There Are Many Paths To Holiness

There Are Many Paths To Holiness August 16, 2016

A medieval Book of Hours probably written for the De Grey family of Ruthin c.1390 [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Saint Anthony from a medieval Book of Hours probably written for the De Grey family of Ruthin c.1390 [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
It was revealed to Abba Anthony in his desert that there was one who was his equal in the city. He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his means he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Sanctus with the angels.[1]

St. Anthony, in his walk with God, was constantly shown many things which surprised him. Some of them came in and through the people he met, but others came to him in a “supernatural” form. After his spiritual senses had been restored, he was able to see and experience things in the otherwise invisible world of the spirit. He was, from time to time, shown some vision from God which God used to teach him, making sure that he did not take excessive pride in his endeavors.[2] Once, he was shown that he was not the first Christian to go out into the desert and to live an ascetic life – St. Paul the Hermit had done that before him, and Anthony was blessed by God to meet Paul once before Paul died. As related in this saying, God at one time to Anthony that his ascetic achievements in the desert were rivaled by a doctor who had stayed in the city, who, without forgoing civilization was able to be as holy and generous a Christian as Anthony had become in the desert. Anthony, who lived the monastic way to holiness was to learn that the monastic path was one of many paths to holiness, that there were many vocations for Christians, and each person had to live according to their particular calling. A great monk like Anthony, perhaps the greatest of all the monks, had as his equal a doctor who did not need all the monastic discipline in order to achieve the same level of holiness.

How was this possible?

The doctor’s path was, like Anthony’s, imitative of Christ. Anthony, as with monasticism in general, imitated the Christ’s forty days in the desert, making the battle Christ fought against the devil their daily battle. But the doctor also imitated Christ. Jesus came to heal the sick, which the doctor clearly took as his duty and which he performed, not for the sake of fame or wealth, but out of genuine care and concern for his patients. He gave himself to others; he had learned, like Anthony, not to take interest in wealth. Anthony, legends indicate, was tempted by gold he saw in the middle of the desert, and he was able to walk past it and so turn his back on avarice. The doctor, likewise, would have seen the potential wealth he could have made as a physician; avarice would have been a common temptation for the doctor to face, day after day, but instead of charging excessive fees and hoarding money, the doctor only took what he needed to sustain himself, and anything in excess, he gave to the needy. He was not just a healer of bodily infirmity, but he also sought to heal the economic wounds which devastate those suffering from the hardships of poverty.

And yet, some might say, Anthony was able to live a life of prayer, and that should have made him greater than the doctor. Not so. Not only do we discern the greatness of the doctor’s charity, which is itself imitative of God’s charity, we find out that the doctor also lived a life of prayer, where he would follow along with the angelic hymn, constantly singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” to God (cf. Is. 6:3). Being in the city, having a secular profession, does not prevent a life of prayer. While a monastic environment with its solitude can give the silence which helps many attain such prayer, in reality, we are to pray without ceasing wherever we are, and Christians in the world as much as those in a hermit’s cell are able to attain this life of prayer so long as they work at it and open themselves up to God’s grace.

We are not to cut ourselves from the world but we are to be vessels of grace into the world. Our vocations provide the means by which we can share that grace and spread it far and wide. For some, this means they are called to be ascetics, fighting against the wiles of the devil in the deep crevices of their spirit, overturning the influences of evil in their lives, allowing the grace of God to be mediated in and through their imitation of Christ’s combat with the devil. For others, it is to live in the world, to be actively engaging others, showing that love which attracts others to God’s grace. Both forms of mediation are necessary and as Anthony was shown, both types of vocation can equally lead to spiritual greatness. We are not to romanticize one type of vocation above others – each have their strengths but also each have their trials and tribulations; the formation in each relies upon the strengths, but maturity in each makes us see the weakness so that we continue to follow our vocation in humility, never presuming because of its strengths our way is the best. It might be the best for us, but not for all.

This should lead us to realize that our spiritual perfection is not found in works, though without them we will not be perfect. Perfection comes from our cooperation with grace; with it our nature is healed from the wounds of sin. Perfection is seen in and through how we love — “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:35 RSV). Grace purifies the heart and makes us more compassionate towards others as we have seen our sins and realize that if we can be forgiven them and healed from the harm we have done to ourselves from them, anyone can be healed and there is hope for all. This is the foundation for our charity towards others: those who have been forgiven much should likewise be merciful to others. The doctor clearly learned this as he offered his care to others. Anthony, likewise, learned that his perfection was not in his renunciation of the world, but in the grace which came to him as a result of it, a grace which then led him to love God and to love others in that love for God. St. John Cassian explained quite wonderfully this spirit when he wrote:

It is for the love of our neighbour that we scorn wealth, lest by fighting over it and stimulating our disposition to anger, we fall away from love. When we show this disposition to anger towards our brother even in small things, we have lapsed from our purpose and our renunciation of this world is useless. The Apostle was aware of this and said: “Though I give my body to be burned, and have no love, it profits me nothing” (1 Cor. 13: 3). From this we learn that perfection does not follow immediately upon renunciation and withdrawal from the world. It comes after the attainment of love which, as the Apostle said, “is not jealous or puffed up, does not grow angry, bears no grudge, is not arrogant, thinks no evil” (cf. 1 Cor. 13: 4 -5). [3]

Anthony’s love was shown in the way he was willing to see himself as equal to the doctor; he had no desire to brag about himself nor to see himself as greater than others. He understood his level of holiness was not found in his path alone, but could be found in other pathways, and others did not have to follow him out to the desert to be his equal.  He was not jealous of his spiritual attainment – he wanted to share it with others, and rejoiced whenever he met with or learned of someone who was his equal or superior in Christ. He was not puffed up but rather became the humble monk whose greatness was not in his conquest of the devil through asceticism, but in his attainment of glory in love. This love is something we are all able to pursue. If we want to be great like Anthony, we too must seek it out and incorporate it in our lives, never resting until we become pure at heart, so that then we too might have spiritual vision and see the glory of God.


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

[2] In the Systematic collection, this saying is found in the category of sayings associated with “second sight,” Dioratikoi.

[3] St. John Cassian, “On the Holy Fathers of Skete” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume One. trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1983), 95-6.


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