St. Antony the Great and God’s Universal Presence

St. Antony the Great and God’s Universal Presence January 17, 2020
Albrecht Dürer: Saint Anthony the Great/  Wikimedia Commons

After seeking God through an ascetic life of prayer, St. Antony the Great realized a great truth: God was always there, and will always be there, working for us, doing all he can for us and our benefit. Wherever we are at, God is present, working on our behalf, even if we ignore him or turn away from him. No one is outside of God’s providential care, which is why when someone is ready to turn to him and follow the natural intuition God has given them of his ways, he is already there:

Truly, my beloved in the Lord, not at one time only did God visit His creatures; but from the foundation of the world, whenever any have come to the Creator of all by the law of His covenant implanted in them, God is present with each one of these in His bounty and grace by His Spirit. [1]

There are several important ideas which we can realize when we reflect upon this quote from Antony’s letters.

First, everyone has God’s covenant implanted within their conscience.  The covenant Antony meant was not the special Mosaic covenant given to the children of Israel, but to the universal covenant which embraces the whole of creation, the covenant presented in Scripture in the story of Noah. In this covenant, in this connection between God and his creation, the law of God, the true natural law, can be found; this law must not be understood, as it often is, as some positive law with rules and regulations, but rather, it is about a particular disposition God intends us to have with him, with each other, and with all creation, a disposition which is best designated with the term of “love.” The true natural law, the true universal covenant, is the covenant of love; our obligations are the dictates of love, and because they are obligations of love, any attempt to explicate them and make a list of them will fail, just as anyone who tries to make a list of what to do for their beloved, and doing that and only that, will find their love will perish because of their rigidity.

Second, whenever this universal covenant, the covenant of love, is truly embraced by us, we find God is present to us in it. Why? Because God is love. To realize love is to open ourselves to God.  This is not to say our love itself is God, but rather, it participates in and echoes the love which is God, and through that participation with God, we find ourselves experiencing and realizing the presence of God in our lives. When we reflect upon that love, when we embrace it to the fullest, we find ourselves joined to God himself, for it is through love that the bond between God and humanity is established. Indeed, this is why it is said it that it is because of God’s love for the world that the Son of God has been sent to the world to save it (cf. Jn. 3:16). When we truly appreciate God’s love we understand the incarnation and the work of the incarnation to deify creation.

Third, though God truly visited his creatures in his greatest capacity in the incarnation, this visit and union with us was anticipated by God’s other forms of visitation with the world.  God did not despise his creation. He did not leave it alone. He constantly interacted with it, in various times and places, with various groups of people (and not just with the people of Israel). With each visitation, his love could be found and discerned, and through that love, the bounty of his grace was revealed. While the fullness of revelation, and therefore, the greatest dispensation of grace, is found in the incarnation, we must understand the incarnation acts as the fulfillment of all other forms of God’s interactions with his creation. Grace upon grace was issued to the world; this means, before the incarnation, various forms of grace were found being taken in by those who engaged the universal covenant of God, with those who encountered some aspect of God’s presence in their lives. This is why it is possible to talk about pre-Christian sacraments, pre-Christian instruments of God’s grace, such as the Jewish rite of circumcision. God’s love is not limited, and his grace is not limited to the sacraments of the new covenant. God teaches us that love is impartial, and following such impartiality is how we fulfill the law of love, as James understood:

If you really fulfil the royal law, according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well. But if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” said also, “Do not kill.” If you do not commit adultery but do kill, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgment (Jas. 2:8-13 RSV).

Judgment without mercy, judgment without grace, is pure judgment; those who have cut themselves from love, those who have cut themselves from mercy, have cut themselves off from grace. Anyone who continues to cut themselves from love will face the eschatological judgment as pure judgment without mercy or grace. Those who fulfill the law, those who engage mercy and grace through love, will also face the judgment, but the judgment will be one in which love will see love and will render love in return. “For this cause, therefore, he who sins against his neighbour sins against himself, and he who does evil against his neighbour does evil to himself; and he who does good to his neighbour, does good to himself.”[2]  This is why it can be said how we treat others will be reflected in the judgment which is to come, because if we treat them in and through love, our judgment will reveal that love, and if we treat them with hate or contempt, we will be missing that love which is necessary for a benign outcome in our own judgment.

We must continuously work on ourselves, trying to change ourselves for the better, so that whatever in us does not reflect the image of God, the image of love, can be changed so that we will slowly conform ourselves more and more to the radiant image of Goo’s love. This is what our spiritual toil should be about. For this is how we prepare ourselves to have a judgment based upon mercy and grace, instead of the one which has neither. Antony understood that in the eschaton we will come face to face with Christ, and if we have not toiled to reflect such love in our lives, then we will encounter him in the judgment that reflects our lack of love. “Whosoever has not prepared his own amendment, nor toiled with all his strength, let such an one know that for him the advent of the Saviour will be unto judgment.” [3] Insofar as we have cast aside love, our encounter with Jesus not be judgment with grace, nor judgment with love, but judgment apart from such. This is not to say what happens after the judgment, that those who come to the dread tribunal without love, will leave it without such love. But if they are to do so, they will have to accept the judgment and the condemnation of their unlove, enter the purifying fire of God, and be transformed by that fire to reflect the love which they had neglected (as Hans Urs von Balthasar understood).

Antony, in his asceticism, had to wrestle against various temptations which moved him away from the law of love. As long as he felt their pull over his life, he felt himself stuck in the valley of death, for they precluded him from having a universal experience of God’s presence in his life.  But he also understood that part of the solution came from God, not him, that God came to hm and without God coming to him his own spiritual journey would be impossible. The incarnation, Antony said, gives us the means by which we can set aside all that cuts us from the presence of God, from all the vices founded upon unlove:

Now, therefore it is right that we also should set ourselves free by His advent, that by His foolishness He may make us wise, and by His poverty may enrich us, and by His weakness strengthen us, and confer resurrection upon us all, destroying him that had the power of death. (Heb. 2:14). Then shall we also cease to call upon Jesus for bodily needs. The advent of Jesus helps us to do what is good, until we have destroyed all our vices. Then Jesus will say to us, ‘Henceforth I call you not servants, but brethren’ (Cf. John 15:15). When therefore the Apostles attained to receiving the Spirit of Adoption, then the Holy Spirit taught them to worship the Father as they ought.[4]

It is the incarnation which makes us truly alive, helping us to be born again in the Spirit and become adopted children of God. Once we realize ourselves as children of God, made in his image of love, we can and will realize the presence of God in our lives. Asceticism is not meant to be an end in and of itself, but rather a means by which the presence of God can be realized our lives. This is not to say only those who become monks will experience God. Those who remain in the world, those who remain with a secular vocation, can also embrace the ascetic struggle, seeking to realize the life that Jesus meant for them. Monasticism is one way but not the only way to realize our relationship with God (which is why a doctor was revealed to Antony as being his equal). Everyone must struggle, in accordance with their vocation, to reveal the covenant of love found within. Then, when we live life full of love, we will be able to perceive the world in and through such love, in and through God. We can anticipate our full resurrection, and so experience God in our lives.

Antony reminds us of the universal love of God for humanity. It is not God who has separated himself from us. Even when we do not perceive him in our lives, he is already there, working on our behalf. His love is with us, it is instilled in us, in the deepest part of our soul. Through this love, he forms his universal covenant with creation. It is this love which we must once again discover within, and when we do – then we will truly know the presence of God and begin to see the world anew, in and through the vision of love. And then we will come to know the truth, not through speculation, but by our perception and unity with it.


[1] St. Antony the Great, “Letter II” in The Letters of Saint Antony the Great. Trans. Derwas J. Chitty (Fairacres, Oxford: SLG Press, 1991), 6.

[2] St. Antony the Great, “Letter VI” in The Letters of Saint Antony the Great. Trans. Derwas J. Chitty (Fairacres, Oxford: SLG Press, 1991), 20.

[3] St. Antony the Great, “Letter II,” 7.

[4] St. Antony the Great, “Letter III” in The Letters of Saint Antony the Great. Trans. Derwas J. Chitty (Fairacres, Oxford: SLG Press, 1991), 10.

 

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