The Life and Struggles of Our Holy Mother Among the Saints Athanasia of Antioch and Egypt
Our holy Mother Athanasia was the wife of Andronicos, a money-dealer by trade. This God-chosen couple was from the great city of Antioch. The year was 594. Though he was wealthy with the good things of this world, yet he was devout and replete with good works. He took Athanasia, a modest and God-beloved woman, in marriage. The couple was in agreement pertaining to every good and God-pleasing deed; and thus, they divided their wealth in thirds. One-third was abundantly and ungrudgingly distributed as alms among the poor; one-third was lent out as loans, without interest or gain to those in need; and the final one-third was allocated to their occupation, so they might earn their livelihood. Their marriage produced two children, John and Mary. After the birth of these children, they chose to live virtuously and chastely; thus, they mutually agreed to cease marital relations. Their continence, however, was joined to prayer, ministering to the poor, and visiting the sick.
The Children's Death
Twelve years passed since the birth of their children. When they reached an age which brings joy to parents, both children died on the same day. Upon their death, in no wise did Andronicus comport himself in an unmanly fashion; much rather, the memorable one said with Job: "I myself came forth naked from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither" [Job 1:21].
On the other hand, Athanasia mourned inconsolably for her children. Since the children were buried at the Church of the Holy Martyr Julian, she had no wish to leave that place and said, "Here, too, I desire to die and be buried with my children!" Andronicos then went to the Patriarch at the patriarchate that he might be comforted and advised since Athanasia would in no wise leave the church.
Athanasia remained at the church lamenting and weeping in great distress. At midnight, in her sleep, the Martyr Julian appeared to her in monk's garb, and said, "What is it, O woman, that thou dost weep? Why dost thou not leave them(the children) here that they might find rest?" Athanasia answered, "O master, do not charge me, thy handmaiden, for I have much pain and sorrow, since, today, I buried my only two children." To these words, the martyr answered, "Do not weep for them, because I tell thee, O woman, just as it is natural for man to seek food and it is impossible for him not to feed himself, in like manner children seek those good things from God. They oblige the Master to render unto them this very day those future good things, when they say, 'O Righteous Jude, O Lord, though Thou hast deprived us of those earthly good things, yet do not deprive us of Thy good things.'" Hearing these moving words, Athanasia's sorrow changed to joy, and she said, "Therefore, my children live in the heavens; why then should I weep?"
Athanasia then turned about and sought the monk that spoke these words. She went all about the church to find him, and then asked the doorkeeper, "Where is that monk who just passed by here?" The doorkeeper, surmising that she beheld a vision, replied, "Behold, all the doors are secured, and dost thou ask me where is the monk?"
Athanasia, fearing, returned to her home and related to her husband all that she saw and heard. She then asked him to let her enter a convent. Andronicos received her words with joy, because it was his desire also to take up the monastic life.
Thereafter, they distributed the remainder of their wealth among the poor. They then bought the freedom of their slaves. Andronicos left the rest of his property to his father-in-law, enjoining him to build a hospital and hostelry for monastics.
The Holy Couple Leave Home
The holy couple then took a little money for their expenses on the road. By night, the couple departed Antioch; but from a distance, Athanasia looked at her home. She then raised her hands to heaven, and said, "My Lord God Who said to Abraham and Sarah, 'Go forth out of thy land and out of thy kindred....and come into the land which I shall show thee' [Gen. 12:1], do Thou, guide us in Thy fear.'
"Behold, we have left our house open and have departed for Thy name's sake; therefore, do not close the door of Thy Kingdom to us." Then the two of them wept and left their homeland.
They arrived in Jerusalem and worshipped at the holy places. They also visited many holy fathers. After Jerusalem, they left for Egypt, towards the famed Abba Daniel.
The Holy Couple Separate
They confided in Abba Daniel their intention and besought him to guide them on the road of salvation. Therefore, he sent Athanasia to a convent of the Tabennesiotes, but Andronicos he kept with him and vested him with the Angelic Schema of the monastics. Andronicos then dwelt twelve full years in obedience to Abba Daniel.
After the passage of this time, Fr. Andronicos besought Abba Daniel's leave to go again to Jerusalem that he might worship a second time at the holy places. Abba Daniel gave his blessing; thus, Andronicos departed.
The Journey to Jerusalem
At some point when the venerable Andronicos walked along the road in Egypt, he sat under a tree to find a little rest from the desert heat. Behold now the dispensation of God! His wife Athanasia, at that very moment, was traveling the same road to Jerusalem. She had dressed in men's garb as a monk and had taken the name of Athanasios.
After they greeted each other, Athanasia recognized the other monk to be Andronicos; however, Andronicos, in no wise, recognized her. This is because her beauty withered from extreme asceticism, so now she appeared very dark complexioned, as an Ethiopian. Athanasia then asked, "Where art thou going, milord, abba?" Andronicos answered, "To the holy places." She then said, "I am going there also." He then asked, "Dost thou wish to walk together?" Athanasia replied, "Yea, verily, as thou hast determined; but we must walk the road maintaing silence, as though I were not with thee." Andronicos responded, "Just as thou hast determined, we shall proceed keeping silent."
Athanasia then asked him, "Art thou not the disciple of Abba Daniel?" Andronicos answered, "Yea." She then continued, and said, "Art thou not called Andronicos?" He said, "Yes, I am." She then said, "May the blessings of the elder accompany us on the road." And Andronicos responded, "Let it be! Amen."
In this manner, therefore, the two traveled in silence to Jerusalem. After they venerated the holy places, they returned in silence to Alexandria. Then Athanasia said to Andronicos, "Dost thou wish to remain together in one cell?" Andronicos answered, "As thou hast said, let us abide together. However, I must first go and seek the permission and blessing of my elder." She replied, "Go, and I shall await thee by the monastery at the eighteenth milestone (from Alexandria). If thou can endure to abide with me in silence, as when we walked to and from Jerusalem, I welcome thee. However, if thou canst not abide in silence, do not come."
Andronicos then went to his elder, Abba Daniel, and disclosed the matter to him. By Andronicos' words, the elder understood the great advances in virtue made by Athanasios. Therefore, he gave Andronicos permission, and said, "God, love quiet and abide with that brother, since he is truly what a monk ought to be."
Andronicos then trekked back and remained with Athanasia for twelve years, without knowing that she was his spouse. The two dwelt together as angels in the monastic state. They added to virtue, as they ascended in holiness and divine love. Ofttimes, Abba Daniel visited the two of them and spoke with them soul-benefitting counsels.
The Repose of the Saints
One time, during a visit of Abba Daniel, after he spoke at length with them, he bade them farewell and started his return trip back to his cell. Then the holy Andronicos ran after him and, overtaking him, said, "Abba Athanasios is sick unto death and shall go unto the Lord." The elder returned and found Athanasios suffering from a high temperature. When she beheld the elder, she began to weep. The elder then said, "Why dost thou weep? Instead, thou ought to rejoice because thou goest to enjoy the Lord." She answered, "I do not weep for myself, but for Abba Andronicos. Therefore, I beseech thee, when thou wilt bury me, check nearby my head and thou shall find a written tablet. Read it and afterwards give it to Abba Andronicos."
After the three of them prayed, the blessed Athanasia communicated the undefiled Mysteries. She then fell asleep in the Lord. Abba Daniel found the writting-tablet and read it. By this he knew that she, the ever-memorable Athanasia, was the spouse of Andronicos. When the holy Andronicos read the tablet, he wept and embraced the holy relics in wonder and awe. Then, when they prepared her holy relics, it was surely discovered that she was not a man, but a woman.
The entire Lavra heard these tidings. Whereupon, Abba Daniel informed the brethren, including those fathers dwelling in the inner desert and the lavrites. He also notified all the monasteries of Alexandria and the city itself. Hence, all converged at Scete to inter her holy relics.
All the Scetiotes wore white garments because this was their custom when they buried one of the brethren. It was a symbol of victory against the three enemies: the flesh, the world and its ruler, and the devil. In a procession, they filed before the honorable relics of blessed Athanasia bearing palms and branches. She was interred with extreme reverance, glorifying God Who gave great patience to the holy woman. Abba Daniel remained by the relics to perform seven memorial services for the saint.
After the memorial services were completed, Abba Daniel wished to depart and take Abba Andronicos with him. However, Abba Andronicos did not wish to follow him, and said, "Here I wish to die together with my lady Athanasia!" The elder then bid him farewell and departed.
Not much time passed when a brother came and said to Abba Daniel, "Abba Andronicos follows Abba Athanasios; therefore, assemble." Whereupon, all the fathers hastened and arrived while he was yet living. After Andronicos gave his blessing to them, then the ever-memorable man fell asleep in the Lord.
Upon his repose, a contention and opposition arose as to which group would receive the sacred relics of the holy Andronicos. One faction represented the dwellers of the monastery at the eighteenth milestone; whereas, the other group included the Scetiotes. Only with constraint was Abba Daniel able to quell the rivalry when he said that Andronicos should be buried at the monastery at the eighteenth milestone together with his co-struggler, the holy woman, that is, Athanasia. Thus, he was buried there, to the glory of the God over all. Amen. Both husband and wife are commemorated on the same day by the Holy Church, the 9th of October.
Source: The Lives of the Spiritual Mothers, (Holy Apostles Convent, 1991), pp. 466-474