Be Humble, Remember Those Who Faced Greater Challenges Than Us

Temptation of Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Temptation of Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
He also said, “God does not allow the same warfare and temptations to this generation as he did formerly, for men are weaker now and cannot bear so much.”[1]

It would be easy to misconstrue this saying of St. Anthony if we ignore the context in which it was stated. When Anthony first entered the desert to become a hermit, Christians were still being persecuted and executed by Roman authorities.  At one point, Anthony returned to the city to minister to those imprisoned by Roman officials, hoping he would find his place with the martyrs:

After this the Church was seized by the persecution which then took place under Maximinus, and when the holy martyrs were led to Alexandria, Antony also followed, leaving his cell, and saying, Let us go too, that if called, we may contend or behold them that are contending. And he longed to suffer martyrdom, but not being willing to give himself up, he ministered to the confessors in the mines and in the prisons. And he was very zealous in the judgment hall to stir up to readiness those who were summoned when in their contest, while those who were being martyred he received and brought on their way until they were perfected. The judge, therefore, beholding the fearlessness of Antony and his companions, and their zeal in this matter, commanded that no monk should appear in the judgment hall, nor remain at all in the city. So all the rest thought it good to hide themselves that day, but Antony gave so little heed to the command that he washed his garment, and stood all next day on a raised place before them, and appeared in his best before the governor. Therefore when all the rest wondered at this, and the governor saw and passed by with his array, he stood fearlessly, showing the readiness of us Christians. For, as I said before, he prayed himself to be a martyr, wherefore he seemed as one grieved that he had not borne his witness. But the Lord was keeping him for our profit and that of others, that he should become a teacher to many of the discipline which he had learned from the Scriptures. For many only beholding his manner of life were eager to be imitators of his ways. So he again ministered as usual to the confessors, and as though he were their fellow captive he laboured in his ministry.[2]

When the persecutions ended, Anthony returned back to his monastic cell.  With new vigor for his ascetic  labors, he intended to become a “martyr to his conscience” even if he had not become a martyr for Christ.[3]

After the peace established by St. Constantine, Christians found themselves living in relative ease. They were not being tried with the challenges that the potential for martyrdom brought to the faith. They had, in many respects, become lax. It is within this context that this saying of Anthony must be understood. He was talking with the monks who followed him into the desert after the conversion of Constantine. They did not face the same challenges as previous generations of Christians encountered. They did not risk their lives by being Christian. There were new challenges, to be sure, as the conflict between orthodoxy with the Arians demonstrated, but for most who went into the desert, such struggles were left behind. Certainly, in later generations, as monks found themselves as the heart of ecclesial struggles, this would no longer be the case, but at the time when Anthony was still helping establish the desert community, the monks were relatively distant from ecclesial politics, and so they found themselves in a relatively congenial situation.

Christians, and not just the monks Anthony spoke to, had less external challenges to face. The ease of external peace made Christians complacent, and so even those like the monks, who tried to live up to the heritage of the struggles of the past by being martyrs of conscience like Anthony, found what challenged them, and therefore, the accomplishments they made were less than those who lived during the time of the martyrs. For just as steel is hardened through the tempering process, where the steel finds itself heat up then quickly cooled off, so Anthony knew and saw how the heat of the persecution helped in the strengthening of the Christian spirit; with it lacking, with only the coolness of peace, what would be forged in the spiritual struggle would likely to be weaker, brittle, and easily broken.

For this reason, God, knowing that Christians had become weakened through peace, did not give the same challenges and expectations to those born early in the Constantinian era. This was going to change, as new forms of persecution, new forms of trial were going to be found for Christians, but at the time Anthony spoke, those were in the future. History will show that Christians often faced such trials in cycles. Some are born in relatively peaceful times, and are not tempered and spiritually hardened, and so experience lesser trials, trials which they can bear and prove their love but trials which also amount to a lower form of glory. In times of peace, it is not surprising then Christians become weak, indeed, tainted by the luxuries of the world, until at last they find themselves undermined and challenged by the consequences of their sin.

The value and importance of this saying is that Anthony wanted to remind his monastic audience that, in a time of peace, they might be struggling, and doing some good, but they must be humble in their work and remember that at other times Christians, many who were not monks, lived a holier life, achieving greater virtues thanks to the struggles they faced while remaining within society itself. Being a monk is a way to try to engage those virtues, to harden oneself against sin, but for all that, humility has to be kept to the forefront, with the realization that monasticism as a vocation is derivative, it is a way to try to embrace the path of the martyrs when martyrdom is not likely. Its challenges are less than those martyrs faced, so its accomplishments are less.

The lesson here is good for all of us. While we might not be monks, and so not engaging the struggles monks faced, we still are called to follow Christ, to live up to the ideals which he taught. One of the key principles he promoted was of humility. Those who take pride in what they do and look down upon others for not doing the same need to remember that others have done far better, far greater things than they; it is better to look up to God in humble love and thank him for his grace than it is to look down upon others for not achieving what we have done.

We are not as great as we think ourselves to be. We can look to the past and see examples of greatness, and in doing so, remind ourselves of how weak we are, of how far we are from true holiness, and so thank God for his mercies that he does not try us beyond what we can bear. For this is how we should always be, thankful to God, knowing that what trials and tribulations we face are tempering us for his service, making us greater if we let his love fire us up, but if we come to it thinking ourselves already great, the fire will come and reveal our imperfections and what is established will be brittle and break. Let us, therefore, cast aside the imperfections of pride so that we can be truly tempered by God, ready to be put in action at his, not our, will.


 

[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 6.

[2] St. Athanasius, “Life of Antony” in NPNF2(4):208-9.

[3] ibid., 209.

 

 

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