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St. Anthony of Padua: Finding Human Dignity-Pt. 2

As we saw at the end of the first part of this reflection, over the course of the first part of his life, Anthony (born Fernando), had gone from being a wealthy and well-known elite to the obscurity of monastic life in the hills of Tuscany. In part, Anthony wound up in such remote obscurity intentionally, he loved seclusion and peace, and therefore when first arriving in Sicily, didn’t allow people to know his very learned background which might force him into more public work. That said, while Anthony had once overplayed his humility, God now wrote straight with crooked lines, giving Anthony the chance to enter the world incognito, as it were, in a manner similar to His Son, and simultaneously affording him the opportunity to cultivate a more authentic humility through obedience to those around him.

As a member of the small Franciscan community in Tuscany, Anthony said daily Mass for the monks according to the task given him by the Franciscan Provincial of Bologna, Fr. Gratian. In addition, he joined the monks in all of their daily labor, “counting it a privilege to do so” (Ibid., 22). Toiling away for love in anonymity, the monks with Anthony had no idea who he was or what he was capable of. Yet, God would not suffer His plans for Anthony to be thwarted. You see, despite Anthony’s desire for anonymity, God had opened the eyes of Fr. Gratian, and in the times he spent with Anthony, noted both his fervent love for the faith “as well as the gleams of uncommon intelligence which Anthony was not always able to disguise” (Ibid., 25). It was through Fr. Gratian acting as the instrument of Divine Providence that the evangelical power of the “Hammer of the Heretics” would be unleashed into the world.

 Fr. Gratian invited Anthony to the Ordination Mass for the Franciscans and Dominicans of the Diocese. The Bishop had had asked Fr. Gratian to preach on the vocation to the priesthood on the occasion. However, Fr. Gratian had been inspired. He offered the opportunity to preach to some of the Benedictine monks present, who, “being unprepared, refused to speak on so solemn an occasion” (25). An awkward pause in the liturgy swelled to silent cacophony, when Fr. Gratian silenced the hearts of the crowd by completely unexpectedly asking Anthony if he would preach. Anthony, of course, demurred, saying “that he was fitter to serve in the refectory than to preach to the learned who were present” (Ibid., 26). Thereupon, Fr. Gratian ordered Anthony to preach, and, more specifically, to preach on the passage from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: “Christ became for us obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross” (Phil. 2:8). No less obedient than humble, Anthony consented, and the scene that followed changed his life. No amount of nerves or lack of confidence could hide Anthony’s love for Scripture and the Son of God it proclaimed, and the love unleashed by his tongue penetrated the heart of everyone present:

In a torrent of eloquence that thrilled and amazed his listeners, he developed his discourse with the skill of a logician, the art of an orator, the charm of one predestined to the pulpit; and brought his last period to a conclusion amidst a chorus of enthusiastic approbation. On the instant he found himself conspicuous in a life of probity—the life he had sought in vain to fly from (Ibid., 27).

After the event, Anthony was called upon once again, this time by St. Francis, who having heard of what took place gave Anthony a new twofold mission: 1) To preach whenever and wherever the opportunity presented itself, and 2) To devote himself more intensely to the study of theology so that he could educate the Friars (Ibid., 28). Anthony, ever obedient, did both, giving himself away completely through these tasks for the rest of his short life.  

So fully did Anthony dedicate himself to preaching the Gospel and teaching theology rooted in Sacred Scripture that when naming him a Doctor the Church Universal, Pope Pius XII poured upon him numerous titles that spoke to his devotion to the Word of God: the Ark of the Testament, the cabinet of the Sacred Scriptures, the hammer of the heretics, and finally, the “Evangelical Doctor” of the Church (Pius XII, Apostolic Letter, Exulta, Lusitania Felix). Of all of these titles, perhaps the most important for us to attend to today is “the Hammer of the Heretics.” I say this because the heresies which Anthony preached against have found echo in the various atrocities we see committed against human dignity today. Anthony faced numerous heretical groups including the Albigenses, all of which were various attempted revivals of Manichaeism (Stoddard, Saint Anthony, 35). The Manichaean heresy was known for many practices and many beliefs which undermined human dignity, including the existence of a principle of evil equal to God paired with a denial of human responsibility for evil driven by fatalism. As part of this system of beliefs, these heretical groups denied the authenticity of the Old Testament, thereby undermining the very goodness of creation and the unity of Scripture as a whole. These Manichaean beliefs were all forcefully refuted by Anthony through his evangelical efforts, relying heavily on the Old Testament in order to unveil the mistruths of these groups (Rohr, The Use of Sacred Scripture in the Sermons of St. Anthony of Padua, 37-38).

Anthony’s corpus, while not often recognized as such, set the stage for many great theologians of the Franciscan tradition, including none other than the Seraphic Doctor himself, St. Bonaventure (Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, 10 February 2010). A detailed look at all the riches Anthony has to offer us in his sermons would take volumes. However, a brief look at how he expounds the Sacred Page tells us much of how we ought to go about finding our lost human dignity today.

In accordance with the exegetical tradition stretching back to Origen and solidified by Augustine, Anthony interprets the Scripture through the four sense method: the literal, allegorical, tropological (moral), and anagogical (having to do with ultimate ends or the telos of human life). Nearly always beginning and anchoring his preaching in the literal sense, Anthony spends most of his efforts detailing the tropological, or moral sense of Scripture (Rohr, The Use of Sacred Scripture in the Sermons of St. Anthony of Padua, 54). Why is this? Put simply, as all the saints exemplify, for Anthony it wasn’t enough to know the Scriptures, one had to live them. In fact, he would undoubtedly agree that if one did not live the Scriptures, one did not truly know them. For the Scriptures, if truly taken into one’s heart, cannot help but be manifested in a life of Christian virtue. Just as Mary once conceived the Word of God within and gave birth to Him in the world, so ought every Christian manifest the Word of God in word and deed.

In his sermons, Anthony is very attentive to imagery, and often connects various passages of Scripture based on the images used. Anthony’s interpretation likewise makes much use of imagery, and one image he seems to be fond of is the mirror. Attending to his use of mirror imagery will both demonstrate the four senses of Scripture he used in his exegetical method, and demonstrate why, for St. Anthony, if we are to find our lost human dignity, we must attentively look to the mirror of Scripture.

Literally, a mirror simply presents one’s reflection to oneself. As we have had occasion to explore elsewhere, gazing into a mirror presents us to ourselves as we are, what’s good and what could be improved. However, because created in the image and likeness of God, in order to see what we have been created to be, we must look into a mirror that presents us with an image of how that image is lived out, as well as how it can go wrong. For St. Anthony, the only mirror which accomplishes this is the mirror of Scripture:

Mirror-glass represents Holy Scripture, in whose light we see “the face of our birth,” we see whence we were born, what we are born, and to what end we are born. Whence, referring to the lowliness of the matter we are made of; what, referring to the frailty of our nature; to what end, referring to the dignity and glory with which we shall shine, like reflections of the true son which is so near, if we be doers of the word (Sermon for the Fifth Sunday After Easter, 7, my emphasis).

Notice the movement here, Scripture shows us where we come from, what our purpose is, and that we can only fulfill that purpose by being “doers of word.” Anthony, of course, exemplified this in his own life. One scene in particular stands out here.

One day, Anthony asked one of the brothers to accompany him in preaching the Gospel. The two went forth, and then returned. Throughout the whole thing, Anthony never said one word. Upon their return, the brother turned to Anthony and asked: “Why have you not preached?” To which Anthony replied, “We have preached: our modest looks and the gravity of our behavior are as a sermon unto those who have followed us with their eyes” (Stoddard, Saint Anthony, 37). No doubt, this is an echo of the phrase often attributed to St. Francis, preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words. Of course, words are necessary, that’s not the point. The point is that no number of words will mean anything at all if one does not practice what one preaches. This is a message Anthony often levels against the clergy of his day, telling them repeatedly that they undermine the Gospel and seemingly confirm the teachings of the heretics through their vicious behavior, adding that in doing so, they steal the food of the Gospel from the tables of believers (Sermon for the Tenth Sunday After Pentecost, 9). A message that unfortunately remains timely. And this, not only for clergy, but for all the faithful, who through our lack of holiness contribute to the disbelief of the world (Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, 19), and therefore a culture which undermines human dignity. Thus, we must gaze into the mirror of Scripture if we are to avoid that which undermines human dignity and find that which fulfills it.

When we do so attentively, Anthony teaches us, what we find permeating the whole of Sacred Scripture, is Christ. Anthony felt in his bones the truth that would be so eloquently put by the Second Vatican Council, “that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light…Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling dear” (Gaudium et Spes, 22). Thus, in turning our gaze upon the Cross of Christ, Anthony implores us to the deepest truth of our human dignity:

So, thy life shall be hanging before thee, as you look at yourself in it as in a mirror. There you can recognize how mortal were your wounds, that no medicine could cure, except the blood of the Son of God. If you have looked well, you will have been able to recognize how precious and excellent you are, for whom such priceless blood was shed. No man can better understand his own worth, than in the mirror of the Cross, which shows you how you should bring low your pride, mortify your unruly flesh, pray to the  Father for those who persecute you, and commend your spirit into his hands (Sermon for the Feast of the Finding of the Holy Cross, 7, my emphasis).   

Christ, is our Life in a twofold interrelated sense for Anthony. First, he is our life in the sense that only in Him do we live and move and have our being at all, and second, he is our life in the sense that by having been truly united to Him in the sacraments through which He reaches out to us today, we are to live as Him, and to be His very presence in the world today. Thus, for Anthony, looking into the mirror of Scripture has a twofold affect. First, it reveals our ugliness or deformity to us, moving us to sorrow (Ibid.; cf. Sermon for the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, 10), for we do not, as Hans Urs von Balthasar says, know how to nor are capable of loving as we should (Love Alone is Credible, 66-67). However, far from being a cause for despair and of driving us away, for Anthony the overwhelming love we see manifested on the Cross pulls us in, instilling within us a desire to love in kind, just as the young Fernando had once been moved to love the Blessed Virgin by seeing his parents’ love for her, especially his mother.

This movement from within does not set us out on an easy path to free love, rather, there is only one path, and it is the arduous Way of the Cross. Only on this path do we learn from Christ what it means to love fully, and therefore live according to our dignity as creatures created in imago Dei. Taking up our Cross and following Christ is, no doubt, difficult, it is a leaving everything we knew before behind, just as the young Fernando had to do. But it is precisely here, when we leave the rat race behind and take our place at Christ’s side that the Crucified One Who sets an unreachably high bar in terms of perfection (Matt. 5:48), now comes to our side and gently takes our hand as an unfailing source of encouragement, grace, and mercy.

As he strove tirelessly to give himself away completely through the talents God had given him, Anthony experienced a moment of gentle intimacy with God of the kind He reserves only for a very select few. It is this moment which inspire much of the artwork depicting the Doctor from Padua. The event is said to have taken place on a night when Anthony had spent the day hearing confessions in the city and into the night past the hour when the city gates were closed, forcing him to seek shelter with one of the families of the city. After finding a place to stay, Anthony is said to have retired to his bedroom and began his routine of prayer which often lasted long into the night. “His host, who weas in an adjoining apartment, was startled by a light as of a conflagration that poured from under the door of Anthony’s room” (Stoddard, Saint Anthony, 66). Wishing to see what was going on, but not wanting to disturb his guest, the host peered into Anthony’s room via the slight opening in the door, and what he saw filled him with awe and wonder:

Anthony knelt at a table where a large volume lay open; upon the volume, or above it, stood a child of such surpassing loveliness that the gazer’s heart leaped within him…The body of the infant was effulgent…The radiant being seemingly reposed upon the air; and, from a soft veil of vapor that emitted a celestial fragrance, he leaned fondly upon the bosom of the friar, and with hands of exquisite loveliness, delicately caressed him (Stoddard, Saint Anthony, 67).

It is unlikely any of us will ever be given the grace of such an extraordinary experience. Yet, we too experience profound intimacy with Christ, we hear Him speak to us through the Scriptures, and feel His touch every time we receive the Eucharist. As it did in Anthony, experiencing real intimacy with Christ only enkindles a desire within us for further and deeper intimacy. And, while increased intimacy with God is always graced, it nevertheless requires human effort. For Anthony, we strive for intimacy with Christ by cultivating a life of Christian virtue, which for him are nothing less than the fruits of the Holy Spirit within us (Sermon for the Solemnity of Pentecost, 16). What’s more, we experience increased intimacy in the very striving, and it is by living out the fruits of this intimacy that the power of the Holy Spirit is made manifest to the world through our bodies (Ibid., 3).   

For Anthony, as for his great predecessor, the Doctor of Grace, St. Augustine of Hippo, first and foremost among the virtues are humility and obedience. This is because humility overcomes pride, that most basic of vices and root of all sin. Whereas pride inclines us to see ourselves as above it all in a false imitation of God (superbia: super=above & bios=life), humility (humus=earth, ground), helps us to live according to our nature. As we have seen, this nature is found in our being created in nothing less than God’s image. Thus, to humility we add obedience, for obedience helps us to follow example of Him Who Is the Image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15), and thereby come to reflect and make God’s life present in a totally unique way in our world. To do so is nothing less than to preach the Gospel of Life at all times, for it enfleshes the One Who Is Life in our midst.

To live according to this image is to conform ourselves to what is presented to us in the mirror of Scripture. And we do so in the hopes that all are motivated to enjoy and take part in the love they see manifest so that one day, reflections may give way to reality in the heavenly kingdom:

So it will be in eternal life; my glory will be your refreshment and joy, and vice versa. In that clear glory there will be such a transparency of bodies that I can see myself in your face as in a mirror, and you yours in mine; and from this will arise an inexpressible love (Sermon for the Feast of Sts. Philip and James, 3).  

Perfect peace, perfect unity, perfect love. Such perfection is the only fitting environment for the imago Dei, created in the image of the triune God who is an eternal exchange of unbroken harmonious Love. In preaching this message of mirrors, Anthony helps us to find our human dignity. For, to the degree that we live according to the image of God implanted in us by nature, we undermine the culture of death from within and give rise to a culture of life where human dignity is recognized and cultivated to flourishing, giving us a foretaste of that everlasting Kingdom where all divisions are overcome, and God will be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28).

Your servant in Christ,

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