We Need A Saint Anthony For Today

We Need A Saint Anthony For Today January 17, 2012

It is said that St. Anthony founded Christian monasticism. It is clear that he was not the first Christian ascetic. While St Paul the Hermit might have been the first to become a hermit in the desert, this does not mean he was the first Christian ascetic. In the cities, non-Christian ascetics from different philosophical and religious backgrounds existed, and it is probable that their lifestyle, though pagan, inspired many of the early Christian ascetics and that there is a connection between a non-Christian, pagan monastic movement (such as found in Buddhism) with the Christian monastic tradition. We know Buddhist missionaries made their way into Alexandria, and it is likely that their teachings inspired many to live better, purer lives, even if the Buddhist dharma was not accepted. Certainly, the Egyptian culture influenced the Egyptian monastic movement, with Egyptian priestly garb being used as a foundation for monastic outfits and the style of Egyptian music being used for Christian hymns. St. Anthony followed the spirit of Alexandrian Christianity, a Christianity which was at once bold and adaptive; it is possible some of his earliest teachers in ascetic discipline were not Christian and he had to develop a way to take what he learned and use it for the Christian cause. This might be able to explain some of the sayings we have of St Anthony, where we see Anthony himself reflecting upon his changing relationship with God:

Abba Anthony said, ‘I no longer fear God, but I live Him. For love casts out fear’ (John 4.18).[1]

It is not difficult for one to read the biography of St Anthony and to be pulled in to the great, charismatic figure presented. It is clear that those who knew St. Anthony, those who had associated with him, this charisma led them to see in Anthony a great intercessor with God, someone whose very life kept the consequences of social sin at bay. Serapion of Thmuis expresses this with the great sorrow of his time: “See now, brothers! As son as the hold man departed from us – that blessed Anthony, who had been an intercessor for the world – behold we were suddenly thrown down and laid low; and all the elements together were anguished; and the wrath of God from above first consumed Egypt.”[2]

When sin confounds the world, when the cries of the oppressed rise up to God, either a great saint, like Anthony, is going to rise up and help transform the world, finding a way to heal the world and so overcome the consequence of such great sin, or the world suffers as sin produces its terrible fruit.  The evil we suffer will be related to the sins we have done. For example, when the world is polluted, is it any surprise the world strikes back? How can a Christian deny climate change when Scripture itself indicates unseemly disasters comes as a result of sin?  It is not that we need to see God directly making such disasters, but rather, he has created the ecosystem of the world, a system which our sin interferes with and prevents from achieving its intended end. This is true with many other evils which befall us. We must realize our actions have consequences, and great actions have great consequences. We are not in this alone. The saint sees the signs of the time, they see the signs of the sin before them, and work to purge it from their own lives but also from society as a whole. This is exactly what people saw with St. Anthony: he was able to root out the powers of evil, the demonic chaos which thrived in Egypt, and to put them in check. When he died, there were no immediate equals to his greatness, and so those like Serapion saw a great desolation follow.

We see all around us the rise of sin combined with the rise of great suffering in the world. The earth trembles as the sun bears harshly down upon us; the environment has been destroyed due to our selfish exploitation of the earth.  The possibility of a world-wide financial meltdown looms before us as the consequence of social greed.  The rich laugh at the poor, the poor, being deflated, know not what they should do and go forth into the world bringing violence into the equation. Hostilities are increasing as the common, universal human family finds itself split up due the individualistic detestation of communal responsibility. We need a saint, a saint like Anthony, rising up in holiness so as to be able to be with God, interceding for us, so that the consequence of our sin can be put into check and we are given a chance for reformation.

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

[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 8.

[2] Serapion of Thmuis, “Letter to the Disciples of Antony,” in Athanasius of Alexandria: The Life of Antony. The Coptic Life and the Greek Life. Trans. Tim Vivian and Apostolos N. Athanassakis (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2003), 42.

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