Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Antony the Great

I first read the biography of St. Antony of the Desert in the fall of 1996. I was vaguely thinking about religious life at the time, still committed to a few jobs as a musician and intrigued by Eastern meditation. Indeed, I was drawn to read The Life of St. Antony because it was mentioned in Fr. Thomas Keating's books on centering prayer. The Life of St. Antony, by fellow Egyptian Saint Athanasius, changed my thinking about Christian spirituality. In spite of the fact that much of the book deals either with frightening (or what some would deem naive) stories of hand-to-hand combat with demons or with the difficulties of the Arian heresy, Antony leaps off the page as a very real man. I later found that there are dozens of similar biographies of holy men from the ancient Middle East. Never have I found one as human and profound as this one.

At some point during the year, I will begin recommending spiritual books, now that I have given the impression that I only read non-spiritual books. Reading the Fathers of the Church and ranking them as 'best books of the year' seems inappropriate. Antony's life, along with Augustine's Confessions and Commentaries on the Psalms, Gregory of Nyssa's Life of Moses, The Institutes and The Conferences of John Cassian and The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus are the ones I return to every year. I also read generous helpings of John Chrysostom. This year, I hope to read more widely in Augustine and Gregory Nazianzen. But will God grant me the time?

To return to Antony, whose feast is today: his biography had a similar impact on St. Augustine (and there is where my life similarity to the great one of Hippo ends!): he went from a Platonic gnosticism into desiring the monastic life.

One of the most marvelous scenes in all literature, as far as I am concerned, is Antony's re-emergence into public life after decades of asceticism as a hermit. When his friends come to pull him out of the abandoned fort where he had hid himself away, they frankly expected to find him dead. Instead, he comes forth regally, not drawn from fasting nor flabby from overeating, not lined in the face from worry nor distracted: he has been restored to the state that man was intended to have. And he is kind, patient, a marvelous teacher. He goes off to Alexandria to convert the heretics by persuasion, knowing that martyrdom was a real possibility. He was illiterate, and yet managed to memorize huge chunks of scripture and philosophic teachings of those who were ascetics before him. He did this because the zeal that overtook him as a young man left him completely disposed to listening to God's Word and acting.

Several of his letters survive, and their authenticity is of course debated, since he was not a learned man. but I have also read them many times, and while I would hate to use this as a proof of anything, my intuition says that they ring true. They sound an awful lot like the man who was Athanasius' mentor (without sounding like Athanasius). They puncture my heart whenever I read them: would that we were all so enthusiastic for Christ, for holiness, for the sanctification of man!

St. Antony the Great, pray for us!

1 comment:

The Archer of the Forest said...

Antony and all the Desert Fathers are always fascinating reading and full of insight. Sometimes we as "enlightened" modern readers look on the accounts of Antony's wrestling with the devil and what not with something akin to scorn.

But, in actuality, in antiquity, the idea of the desert or the wilderness was perceived almost as the exact opposite as what it is in America. We tend to view nature as the one pure place where God's perfect order exists. To antiquity, the wilderness equaled chaos. To the Greek philosophers only wild beasts and crazy people lived outside the city.

Antony was not escaping to rejuvenate his soul in a rustic mountain cabin, he was going to seek God in the chaos, to seek wisdom from the whirlwind.


This blog is published with ecclesiastical approval.

If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
Locations of visitors to this page