Monday, July 8, 2013

Lesser Known Fathers II: St. Anthony of Egypt

On the Rad Trad's bedside table is a small statue of St. Anthony of Padua, a religious token inherited from his grandmother after her passing six years ago. Visitors to the Rad Trad's quarters insist that the image is St. Francis of Assisi, but no, the Rad Trad assures them, it is Anthony of Padua. Perhaps less known in our part of the world than St. Anthony of Padua is St. Anthony of Egypt, a great desert monk and a spiritual mentor of St. Athanasius, whose biography of Anthony is the source and basis for today's post.
St. Anthony was born to a moderately wealthy Christian family in Egypt years before the last great persecution of Christianity by the Romans. His rearing was introverted and the puerile saint had little interest in becoming a man of letters (ch. 1). After his parents' death Anthony entered a church and during a reading of St. Matthew's Gospel he heard the words "sell what you have and give to the poor and come follow Me" (19:21). Anthony immediately gave away his possessions to villagers and 300 acres of property to pursue an ascetic life.
Most interesting about St. Anthony's pursuit of an ascetic life is the time in which he did it. Asceticism is often interpreted as a substitute for martyrdom in the era following the legalization of Christianity. Anthony does not fit the bill. His desire was to pray without ceasing (3). His knowledge of faith and prayer he acquired from interacting with other holy men of God rather than from study (4); St. Anthony treated prayer as an action.
Anthony's desert asceticism differs from communal monasticism popularized by the Rule of St. Benedict. Ora et labora in community did not figure into the Egyptian saint's spiritual destiny. He went into the desert to lean more on God's grace, to have absolutely nothing in his life other than God. While this seems fine from a material standpoint, as there are no more temptations towards wealth or power, the spiritual battle intensifies. Much of St. Athanasius' biography recounts individual experiences and conflicts between St. Anthony and the Evil One. Early on Anthony learned that the Liar is intimidating, but rules over nothing that God's creates; the Liar's power exists in the cracks where he is permitted entry. Anthony even taunts a demon "You are very despicable then, for you are black-hearted and weak as a child" (6).
Throughout St. Anthony's early struggles against evil he trusted that what good he did was Christ's work and not his own (7). He took on a strict diet and daily prayer routine in imitation of the Prophet Elijah, considering the Prophet to be his "mirror."
Like the prophets of old and like the Israelites fleeing Pharaoh, the desert would be Anthony's battlefield against evil (13). He took up residence in an empty fortress on the Nile river for two decades of solitude. His life there eludes us. He did occasionally counsel other monks to take up a solitary life: "thus it happened in the end that cells arose even in the mountains, and the desert was colonized by monks, who came forth from their own people, and enrolled themselves for the citizenship in the heavens" (14). Here is a crucial point concerning eschatology: the Kingdom of God is not distant, but rather is immanently (I do not like that word) available to us now through the work of the Church. Monks like St. Anthony sought the fullest membership in this heavenly court.
The most important part of the biography, according to the Rad Trad's untrustworthy opinion, is an exhortation given to monks urging them to persevere against evil by training the eye on the Kingdom of God and its reward (16-17):
"We have lived in the discipline a long time: but rather as though making a beginning daily let us increase our earnestness. For the whole life of man is very short, measured by the ages to come, wherefore all our time is nothing compared with eternal life. And in the world everything is sold at its price, and a man exchanges one equivalent for another; but the promise of eternal life is bought for a trifle. For it is written, The days of our life in them are threescore years and ten, but if they are in strength, fourscore years, and what is more than these is labour and sorrow. Whenever, therefore, we live full fourscore years, or even a hundred in the discipline, not for a hundred years only shall we reign, but instead of a hundred we shall reign for ever and ever. And though we fought on earth, we shall not receive our inheritance on earth, but we have the promises in heaven; and having put off the body which is corrupt, we shall receive it incorrupt.
"Wherefore, children, let us not faint nor deem that the time is long, or that we are doing something great, 'or the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us-ward (Romans 8:18)'
Working for God yesterday does not mean one cannot work for God today, he continues (18). Judas took a day off from holy labor and undid any good from his time with Christ in one night. The solution is to take the human life, in all its chaos, and order every moment of it to Divine service. Service for God need not be exotic, as the Kingdom of Heaven is within, not without (20). Our battle, he quotes St. Paul's epistle to Ephesus, is against rulers of darkness, who influence every part of the world; we need not seek them (21). St. Anthony later likens demons to stage actors who cannot produce a rise, only a fright (28). "So then we ought to fear God only, and despise the demons, and be in no fear of them" (30).
Demons seem to be regular visitors in the desert, as they take center stage in Anthony's discourse with the monks. He warns the monks that some demons disguise themselves as angels. Angels, the monks must recall, created a fright at first and follow it by joy and awe of God as experienced by Abraham and Mary (36). Sneaky pseudo-angels, once the monk gains his senses and faculties, are easily dismissed by the three things they detest most:
  1. The Sign of the Cross
  2. Prayer
  3. Invocation of the Name of Christ
Eventually desert dwelling saint reveals that Satan, in a human form, once confessed to him that the Lord's power had filled Egypt with monks, lessening evil's dominion in the traditionally dim desert (41).
Fr. Lazarus el Anthony prays the Liturgy in the cave of St. Anthony every night.
The monks of the mountain receive gifts from a diverse array of visitors
and arrange them in the cave. Note the Sacred Heart picture on the altar and the
1970s Jesus above the priest's head! source: National Geographic
During the last great Roman persecution of Christianity St. Anthony unsuccessfully pursued martyrdom, but the Lord had other plans (46). Anthony, advancing in years, found a cave in a mountain in Thebaid, where Coptic monks live and celebrate liturgy to this day.
At his newfound mountain Anthony was joined by a coterie of monks who, suffering from their alienation from the caravans, tilled dirt and, with water from a stream, produced enough wheat to fashion bread (50). The lifestyle was minimalist.
St. Athanasius mentions the devil's attempts against St. Anthony in the form of beasts of the desert, a phenomenon some monks, such as Fr. Lazarus above, report continuing today (52-53).
The next dozen or so chapters cover more demons and some miracles of health attributed to Anthony. Then comes the Arian heresy. St. Anthony had little use for Arius or his followers, bidding his monks to ignore and repel the heretics at all cost: "For there is no communion between light and darkness" (69) he says, quoting 2 Corinthians 6:14. Anthony took a special interest in eradicating the delusions of over-education Greek pagans in Egypt—we must remember Alexandria, not Rome or Athens or Constantinople, was the cultural center of the Mediterranean world at this point. He derides them for scoffing at Christ to embrace fleeting and menial gods like Cronos and Isis: "For this is your wisdom. But how, if you mock the Cross, do you not marvel at the resurrection?" (75), a question applicable to many American pagans today. Ultimately faith is best presented, even to the Greeks, by the "inworking of God" rather than by argument, although the saint never shied from argument (77):
"You by your arguments and quibbles have converted none from Christianity to Paganism. We, teaching the faith of Christ, expose superstition, since all recognize that Christ is God and the Son of God. You by your eloquence do not hinder the teaching of Christ" (78).
Towards the end of his life the saint enjoyed minor correspondence with the Roman/Byzantine emperors, giving his approval to them for worshipping Christ (81) over the pagan gods of Rome's past.

At the end of his life he warned his followers to engage not in discussion with heretics and schismatics, but concentrated solely on God. He also asked that Egypt's custom of preserving the body of a venerable deceased and displaying it be foregone for him. He preferred a Christian burial (91). The author of the biography, St. Athanasius, inherited Anthony's sheepskin garment. He was buried in secret by two monks who never disclosed the place of the saint's repose.

In the last chapter St. Athanasius speaks to the monks of Egypt with words that summarize St. Anthony's life:
"[monks ought to] believe that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ glorifies those who glorify Him: and leads those who serve Him unto the end, not only to the Kingdom of Heaven, but here also—even though they hide themselves and are desirous of withdrawing from the world—makes them illustrious and well known everywhere on account of their virtue and the help they render to others."

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