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St. Antony of Egypt: A Signpost for Our Times

(Memorial of St. Antony of Egypt, January 17)

We live in what seems increasingly with each passing day, precarious times. Lately, for the common individual, the one who has no societal clout, whose voice is just as likely to be silenced as to be championed given the whims of the powers that be, being paddled to and fro in a chaotic political ping pong match has become commonplace. It was not but a short four years ago that many were in a state of mourning over the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States. Now the very same emotion is drunk by his supporters, chasing the bitter taste with anger, while the other side stands and cheers, trumpeting the end of tyranny only to swiftly move in a direction that seems no less willing to tyrannically enforce its own ideals and silence those deemed deplorables. To shrug off such a situation as insignificant would be no less naïve than to totally succumb to it in despair. The moment, as all moments, is significant, and more to it, it is a gift. Dizzied as the societal roller coaster car that we have seemingly forcibly been strapped into careens to the point of derailment, the human person naturally searches for stability, for a landmark, a guidepost, a light in the darkness. And herein lies the gift, twofold in nature.

To be so wired as to seek to move from unrest to stability is itself grace. Individually and collectively, the human family was not meant for such unsatisfying disquiet in the soul, but rather for peaceful happiness. And thus our collective heart seeks rest, but where? These times, unlike any in recent memory, have proven that to put our hope and trust in a political party is a fool’s errand. Political power lasts but a moment, and when those with whom we have cast our lot are thrown from office we are tossed with them. It is not a matter of if, but when. The precarious nature of earthly comfort has been underlined and boldfaced. Thus we find the second grace. If we read the signs of the times we can see God’s hand at work, interiorly and exteriorly. Interiorly our heart yearns for peace and exteriorly it finds none in what is readily on offer. This, my friends, is the wonderfully hidden orchestral beauty of Divine Providence, directing all things toward unity in Christ, who as Eternal Word stands immovably as the source of created unity and who as Incarnate Son has planted His Cross as the unshakable signpost guiding the way through this valley of tears. The one whose focus is trained on this immovable marker, who takes hold of it and lovingly embraces it is the possessor of stability, and, more to it, a source of immense power.

I speak here of the saint. In his spiritual autobiography, Thomas Merton wrote: “People have no idea what one saint can do: for sanctity is stronger than the whole of hell. The saints are full of Christ in the plenitude of His Kingly and Divine power: and they are conscious of it, and they give themselves to Him, that He may exercise His power through their smallest and seemingly most insignificant acts, for the salvation of the world” (The Seven Storey Mountain, 256). If we want to explore how this works, we need look no further than the saint celebrated by the Church this weekend, St. Antony of Egypt.

St. Antony was born in the mid 3rd century in Lower Egypt. His biographer, the great St. Athanasius of Alexandria, makes mention of the fact that “his parents were well-born and possessed enough property to be self-sufficient,” before immediately going on to add that “because they were Christians, Antony was also brought up as a Christian” (Life of St. Antony, 1.1). In allowing no space between these two dimensions of Antony’s home and upbringing, Athanasius linguistically sets up a tension between the life of the world and the Christian life. Notice this is a tension and not a dichotomy. This tension remains present in the rest of Athanasius’s account of Antony’s life. For instance, Athanasius recounts how the young Antony was not interested in the typical Greek education of his fellow youth (The Life of St. Antony, 1.1), and how he ultimately gives away all of his parents wealth to the poor prior to setting out for life in the desert (The Life of St. Antony, 2.1-5). Thus the life of Antony of Egypt becomes a symbol, a signpost as it were, of how we are to use or order the things of this world as we make our way to our heavenly homeland. To note this tension is important, for many today upon hearing of the life of St. Antony will see in it simply a platonic flight from the world at work. However, this is a simple misunderstanding which becomes obvious if we attend carefully to the life of Antony as recounted by Athanasius, the exploration of which will shed light upon our own path forward amidst these particularly dark times.

In icons and paintings, Antony is often depicted with a book in hand which represents the Bible and speaks to the centrality of Scripture in the life of Antony. Upon Athanasius’s telling, it seems to have been a grace specially given to Antony by God that he was naturally attracted to the inspired text. Athanasius notes that in his childhood and youth, Antony “listened attentively to the readings from Scripture and kept in his heart what was profitable from them” (The Life of St. Antony, 1.3). Athanasius goes on to add that “he paid such close attention to the reading of Scripture that nothing in the Scriptures was wasted. He remembered everything, with the result that for him memory took the place of books” (The Life of St. Antony, 3.7), an astounding feat that became part of the saint’s memory as the story of his life was passed down through generations such that Augustine would later note it in the prologue to his own work on Scriptural interpretation, Teaching Christianity (P.4).

This last quote from Athanasius merits closer attention. The mention that Anthony “remembered everything” from Scripture is a reference to Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the sower in the Gospel of Luke. There, Our Lord tells his disciples that the good soil represents the ones “who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance” (Luke 8:15). The fruitful reception of the Word of Scripture plays itself out as St. Athanasius goes on to recount the life of St. Antony. As he does so, Athanasius will repeatedly make use of a Scriptural idiom to describe Antony’s life in an effort to communicate something of the greatest profundity to us. At times Athanasius’s use of Scripture to describe an episode of Antony’s life is more overt and sometimes more subtle. One particular episode draws these various uses together well. Athanasius recounts an episode where Antony and some other monks were travelling through the desert to visit another ascetic community and they run out of water. Athanasius writes that “when [Antony] saw that all of them were in danger of dying, he became very sad and groaned aloud; going off a little way from them, he knelt down, raised his hands, and prayed. Immediately the Lord caused water to bubble out from the spot where he had stopped to pray” (The Life of St. Antony, 54.4). The miracle of producing water in the middle of the desert is a clear allusion to the life of Moses, who by the power of God produced water out of rock to ensure that the People of Israel did not die of thirst as they made their way to the Promised Land (see Ex 17:1-7 & Nm 20:1-13).

In recounting this scene in the careful manner he has, Athanasius has a twofold message for us. First, he portrays Antony as a Scriptural figure, as one who had been so thoroughly formed by the inspired Word of God that it was as if he had walked right out of its pages. In doing so he presents Antony to us as someone of the greatest authority, for, shortly after recounting this episode we find Antony teaching a group of monks that came to him for advice “to learn by heart the precepts in the Scriptures, and to remember the works of the saints and with them zealously train the soul to be mindful of the commandments” (The Life of St. Antony, 55.3). Athanasius, then, is building layers of exemplarity, or examples, drawing lines from Scripture and the figures therein to the life of Antony and back again. For Athanasius, this is precisely the aim of the Scriptures, to draw us into the life of the inspired Word and make of us living sermons, if you will. Thus, he writes in another place that the lives of the saints recounted in Scripture are written to inspire those who hear of them and so move them to imitate their lives (A Letter to Marcellinus, 11). The reason this is so important is that in being drawn into the life of Scripture we are by necessity drawn into the drama of salvation.

This is seen if we attend to the second element to be noted from the miraculous water seen above. Athanasius writes that “going off a little way from them, [Antony] knelt down, raised his hands, and prayed” (The Life of St. Antony, 54.4). This is a clear reference, now living in the life of Antony, to the scene from the Garden of Gethsemane. There, the Synoptic evangelists tell us that after having told Peter and the Sons of Zebedee that he was deeply grieved and to remain awake with him, “going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want’” (Mt 26:38-39; cf. Mk 14:34-36 & Lk 22:39-42). What Athanasius is doing here is portraying Antony as a Christian in the truest sense of the word, i.e., as another Christ. This is not the only time he drops such a hint either. For instance, early on in The Life, Athanasius mentions the child Antony’s growth and advancing in age, a clear allusion to the same thing mentioned by Luke with respect to Christ (Lk 2:40 & 2:52). Similarly in the Prologue, Athanasius writes: “Regardless of how much this letter manages to set forth, however, even I shall be conveying to you only a small portion of [Antony’s] life,” echoing the end of the Gospel of John where the evangelist writes: “there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (Jn 21:25).

Examples such as this could be multiplied. The aim of each is to signify that by attending carefully to the words of Scripture, Antony is ever more deeply integrated into the life of Christ such that he, in turn, makes the life of Christ present to the world. Aside from the drawing of numerous Scriptural parallels, another major way this works itself out in Athanasius’s telling of the life of Antony is through the language of virtue. This, in fact, is the way Athanasius frames the entire work. The work itself is a response to a request by monks who have written Athanasius asking him to recount the life of Antony for them. After having noted these monks’ desire to ‘enter the contest of virtue,’ Athanasius confidently writes: “I know that even in hearing, along with marveling at the man, you will also want to emulate his purpose, for Antony’s way of life provides monks with a sufficient picture for ascetic practices” (The Life of St. Antony, P.1-3). Given all that has been said this may seem strange to our contemporary ears. We may ask ourselves, what is Athanasius’s aim here, to present a Scriptural figure or an exemplar of the moral life of virtue? For Athanasius as opposed to contemporary scholarship and even common-day use, the life of virtue and Scripture are synonymous. Elsewhere, he writes that “the entire of Holy Scripture is a teacher of virtues and of the truths of the faith…” (A Letter to Marcellinus, 14). The reason for this inherent relationship is that for Athanasius, although Christ is indeed the most perfect exemplar of virtue (A Letter to Marcellinus, 13), he is much more than this: Christ is virtue itself. Thus, in his work Against the Arians he writes that Christ “is a just judge and lover of virtue, or rather its dispenser” (Against the Arians, 1.52). In short, human virtue is nothing less than conformity and participation in the life of Christ (Against the Arians, 1.51).

This understanding of the life of virtue is made clear in his Life of St. Antony. For example, he writes: “For working with Antony was the Lord, who for us bore flesh and gave the body victory over the Devil so that each of those who struggle like Antony can say ‘It is not I but the grace of God that is in me’” (The Life of St. Antony, 5.7). In this it becomes apparent that Antony’s movement to the desert was not “withdrawal from the world for its own sake,” (The Life of St. Antony, 7.10), but to pursue intimacy with Christ precisely by striving for increased participation in his virtue. Thus Antony does not run away from the world so much as run to its very heart by seeking communion with Him in Whom all things were created and hold together (Col 1:16-17). That Antony was after following Christ is seen in that the passage from Scripture which initiated his journey to the desert was Matthew 19:21: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

This, of course, is precisely what Antony did, and as his movement into the desert led to increased conformity and participation with Him in Whom all things hold together, Antony acquired a gravitational force as well, many people going out to the desert to hear him teach and observe his way of life. The attractive force of Antony is attributed by Athanasius to his virtue. In living virtuously the saint exerts a spiritual force, or better, Christ exerts His force through them, thereby working “for the salvation of the world,” to quote Merton again (The Seven Storey Mountain, 256). This same idea is asserted by Athanasius at the end of The Life of St. Antony. There, he writes of the saints: “For even if these people work in secret, even if they wish to remain unknown, the Lord reveals them to everyone, like a lamp, so those who hear may also in the same way know that it is possible to carry out the commandments and may receive zeal for the road to virtue” (The Life of St. Antony, 93.5).

The world has always been tossed about by the powers that be. Antony’s time witnessed the last great outbreak of deadly Roman persecution of the Church under Maximin Daia as well as bitter rivalry within the Church between the Arians and those who would champion the orthodox faith at Nicaea (The Life of St. Antony, 46 & 69). In both cases, Antony did not stay hidden in the desert, but came out to work in solidarity with his Christian sisters and brothers, carrying the Kingdom of God within him and advancing its cause of reconciling all things in Christ in the process. Our situation isn’t all that different. Yet this need not trouble or paralyze us. We have been created in the image and likeness of a God Who desires nothing more than loving communion with us all, and, what’s more, He has rigged the game, for we will not be satisfied nor find our happiness in anything less. The great message of the life of St. Antony is that we have been created with the seed of this Kingdom within us, the seeds of virtue, and by attending to the words of Scripture and in cooperating with God’s grace we unleash the power of that Kingdom in the world (The Life of St. Antony, 20). No one can stop us save ourselves.

In the first instance the cause for change and peace in our world isn’t fought in courtrooms and certainly not on Capitol Hill. This is not to say that these debates aren’t important, but rather that the only thing we will have to bring to them is the constitution of our character. If our national debates and current events are any indication of what we as individuals and as a community have to offer, I’d say it’s a pretty self-evident truth that we have a lot of work to do. We need to engage in the struggle for a peaceful society on the battleground of the human heart, for only holiness incarnate in the life of individuals marks the path to a more peaceful and flourishing community. Let us follow the example of Antony, who demonstrates to us that the most powerful thing we can do is fight tooth and nail for holiness. Holiness, not politics, contains the power for the transformation of society, “for sanctity is stronger than the whole of hell” (The Seven Storey Mountain, 256).

Your servant in Christ,

Tony

4 thoughts on “St. Antony of Egypt: A Signpost for Our Times

    1. “…the fruits of the cross are the same as those of the tree of life which was planted in the Garden of Paradise.” —Blessed Basil Moreau, C.S.C.
      Ave Crux, Spes Unica!

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