As I’ve written before, I’m a big fan of the Desert Fathers. Today, we celebrate St. Anthony the Great. Anthony is really the Godfather of all the Desert Fathers and the person responsible for starting the formation of Christian monastic orders. I love the following saying attributed to him, because it seems to hit home with how I often feel these days, despite the fact that this was said over 1600 years ago:
Abba Anthony said: “A time is coming when people will go mad and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, “You are mad because you are not like us.”
Yes, we are living in interesting times. And what an interesting person! A role model even of St. Francis of Assisi. Take a look at what Thomas Merton has to say about Abbot Anthony from his book The Wisdom of the Desert.
In the 4th century AD the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia and Persia were peopled by a race of men who left behind them a strange reputation. They were the first Christian hermits, who abandoned the cities of the ancient Roman world to live in the solitude and silence of the desert. Why did they do this? The reasons were many and various, but they can all be summed up in one brief phrase: the quest for salvation. Among these men (and women!) the life and witness of St. Anthony the Great is unique.
St. Anthony, called “the father of monasticism”, was born in central Egypt about 251 AD, the son of peasant farmers who were Christian. In circa 269, he heard the Gospel being read in Church and applied to himself the words of Jesus to the rich man: “Go, sell all that you have, give it to the poor and come, follow Me.” He sold everything he owned, gave the proceeds to the poor and devoted himself to a life of asceticism under the guidance of a recluse living on the outskirts of his village.
Around 285 AD he went alone into the desert to live in complete solitude. It was in this solitude and silence that Anthony heard clearly the Word of God for his life. After 20 years in solitude, Anthony emerged “as one initiated into the mysteries of God and inspired by the Holy Spirit (he became) a physician given by God to Egypt through whom the Lord healed many people.” He died at the age of 105 in 356 AD and his biography, written by St. Athanasios (whose memory the Orthodox Church celebrate on January 18th, and the Catholic Church on May 2nd) created an immediate literary and theological sensation throughout the ancient world.
What can we, more than 1500 years later, learn from Anthony’s witness? What is the meaning of his flight from society into the desert? First, society—which meant classical Roman pagan society, limited by the horizons and prospects of life “in this world” – was regarded by Anthony and the many other desert fathers and mothers as a shipwreck from which each had to swim for their lives.
These were men and women who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the non-Christian tenets of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster. These Coptic hermits—for Anthony—like so many of his brothers and sisters, was a Copt and spoke no Greek or Latin—who left the world as though escaping from a shipwreck, did not merely intend to save themselves. They knew that they were helpless to do any good for others as long as they floundered about in the wreckage. But once they got a foothold on solid ground, things were different. Then they had not only the ability but even the obligation to pull the world to safety after them. Perhaps we cannot do exactly what Anthony did. But we must be as thorough and as ruthless in our determination to break our spiritual chains, cast off the domination of alien compulsions and find our true selves in Christ Jesus.
Some sayings of St. Anthony the Great:
When the same Abba Anthony thought about the depth of the judgments of God, he asked, “Lord, how is it that some die when they are young, while others drag on to extreme old age? Why are there those who are poor and those who are rich? Why do wicked men prosper and why are the just in need?” He heard a voice answering him, “Anthony, keep your attention on yourself; these things are according to the judgment of God, and it is not to your advantage to know anything about them.”
Abba Anthony said: “This is the work of a great man: always to take responsibility for his own sins before God and to expect temptations until his last breath.”
He also said: “Whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it in accordance with the testimony of the Holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved.”
Abbe Pambo asked Abba Anthony, “What ought I to do?” and the old man said to him, “Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach.”
Abba Anthony said, “I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, ‘What can get through from such snares? Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.'”
Abba Anthony said, “I no longer fear God, but I love Him. For love casts out fear.” (Jn 4:18)
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.”
St. Anthony, Pray for Us!