A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part V

A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part V March 3, 2011

Introduction and Part II

You should realize that the acquisition of material things and their lavish use is only a short-lived fantasy, and that a virtuous way of life, conforming to God’s will, surpasses all wealth. When you reflect on this and keep it in mind constantly, you will not grumble, whine or blame anyone, but will thank God for everything, seeing that those who rely on repute and riches are worse off than yourself. For desire, love of glory and ignorance constitute the worst passion of the soul.[1]

We need to understand the relative good that is contained in wealth. The pursuit for material goods should not be an end in and of itself, and when it becomes such an end, it becomes an idol which leads to our destruction. Avarice is rightly labeled as one of the eight deadly sins: “For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs” (1 Tim 6:10). We must remember material wealth, when we have it, is not just for our own benefit. If we have more goods than others, we are expected to share, to help others through it. Not everyone is expected to possess much, if any, such goods. Many are called to sell all they have and to trust in God that their needs will be met. Thus, Jesus told one rich man to sell all that he had, give the proceeds to the poor, and then, no longer attached to wealth, to follow Jesus in simple poverty (cf. Luke 18:22-3). This call is the call for many, but not for all. Jesus didn’t tell everyone he met, such as the Centurion whose servant he healed, that they are not to possess wealth; but he did point to all that those who are rich are called to use their resources for the help of the poor. The story of Lazarus and the rich man is said in condemnation of all who are rich who ignore the needs of the poor around them. Saint Anthony of Padua (who took on the name of Anthony in honor of Anthony of Egypt) made this clear:

The rich man has no name. It is as if he were unknown in God’s presence, unfit to have his name recorded in the Gospel, because it is not recorded in the book of eternal life. It is his shame to be just a ‘certain man’, as one whom we disregard or do not know. This ‘certain man’ represents every worldly man, enslaved to the flesh and to sin. [2]

Thus, the point is not that there should be no rich, but that the poor are often unjustly treated by the rich. If you have wealth, there are moral expectations placed upon. Sadly, though, the rich tend to neglect their duties, and instead of helping the poor, they seek to gain more on the backs of the poor. They misunderstand life; one’s goal should not be how much material wealth one can make, but how much spiritual wealth one can accrue. Spiritual wealth continues with one into eternity, while material wealth does not. Spiritual wealth, moreover, is able to be shared without diminishment – indeed, by sharing, one receives back more than what one gave.

Wealth, when pursued as an end in itself, does not give back what it promises in return. Certainly having enough money to take care of oneself and one’s needs makes life easier; but an excess of wealth leads to all kinds of temptations, temptations which, if pursued, easily lead one to perdition. Wealth seduces because it says it can bring us happiness. While, momentarily, this might be true, in the long term, it makes one want more and more, requiring more and more in order to feel satisfied – and once one is unable to attain that level of wealth one thinks is necessary for happiness, one becomes unhappy, and the misery, which had been postponed, becomes apparent. The more it has been put off, the greater the misery it will be. When one confronts this, one should be able to see through the illusion of wealth, and to find a way to overcome their desire for its excess. But many do not, and instead, continue, without end, their pursuit for wealth, thinking if they just get a little more, they will be satisfied.

Ignorance, therefore, is a root poison which needs to be overcome. Ignorance creates our improper desires, creates our pursuit for glory, because it is through ignorance we think either of them can and will satisfy our needs. One can say perennial spirituality sees ignorance as the root cause of all evil. Ascetics from many different religious traditions (Buddhist, Christian, Islamic, et. al.) all come to this conclusion. Ignorance leads one to go astray. Willful ignorance is deplorable, because one is seeking to ignore what one can know in order to feel satisfied in one’s actions. Wealth is capable of being turned into an idol, into an absolute end, because of such ignorance.

As a monk, and indeed, the exemplar of Christian monasticism, it should not be surprising that we see many presentations of Anthony’s rejection of earthly wealth in Athanasius’ life and in Anthony’s letters. He became an ascetic after hearing the Gospel story of the rich young man being told to sell all he had, feeling as if Jesus’ words were meant for him as much as the young man in the Gospel story.[3] Anthony, nonetheless is shown going through – and overcoming – the temptation of wealth in two odd, but humorous, stories:

And yet again the enemy seeing his zeal and wishing to hinder it, east in his way what seemed to be a great silver dish. But Antony, seeing the guile of the Evil One, stood, and having looked on the dish, he put the devil in it to shame, saying, ‘Whence comes a dish in the desert ? This road is not well-worn, nor is there here a trace of any wayfarer; it could not have fallen without being missed on account of its size; and he who had lost it having turned back, to seek it, would have found it, for it is a desert place. This is some wile of the devil. O thou Evil One, not with this shalt thou hinder my purpose; let it go with thee to destruction.’ And when Antony had said this it vanished like smoke from the face of fire.

Then again as he went on he saw what was this time not visionary, but real gold scattered in the way. But whether the devil showed it, or some better power to try the athlete and show the Evil One that Antony truly cared nought for money, neither he told nor do we know. But it is certain that that which appeared was gold. And Antony marvelled at the quantity, but passed it by as though he were going over fire; so he did not even turn, but hurried on at a run to lose sight of the place.[4]

It would appear that, by sarcasm and irony, Athanasius is helping to present the illusionary nature of wealth, as well as the end one is to have if one lets it become one’s idol. The first story, of the silver dish, presents, in story form, the idea that wealth and what it offers is a fantasy, an illusion, a mirage which can distract one from their spiritual journey. The second, however, goes further and points out that the distraction is dangerous – it is a “fire”; if we keep with it, we will be trapped and burned.

Later, in The Life of Antony, Anthony proclaims:

For our life is naturally uncertain, and Providence allots it to us daily. But thus ordering our daily life, we shall neither fall into sin, nor have a lust for anything, nor cherish wrath against any, nor shall we heap up treasure upon earth. But, as though under the daily expectation of death, we shall be without wealth, and shall forgive all things to all men, nor shall we retain at all the desire of women or of any other foul pleasure. But we shall turn from it as past and gone, ever striving and looking forward to the day of Judgment. For the greater dread and danger of torment ever destroys the ease of pleasure, and sets up the soul if it is like to fall.[5]

Similarly, we see in the letters, Anthony writing:

Truly my children, I speak to you as to wise men, that you may understand what I say to you, and this I testify to you: unless each one of you shall hate all nature of earthly possessions, and renounce it and all its works with all his heart, and stretch out the hands of his heart to heaven, to the Father of all, he cannot be saved.[6]

Discernment also has a role in Anthony’s message, and poor discernment is connected to ignorance. That is, error (however it is found: false belief, lack of knowledge, poor judgment) leads one to do what is wrong. Thus, we see this message reported in Cassian’s Conferences:

“‘This, then, is discretion. According to the words of the Savior, it is called the eye and the light of the body in the Gospel: “Your eye is the light of your body. If your eye is single, your whole body will be light. But if your eye is evil, your whole body will be darkness.” The reason for this is that it sees and casts light on all a person’s thoughts and actions and discerns everything that must be done. But if this is evil in a person – that is, if it has not been fortified by true judgment and knowledge or has been deceived by some error and presumption – it makes our whole body darkness – that is, it obscures all the clarity of our mind and also our actions, wrapping them in the blindness of vice and the darkness of confusion.’”[7]

It should not be too surprising, with Anthony’s personal rejection of wealth, that he would see his way of life, of his ascetic, monastic poverty as superior to those who have wealth, if for no other reason than it is a simpler life, an easier life in order to attain holiness. That he is able to proclaim a doctor in the city his equal points to the fact he does not say one must reject the world, in some gnostic fashion, but it would make sense that he would see earthly attachments, especially around wealth, would lead someone to be pitied. Discernment should be able to be used to determine whether or not we can resist the temptations wealth brings to us, or if we need the aid of the monastic life. Of course, Anthony would encourage more, not less, people to follow his example, and to renounce wealth. But, as this passage indicates, even if you are in the world, non-attachment to wealth is important. One can have it, and use it properly for the benefit of others; the problem is attachment to it. If one would lose one’s fortune, how would they deal with such a loss? Non-attachment to it would allow one to shrug it off, as this passage suggests. What we have here is a very monastic sentiment, and once again, one which is in accord with what we know of Anthony elsewhere.

[1] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 329-30.

[2] Saint Anthony of Padua, Sermons for Sundays and Festivals. Volume II. Trans. Paul Spilsbury (Padua: Edizioni Messaggero Padova: 2007), 6. He further explores this theme, pointing out that the rich man, in purple, receives the purple from the shells which were cut open for dye, similar to how the rich receive their wealth from the poor. “How reminiscent of the poor, who are despoiled of their goods when worldly prosperity, fickle as the moon, is on the wane! That ‘certain rich man’, worldly power, slits them open with the force of iron, and extracts their life-blood, their livelihood, to make for himself the purple dye of earthly dignity,” ibid., 9.

[3] See Athanasius, Life of Antony, 196. Nonetheless, Athanasius points out, even though Anthony felt the passage was meant for him, because of his responsibility over his sister, it was only after another Gospel reading, from Matt 6:34, that he was able to follow through with his calling (he then gave his sister to the care of some Christian virgins who were probably living together in a kind of proto-convent, thus making sure he did not neglect his responsibility towards his family as he became a monk). On 197, we note, love for glory is also presented as a temptation Anthony had to overcome.

[4] Ibid., 199.

[5] Ibid., 201.

[6] Derwas J. Chitty, The Letters of Saint Anthony the Great, 15. [Letter V].

[7] Abba Moses is the one recounting Anthony’s message here. John Cassian, The Conferences. Trans. Boniface Ramsey, O.P. (New York: Newman Press, 1997), 85-6.

Browse Our Archives

Close Ad