The Feast of St Antony the Great

The Feast of St Antony the Great January 16, 2009

stanthonyJesus said to him, ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me’” (Matt. 19:21). When he heard these words, the young Antony believed that they were being spoken as much to him as they were to the young man in Jesus’ time. He was, in his own mind, a rich young man who was being called to this kind of perfection. He had been raised to be a Christian, and lived out that faith in the unreflective way so many do, but then during a fateful reading of the Gospels, he understood how radical Christ had been, and the kind of radical commitment Christ’s commands were for the Christian who had an ear to hear. The world and all its luxuries are temptations; for too many Christians, their worldly happiness is justified because the feel they are good enough, like the young man who had come to test Christ. But, as the story points out, being merely good enough is not what is expected. Christ’s words are a test, to see how we would react. One’s faith is determined by one’s response to them; true faith is radical, so radical that nothing in the world should stand in the way of following God’s will (wherever it should lead). “Then Peter said in reply, ‘Lo, we have left everything and followed you. What then shall we have?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.But many that are first will be last, and the last first‘” (Matt. 19:27 -39).

The intent of Christ’s message was often expressed by a paradox. “For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk. 14:11). Zen Masters couldn’t have said it better. He who is to win must lose; and the one who loses will win. That, too, was what Antony had to learn before he could be the one God intended of him. He had heard the Gospel and thought if he just went out and did as he had heard, he would be able to become a great man. Christ’s call to perfection certainly was meant for him; but it is meant for everyone, and, as Antony was to learn, it was not always achieved the same way by everyone. Humility leads to perfection; the rich young man was prideful in his riches, and this is why giving them up could have, and would have, led to his sanctity. Antony was, on the other hand, for so long prideful of his attempts for perfection, for his solitude, that he had to learn that one could be in the city, that one could be in the world, and still find perfection. Once he did, then he could finally understand what it was that he was called to establish in the desert, the “city within the desert,” that can be seen as the origin of Christian monastic communities (but not the hermetic life). “It was revealed to Abba Anthony in his desert that there was one who was his equal to the city. He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Sanctus with the angels.”[1] Humility was, as he learned, what Christ was after; and humility could be had in many ways. Going out in the desert to fight one’s demons is commendable, but the greatest demon is pride. The more one finds victories against other demons, the greater strength pride gains, and the more difficult it is to overcome. The only way to be victorious against it is love. Trying to overcome sin through fear leads one to legalism, and legalism leads one to pride; love, on the other hand, opens one so that one no longer is purely oneself. There is no ego in love, and ego is what pride needs in order to subsist. Thus, we find in what must be one of his later sayings, “I no longer fear God, but I love Him. For love casts out fear.”[2]

Certainly one can do a lot of great things in the search for individual glory, things which earn the respect and admiration of others. Before his own perfection, Antony’s life was full of them. He was a great man before he became a great saint; but to go from one to the other he had to overcome his search for glory and find it in the poverty of spirit that his poverty in life foreshadowed. Two different events in his life can help demonstrate this.

The first was during the persecution of Maximinus. The possibility of martyrdom lay before him, and, like some, there was a sense of personal gain and glory to be had if he went forward and died for Christ. While the Church tells us that those who die for personal glory and try to force authorities to kill them instead of being true witnesses for Christ who happen to be selected for death are not true martyrs, that distinction is not always understood by the laity. And as this point, we can see Antony didn’t. “And he longed to suffer martyrdom, but not being willing to give himself up, he ministered to the confessors in the mines and in the prisons. And he was very zealous in the judgment hall to stir up to readiness those who were summoned when in their contest, while those who were being martyred he received and brought on their way until they were perfected. The judge, therefore, beholding the fearlessness of Antony and his companions, and their zeal in this matter, commanded that no monk should appear in the judgment hall, nor remain at all in the city.”[3] While seeking self-glory, Antony did much good. As with so many people, he saw at this point the good as a tool to be used for an end other than the good itself. Obviously, any good done by someone should be, as it is here, praised, but only to the extent of that the good in and of itself is always worthy to be praised, no matter where it is found. But it is even more praiseworthy when the good was sought after for nothing other than itself, and not as a tool for personal gain. At this point, we can see Antony was not yet perfect, even if his striving was true. It was because that he did have, to some extent, an authentic goal in mind, that he was able to get much out of this experience for his own spiritual quest. Working for those in prison taught him about servitude, and he saw first hand the difference between the martyrs and himself. Perhaps that explains why St Athanasius, talking about his former friend, would point out that Antony wasn’t willing to give himself up to the authorities – he saw that he didn’t make the grade.

The second comes later, when he has, through the laboratory of the desert, finally found himself and understood his call. The greatness that he achieved before was taken in and applied to, and added to, the greatness that he had become. He was to become a spiritual father for many; he learned that love required him to minister to others, and not just seek after his own desires. The time came when a great controversy over the nature of Christ had come over the Christian faith, and Antony, the spiritual heir of John the Baptist, journeyed out of his beloved desert and into Alexandria, the city of cities, to witness to the faithful the truth that he had learned firsthand about Christ. “And once also the Arians having lyingly asserted that Antony’s opinions were the same as theirs, he was displeased and wroth against them. Then being summoned by the bishops and all the brethren, he descended from the mountain, and having entered Alexandria, he denounced the Arians, saying that their heresy was the last of all and a forerunner of Antichrist. And he taught the people that the Son of God was not a created being, neither had He come into being from non-existence, but that He was the Eternal Word and Wisdom of the Essence of the Father.”[4] His stay in the city was a delight to the Christians. He was a man of miracles, a man whose loving faith showed he was a vehicle of God’s grace. “The people, therefore, rejoiced when they heard the anti-Christian heresy anathematised by such a man. And all the people in the city ran together to see Antony; and the Greeks and those who are called their Priests, came into the church, saying, ‘We ask to see the man of God,’ for so they all called him. For in that place also the Lord cleansed many of demons, and healed those who were mad. And many Greeks asked that they might even but touch the old man, believing that they should be profited. Assuredly as many became Christians in those few days as one would have seen made in a year.[5] The witness that Antony once wanted to be for Christ for the sake of personal glory was transformed as Antony was transformed; he became a witness for the sake of Christ, not for the sake of himself. The people, however, did not understand the transformation. They knew he had lived in solitude, and they knew that he had grown to enjoy it. Obviously, he found personal peace in it, but – he also knew that God required more of him. His presence in the city was serving Christ, and he had to tell his companions that they were wrong to turn away the crowds from him. When he was alone, he was facing and overcoming the true danger, the demons which fought against him all his life. But with the crowds, he was able to do the work of Christ for others; he was able to be that which his spiritual progress in the desert had trained him to be.

Of course, to be the spiritual athlete he had become, like all athletes, he needed training and couldn’t put it off. He would eventually have to go back to the desert, and train some more; but, when he did, he was, to a degree, open to visitors, Christian and non-Christian alike (humanly speaking, he loved solitude, and from time to time, would go deeper into the desert to find it). He knew that his work was to be put to use not just for himself but for the world at large. “Antony, at any rate, healed not by commanding, but by prayer and speaking the name of Christ. So that it was clear to all that it was not he himself who worked, but the Lord who showed mercy by his means and healed the sufferers.”[6] The glory he sought after in his youth he got, once he no longer sought it for himself; his poverty helped him achieve spiritual poverty, helping to found a monastic way to spiritual perfection. But it is not the way for all. Moreover, his way, the call to monastic life, is not, as many believe, meant to keep one entirely secluded from the world. Within the cell, one acts to counter the damages being done to the world, on behalf of the world and its healing. Authentic monastic spirituality goes on retreat for the sake of the world, not against it. And in that cell, if one is called to return to the world – that, we see, is the true test of the monk; will they give it up, and so die to themselves, or will they stay and prove that all they have done was for naught? The great monks, the ones remembered with so much love and devotion, were victorious in that test. Some, probably a good many, never reach to the level where they can be tried by it. And some, some became great failures, and ended up ruined by it, because, once tried, they showed they didn’t enter the monastic life with the right intentions, and never learned the key of the Christian life: love. For so many, it was not love, but hate, hate of the world, which lead them to monastic life, and they never overcome that hate. And if they center their life on hate, how can they ever obtain that perfection they seek? For it is love which is above all things; grace can and will prevail only if one’s spiritual journey is based upon love .

Thou didst follow the ways of zealous Elijah, and the straight path of the Baptist, O Father Antony. Thou didst become a desert dweller/ and support the world by thy prayers. Intercede with Christ our God that our souls may be saved (Troparian  of St Antony).


[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 6.
[2] Ibid., 8.
[3] St Athanasius, Life of Antony (NPNF2:4), 208.
[4] Ibid., 214.
[5] Ibid., 214-5.

[6] Ibid., 218.

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  • What a beautiful reflection, Henry. Thank you for this.

  • Matt,

    Thank you as well. St Antony is my patron saint, so I thought it was necessary to have his feast represented in my series. This time I tried to let the Antony of the sayings be the hermeutic for the Antony of St Athanasius’ life (which is, of course, one and the same, but I think the sayings provide a slightly different picture because its purpose was different).