In honor of St. Anthony the Great’s feast day, here’s a snippet from a post I wrote for the Church Life Journal a few months ago:
Antony of Egypt’s austere spiritual practices offer a unique understanding of the tension between work and grace. Athanasius states that Antony fasted intensely, wore the same clothing “until he died,” refused to shower, and never allowed anyone to see him naked while he was living. He also gives an extensive account of his numerous battles with demonic spirits. Athanasius claims that his extreme asceticism exacerbated the intensity of his bouts with temptation and further enticed these demonic spirits. To what extent was this extreme form of asceticism a “grace” given to Antony for his own salvation and for the sake of the Church, in the sense that John Paul II indicates in the Theology of the Body? Were these battles with evil forces beneficial, or even necessary, for his purification of heart? John Paul II speaks of enkrateia, the self-mastery of the flesh, so as to bring it under the domain of the spirit. Perhaps Antony’s asceticism overemphasized the “self-work” of enkrateia, obscuring the extent to which God is the ultimate source and end goal of purification of the flesh? It is clear from Athanasius’s account of Antony’s life that his retreat into the desert was divinely inspired, indicating that it was indeed a “grace.” He also is seen relying on God’s grace to do battle against demons and temptations. The fruits of these battles clearly serve the needs of the Church at large. But to what extent should his example be said to be normative of Christian asceticism?
Though Antony blatantly rejected Manicheism, his negative view toward the flesh can be said to capitulate to dualistic conceptions of the person. According to G.K. Chesterton, this “ascetic appetite” is an appetite in itself. It is part of a “religious impulse” in man that inevitably veers toward a pessimistic attitude toward the flesh. This impulse takes form both inside of the Church and outside; he cites Manicheism, the Hindu fakirs, and Schopenhauerian philosophy as examples. The early ascetics of the desert were driven by this same impulse, but were profoundly different in that they adhered to the authority of the Church. The authority of the Church flows directly from the Incarnation, in whom the Church’s anthropology finds its source and fulfillment. The Church’s anthropology, which affirms the goodness of the flesh, guaranteed to keep this “impulse” in check.
Antony, though physically removed from the authority of the Church, had a great reverence for the bishops and other clergy, who often sought ought Antony’s advice. As the ascetic movement continued, a greater emphasis was placed on communal life guided by a spiritual authority. Pachomius, a desert father who began his ascetic journey nearly forty five years after Antony, composed a monastic rule that consists of a series of directives regarding the daily life and dynamics of a monastic community. These directives range in content matter, dealing with prayer schedules, norms for dining, and proper decorum for relationships between fellow monks and with the spiritual father. Pachomius’s communities valued an intense prayer life and strict obedience to the Rule and to the authority of the leader.