfair, but nobody said life was fair to saints. As you will see as the year unwinds.
[2] Well, he wrote the introduction to the St. Vladimir Seminary’s translation, at any rate.
[3] Of the same substance
[4] Buda and Pest now form one united city, Pestabud. Sorry, Budapest.
[5] Not in this compendium, alas.