On 18 September, we celebrate the memory of Saint Athanasius of Brest. For the Orthodox, he is an outstanding example of steadfast loyalty to the faith. He stood up with righteousness in defence of his oppressed brethren in the face of multiple hardships, isolation and dangers to his life. His integrity and courage inspired his contemporaries and many successive generations in Belarus and beyond.
He was born in c.a. 1597 and grew up in a noble Orthodox family in Belarus, then a part of Rzeczpospolita, a commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania. He received a brilliant education. He spoke immaculate Latin, Greek, Russian and Polish, was well versed in theology and had outstanding literary talent. His skills were highly appreciated at the court of the Chancellor, where he served as a tutor.
A rising regional power, Rzeczpospolita was vying for influence over its neighbour Russia. Russia was in political turmoil over succession to its throne, and the rulers of Rezhpospolita sought to bring to the Russian throne the candidates they could manipulate. Saint Athanasius was assigned a student who, unbeknownst to him, was being prepared as a prospective Russian Tsar.
Many in his place would have jumped at the opportunity to build a successful career at the courts of both states, reap rich rewards and enter history. But Saint Athanasius abandoned his courtly position as soon as his role in this affair became evident.
He became an Orthodox monk, and again he went against the grain. Reczpospolita’s mainly Catholic rulers were pursuing religious uniformity at the expense of the Orthodox faithful. The Union of Brest-Litovsk of 1596 obliged the Orthodox to accept the Catholic doctrine and subordinate themselves to the authority of the Roman Pope. It allowed them the Orthodox worship rite within a newly established Uniat Church. Several top-ranking Orthodox bishops supported the union against the wishes of the lower-ranking clergy, monastics and laity. This put the Orthodox in the position of schismatics, making them targets for persecution from the Uniats and Catholics.
In these trying times, many Orthodox converted. Some acquiesced and worshipped in secret. Saint Athanasius prayed fervently to know the will of God. Responding to His calling, he dedicated his life to the struggle against the Union and for the triumph of Orthodoxy in his homeland. "I am not a prophet, but only a servant of God my Creator, sent because of the times, to speak the truth to everyone,” wrote saint Athanasius in one of his diaries.
He joined the Holy Ascension Monastery at Dubovsk, where he was ordained as a hieromonk. However, the Jesuits soon took it over, forcing him and his brethren to relocate to Kupiatitcka Monastery, east of Brest. A miracle-working icon of the Mother of God had been discovered there centuries before. From his arrival, he never stopped praying before this icon, seeking guidance from the Theotokos.
As his obedience at the monastery, he was raising the money to rebuild the church of the Kupiaticka icon of the Theotokos. Responding to his prayer, the Mother of God commanded him to go to Moscow and approach the Russian Tsar. He took the risky journey and returned with a generous donation. The church was rebuilt, raising the spirits of his fellow Orthodox believers.
In 1640, he became the abbot of the Monastery of Saint Simeon the Stylite in Brest. The Orthodox of the city were under extreme pressure from the authorities, the Uniates and the Jesuits to accept the Unia. Saint Athanasius used his talent as a preacher and public speaker to reach out to the Polish King. He secured from him the promise to enact a protective decree for the Orthodox community of Brest. Yet pressure from the Jesuits and Uniats prevented its promulgation.
He prayed again to the Mother of God. She exhorted him to advocate for the Orthodox before the Polish King and Sejm in Warsaw and predicted his martyrdom. Appearing for the first time before the Sejm and the King, he denounced the Union and predicted God's wrath if the Unia went ahead and the rights of the Orthodox were not respected. The King found his remarks incendiary and had him imprisoned.
Eventually, he returned to Brest, where the persecution of the Christians continued. They could not worship at the churches because of the riots instigated by the Jesuits and Uniats. Athanasius travelled to Warsaw a second time. This visit was even more difficult than the first. The Orthodox clergy in Warsaw were unwilling to help. The voices in his support were becoming increasingly mute. ‘O, righteous God, nobody cares about the Orthodox faith or Your glory anymore; everybody seems to be ashamed of it…’ wrote Saint Athanasius in his work “Diariusz”, composed in the Warsaw prison.
On that visit, he was arrested on charges of conspiring against the King during his visit to Moscow. From his cell, Athanasius wrote eloquent epistles to the King warning him that the persecution of Orthodox Christians was an affront to God. The king ordered him exiled to the Kiev Caves, where he stayed until 1647 before returning to Brest.
In 1648, he was imprisoned again, this time on accusations of supporting a Cossack uprising in Ukraine. When no proof was found to substantiate the charge, he was accused of blaspheming against the Catholic Church and the Unia. His persecutors promised him life and a high position if he became a Uniate and torture and brutal death if he refused. They tortured him by fire and made him watch as they dug a grave for him. Impressed by his steadfastness, a soldier asked him for forgiveness and a blessing before shooting him in the head.
Saint Athanasius of Brest praying before the Kupyatitskaya icon of the Theotokos
St. Athanasius of Brest-Litovsk is an inspiring example for Orthodox Christians. He followed the path of Christ to the end, renouncing the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. He accepted voluntarily his martyrdom and prayed for his tormentors. As a model of courage, love and dedication in the defence of the faith, he is particularly revered among the clergy.
We can all find inspiration in the life of Saint Athanasius we are confronted with difficult moral choices in our lives. Staying on the side of righteousness is a struggle, but we can all take courage in his wisdom, honesty, integrity and deep faith as we invoke his name in our prayers.