The character arc is not one of my main priorities in short 64-pages biographies for children, focusing mainly on God’s doctrines and His hand on His church. It’s however important for the narrative and makes the characters more real and closer to us.
Athanasius starts out in the main story as a fiery, impulsive young bishop, ready to communicate, innovate, and most of all to uphold fiercely the doctrines he has been taught by his teacher, Alexander, as they have been confirmed by the Council of Nicea. He might have made mistakes at that point, certainly not as serious as his enemies said. After trying to defend himself at Tyre, he flees by night to talk to Emperor Constantine. He braves the seas in an unfavorable season, arrives in Constantinople ragged and tired and surprises the emperor by meeting him on the road without notice and in unseemly conditions. At first the emperor listens and agrees on his innocence, but when Athanasius’ enemies come up with new accusations, Athanasius snaps and tells Constantine that God will be the judge between them. Not the most diplomatic reply. So he is sent off to Trier on his first exile. That’s where the story really begins, with a young, impulsive, and worried man.
The story ends with a mature Athanasius, ready to blow off the worries over a pagan emperor by describing him as a little cloud which will soon pass. The sound of the ominous crows over the temple of Serapis is to him just a repetition of the Latin word “cras”. “Cras, cras”, meaning “tomorrow, tomorrow.” Tomorrow the cloud will be gone and the pagan temple too. Cras, cras.
In a meeting of bishops, a mature Athanasius is able to distinguish between what is really important and what can be put aside for the sake of unity. The three persons of the Trinity all share the same essence, yes. That’s important. They are not just similar to each other, they are really one God. But about the words we use to define that essence, he said that they didn’t really matter as long as everyone meant the same thing. That statement put an end to a long period of philosophical discussions, opening the doors to a resolution to the trinitarian crisis (mainly through the Cappadocian brothers).
In view of that, I revised my idea of what the last illustration in the book should be. The setting is the last time when Athanasius hid from his enemies, probably (according to some sources) in a family tomb. The original sketch (see pencil drawing above) showed him in a tomb with the light seeping in. Suddenly, however, I realized that it was not a good ending of his arc. Starting out as an impetuous young man, he concludes his life in the darkness of a tomb? The text emphasizes the happy ending, but I wanted the illustrations to do the same. So we got the idea of an open door. Open the door of the tomb and look outside! Yes, the enemies are still there. Arianism is spreading so much that Jerome has to cry, “We woke up to find the whole world turned Arian!” And while Athanasius was granted a few peaceful years at the end of his life, he was succeeded by an Arian bishop. Still, look at us today! We are confessing the Nicene Creed. We believe firmly that Christ is very God of very God, being of one substance with the Father. God has preserved his doctrine and his church, and will continue to do so until the end. We can open the door and look outside.