He also said, “Always have the fear of God before your eyes. Remember him who gives death and life. Hate the world and all that is in it. Hate all peace that comes from the flesh. Renounce this life, so that you may be alive to God. Remember what you have promised God, for it will be required of you on the day of judgment. Suffer hunger, thirst, nakedness, be watchful and sorrowful; weep, and groan in your heart; test yourselves, to see if you are worthy of God; despise the flesh, so that you may preserve your souls.
In the previous saying of St. Anthony in the Alphabetical Sayings Collection, Anthony said that he no longer feared God but loved him. This seems to contradict what we find him saying here, for now he tells others to fear God. What are we to make of this?
Is Anthony being inconsistent?
As with most mystics, we have to discern what Anthony is saying, making sure we do not misunderstand him here or elsewhere. They often employ language which, when examined in a very literal fashion, appears contradictory, but they do so to highlight truths which transcend simplistic explanation by making sure their audience does not engage their words through a very simplistic form of interpretation. Apparent internal conflicts help demonstrate the need for the reader to pay attention and to discern what is truly being said and implied.
By loving God, a particular kind of fear is cast out, that kind which considers God a dreadful, judgmental Lord who creates arbitrary rules to keep people down. When we look at God merely as a Lord who wants to dominate and control us, making us his slaves instead of being his adopted sons and daughters, then we will fear God as we will fear anyone who has power over us to do with us as they will. This kind of fear is not the fear we are to have of God.
On the other hand, love brings its own fear, for it causes us to fear disrespecting our beloved, not because we fear reprisals, but because we want to love and be loved by our beloved. We want our love to be known and recognized by them, even as we would like to experience their live in return. What we fear, then, is the breakdown of that love through some failure to engage and act on our love for God. If and when we are next to someone we love, someone who is mysterious and awe-inspiring, that awe, that sense of wonder which has been known to cause “butterflies” to develop within our stomach, is itself the kind of fear we should have when considering our relationship with God. We are to feel humbled in the presence of our beloved, wanting to see and know him more and more, afraid of doing something to hinder the bond which our love creates with him. We will not fear God our beloved, as if we fear he will act in any way other than in his greatness and love; rather, we will fear ourselves and our faults and weaknesses, our indiscretions, and how they can limit our relationship with God.
And as God is the source of all things, for he is the giver of life and all that is good, our love for him should be above all other loves. For our love for him to be pure, any other love for the good things he has given to us, tokens of his love, needs to be relativized, so that next to our love for him such love appears as if it were nothing. This is not to say we should disrespect them and hate them and seek to destroy them, for by doing that, it would mean we disrespect the one who gave them to us, and so our love for God would become impure. Instead, we need to recognize the relative nothingness they possess in themselves in relation to the absolute goodness of God, and so recognize that we love them in God but not for them in and of themselves. To be able to do this, when we find something which gets in our way of our love for God, we must detach ourselves from it; it is only in this respect it could be said we are to hate them and we are said to hate them insofar as we hate the distraction and the impediment they bring to us in relation to our love for God. Such hate is not to be seen as literal, but as a spiritual metaphor, where in comparison to the love we should have for God, all other loves is so insignificant it is closer to hate than the absolute love we have for God, but on the other hand, it is not true hate because if it were, our love for God would then be undermined for our love for God must include a love for all he has done including the establishment of all things which exist.
That is, since all things were created by God and are good, and all things are to be loved in accordance to the level of good they have in them, we certainly should not despise or reject the good in the world; it is only the inordinate attachment to such goods which put a barrier between us and God that is to be hated, for it is not natural and such a barrier is itself not willed for or established by God. We hate what we make of the world through our discursive thought, the objectification of things which establishes in our mind a form for them which is not true to what they are; that is, we are to hate our attempt to construct the world and its objects through our attempt to order the world in accordance to our own understanding, because it is delusional and illusory, and what we establish is not true to the phenomena of the world but a covering which veils the truth from us. We must abandon that veil, that false objectification of the world, so we can experience the world as it is and likewise, find no matter between us and God. Then, in and through God, we can love all things in and of themselves, even as we are to love our neighbor as ourselves; but if we put them first before God, if we create an object in our mind which does not exist and plant in in the world as a veil between us and God, then we find cut ourselves from God and so cause the rift between us and God which we should fear.
We can understand Anthony’s words to resemble and follow the spirit of what Jesus once told his disciples: “”If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Lk. 14:25-6 RSV).
Everything is to be hated in regard to our inordinate attachment to them, an attachment created by a false sense of who and what they are as they emerge out of our relationship to them through our own false sense of self. The key, then, is to “renounce this life,” this life established in our “flesh,” that is, the life we try to impute upon ourselves and so establish a false sense of self by which we live and interact with the rest of the world. Pride seeds within us the means by which this false sense of self is created, and through such pride, our sense of self makes us act in the world as if we are superior to all, judging all things in relation to our newly constructed worldview, with our false sense of self turned into the god of that world, ordering all things in relation to how they interact with us. Certainly there is a sense of peace which emerges, for we feel as if we are in control of the world, but since the world will not heed our attempt to dominate it, that peace will not last. What we have ignored and rejected of the real will hit us back, disrupting our delusion; the more we try to control the world, the more we will create our own demise. We are to despise ourselves, not because we lack goodness and that there is nothing to love, but rather because who and what we think we are is false, and so long as we are attached to that self, the true self which lies within, the true self loved by God and which can properly love God, will never be revealed. All the inclinations and habits we create in pursuit of the reification of our falsely constructed sense of self must be overcome; this requires constant struggle, the fight against our flesh, ascetic labors which, when mixed with grace, help us gain control of ourselves and set us free.
This, then, demonstrates why we should keep the fear of God, the fear found in love and not despair, ever before us; we will know we seek the beloved, not ourselves, and so overturn the will-to-the-self, the will which reifies the false sense of self, because we will detach ourselves from it as we pursue God. Indeed, as it is by opening up and turning away from such self-attachment we receive grace, if we close ourselves in upon ourselves, subjectively God’s grace is not able to come into us and heal us from our own self-made infirmity. “If we follow our own will, God no longer sends His power which proses and establishes all the ways of men. For if a man does something, imagining that it comes from God, when really his own will is involved in it, then God does not help him and you will find his heart embittered and feeble in everything to which he sets his hand,” as St. Ammonas, a disciple of St. Anthony, once wrote. A proper fear, or respect, for God instead of presumption, help us open ourselves up to him in love instead of demanding things from him, and so we will be able to have his grace make us great, while if we start putting demands upon him, expecting him to give us gifts because he loves us, we will cut the bond of love through our arrogance and so will close off the means by which God gives us gifts of love.
The key, then, is to love God. To love God, we must truly open ourselves to God, to know him and love him as he is. Ironically, we can only do this if we come to terms with ourselves and truly know ourselves for who and what we are, after all the illusion and delusions of grandeur are cast aside. All that clouds our mind, all the thinks and ideas which we hold to as a means of keeping ourselves secure in our self-deception, must dissipate. This is what ascetic practice is about; we are to go around naked, detached from all falsehood, and if that means we must first abandon clothing and like St. Francis go back into the world, naked as the day we are born, then so be it. Only then, when see and know ourselves pure and true can grow and truly love God as we accept his love for us as we truly are; we will not be slaves who fear a dreadful master, but beloved of God:
For if a man draws near grace, then Jesus will say to him, ‘I will no longer call your servants, but I will call you my friends and my brothers: for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.’ (John 15:15.) For those who have drawn near, and have been taught by the Holy Spirit, have known themselves according to their intellectual substance. And in their knowledge of themselves they have cried out and said, ‘For we have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear, but the spirit of adoption whereby we cry, Abba, Father’ (Rom. 8:15): that we may know what God has given us – ‘If we are sons, then we are heirs; heirs of God, and joint heirs with the saints.’ (Rom. 8:17.)
What we promise to God should be our love; at the judgment, we will be tried and shown whether or not we have given it. As love covers a multitude of sins, if we have emerged out of our selfish, self-centered, self-attachment and truly gone over to the love of God, we have nothing to fear, we will receive the reward of love: our betrothal with God will be at an end, and we will join in with the marriage of the Lamb of God with his bride and we will find the true peace which only the love of God can give. This is why someone who truly loves God will even remember death, for they know when they die, they will be free to go to their beloved, God, and so it will be on their minds in the way a bride-to-be thinks of her upcoming marriage until the day itself comes – until the day itself comes, they will not rush it, making it happen before it is time, because they know it is impossible so long as they have preparations to make, but once all of them are done and the bridegroom says come, they will go willingly to their beloved, without fear or regret.
[Image=Saint Anthony the Great by Albrecht Dürer, via Wikimedia Commons]
 The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 8.
 Ammonas, “Letter XI” in The Letters of Ammonas. Trans. Derwas J. Chitty. Revised Sebastian Brock (Fairacres, Oxford: SLG Press, 1995), 16.
 St. Antony, The Letters of Saint Antony the Great. trans. Derwas J. Chitty (Fairacres, Oxford: SLG Press, 1991), 12 [Letter IV].
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