Someone asked Abba Anthony, “What must one do in order to please God?” The old man replied, “Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes, whatever you do, do it according to 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.”
Because Anthony’s sayings were recorded for the sake of a monastic audience, much of what was recorded was for the sake of fellow ascetics. The core wisdom contained within them therefore often needs to be discerned and then either explained or modified to make them useful for those not called to religious life. And yet, in and throughout the sayings, there are some statements which have more universal appeal, and do not need as much, if any, adaptation, and they show how Anthony cared for and was concerned about all Christians, and not just the monks he shepherded.
Anthony knew that what he had gained from his relationship with God was not for his sake alone. His way of life was twofold, going to God and experiencing the glory of being in God’s presence, and then going back to the world, sharing with others what he had gained from his retreat with God, spreading the grace of the kingdom of God to all who should come in contact with him and his ministry. For, despite his desire to be a hermit away from others, he knew he could not be selfish and neglect his role in the world. His work, his prayers, was not for himself, but for the whole of the world, where he was seen as a great intercessor preserving the wellbeing of others through his ascetical labors. Thus, John of Shmûn exclaimed of Anthony, he was made a strong in grace and spiritual authority because he let himself become physically weak in his ascetical labors, whereby he shared that strength with others because of the great love he felt for all: “Antony was also a power because the power of God was made manifest through his weakness and because he became a power for others.” Serapion of Thmuis likewise saw his time at prayer was also for the sake of others, that Anthony’s greatness included his role as mediator for the people of his time: “As long as he was on earth he spoke and prayed. And when he spread forth his hands, he spoke with God at great length, lifting up his thought and preventing them from coming down, [praying] that he would not allow his wrath to come down.”
In this saying, Anthony was giving universal advice, wisdom which he thought could and should apply to anyone seeking salvation; it could be said to anyone and not just fellow monks. Whatever vocation, whatever walk of life, three things together should help direct someone to salvation: constant remembrance of God, following the commands of God found in Scripture, and not being easily moved to and fro, the last which is the most monastic of the three but yet can be applied to all when properly understood.
To remember God before us, which is the implication of keeping him before our eyes, can be done in two ways. One is to consider God is ever present, ever watching us, seeing all that we should do, so that we should prevent ourselves from staying and doing what we would not want to do before others. That is, if we would feel ashamed if others saw what we did, we can then consider that their views and opinions are nothing in comparison to judgment of God; if we would be embarrassed to act a certain way in front of friends and family, then the fear of the Lord, whose presence is before us, should also help us keep to the straight and narrow. Thus, we can read in this the wisdom of Solomon as expressed in the Proverbs: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. For by me your days will be multiplied, and years will be added to your life. If you are wise, you are wise for yourself; if you scoff, you alone will bear it” (Prov. 9: 10-12 RSV).
It is not, however, the fear of God which best motivates us, rather, it is the love of God, and keeping God in front of us, in our mind’s eye, with the lens of love is far better for us than merely fearing God’s wrath for our sins. Far greater than fear, love will motivate us to seek after and follow God wherever he should lead us; with love, we will sacrifice ourselves for our beloved, Christ, and then find ourselves restored in his resurrection, greater than we would be if we tried to hold on to ourselves and preserve ourselves in the form we exist apart from such self-sacrificial love. Salvation leads to divine union with God, a union which is a union of love, a union which follows the example of love shown to us by the death of the Son of God on the cross. At the heart of love is this giving over of the self to the beloved, and so to remember God and keep him before us, is to keep before us our beloved with the passionate embrace of love that will bring us to him. It is a recollection in prayer which brings God’s presence to us in and through our love so that we can realize the actual universal presence of God in our lives and let love fulfill its aim. We can meet with God in that recollection, and open ourselves, heart to heart, our heart to the heart of God shown to us on the cross. For it is on the cross we find that the incarnate God-man gave us his all for us, his beloved, holding nothing back because of his great and universal love.
To help bring God’s presence to us, to let our love be realized in prayer, there are many forms of meditation which can help bring this about. One way is the Jesus Prayer, where in the prayer, the recitation of the name of Jesus brings Jesus to us, and thanks to his presence, we are able to receive the grace needed for our salvation. And as we pray it, we can see our love for God grows stronger as we realize in and through it God’s great love for us, as Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain suggested:
Let me again for a third time beseech you to have Jesus as the sweet contemplation of your heart; let Jesus be the preoccupation of your tongue; let Jesus be the honorable shape and idea in your mind. In brief, let Jesus be your breath and never grow tired of calling upon Jesus. From such a perpetual and most sweet memory of Jesus, those great theological virtues – faith, hope, and love – will grow and mature and become great in your heart. Know that when a lover is far away from his beloved there is no better consolation for him but to constantly remember the name of the beloved person.
Jesus, who is God, is “far from us” only in the sense of the distance we keep from him due to our sin, a distance which veils his presence, and therefore the presence of God, from us. Through his grace, Jesus pierces that veil, the light of his truth shines upon us, and so if we are careful and attentive, we should be truly enlightened and brought close to Go. Then we shall find our love for God and others is full, as all the sin and its darkness and hatred has been melted away from us by the purifying fire of God’s love.
God is everywhere present and fills all things; there is nowhere that God is not. Our awareness of that presence can come and go, but we must not confuse our awareness and what we sense or do not sense as the full reality of God and his activity with us. Even when we have some sort of true and lasting experience him, we must not construe what we attain is the fullness of God, but rather, God as he is encountered in his activity with us, which is truly God and yet not the fullness of God as he is in himself. God will always be greater, and so he will always be able to direct and guide us further into his vast being for all eternity.