With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

In Honor of the Feast of Saint Anthony the Great -- January 17

St Anthony the Great is said to be the founder of Christian monasticism. He was not the first ascetic to go out into the Egyptian desert, but his charismatic personality attracted followers, followers Anthony did not want and yet knew he had to take care of for their own well being. He became their spiritual father by default. He set up simple monastic rules for them to obey and occasionally gave personal guidance and exhortation to those who desired it. But for himself, he desired a simple, quiet life. In the end, he did not want to be put above others, he did not want to be considered great – he saw that the path to friendship with God required a combination of love, humility, and personal holiness. Yet it is because he put these so well into practice that he became a great beacon for others, an example for all of us to follow, and not just to those who, like him, feel a call to the religious life.

“Abba Anthony said, ‘I no longer fear God, but I love Him. For love casts out fear’ (John 4.18),” The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publishers, 1984), 8. St. Anthony felt called to go out into the desert, to live alone, in order to feel closeness with God. When he heard a sermon on Matthew 19:21, he believed Jesus was speaking personally to him, telling him to go sell all he had, and to come and follow wherever Jesus would lead. Yet, he felt afraid, as do most young people going out living on their own; he did not know what it is he was to do or accomplish “When the holy Abba Anthony lived in the desert he was best by accidie, and attacked by many sinful thoughts. He said to God, ‘Lord, I want to be saved but these thoughts do not leave me alone; what shall I do with my affliction? How can I be saved?”ibid., 2.

The answer he was shown was simple: prayer. Why prayer? Because prayer leads us to God, opens us to God, allows us to grow in our love of God. Prayer does not change God, does not make God more loving, but changes us, makes us more loving and more capable of being loved, that is, more capable of feeling that love which is already there. Through prayer, Anthony was able to remove all fear from his life; even death did not frighten him – he knew to live was to be with Christ, to die was to be with Christ; either way he was with Christ, with his love. What else is there that he could want?

“Abba Anthony said, ‘I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, “What can get through such snares?” Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility,”’” ibid., 2. Many of us seek an exaggerated sense of glory for one’s life; that is, many of us desire to be above all others at their expense. It is not wrong to desire excellence in our work. We should feel a sense of satisfaction when achieve it. What could be wrong is how we take it: do we turn glory as its own end, as an idol? Satan tempted Christ with glory, and Christ turned against it. The world continues to snare many with this sham; Hollywood, with its self-congratulatory awards ceremonies represents one such example. Humility keeps us stable in life; it shows us that we should not be so full of ourselves that we push everyone else away. Moreover, humility allows us to realize our own faults and weaknesses, showing us why we need to rely upon others, showing us why we cannot accomplish everything by ourselves. We need others, and when we accept them, they act as the arms of God in our life. If we turn them away, we are really turning away from God.

St Anthony had two experiences which humbled him, shaping and perfecting his spiritual life. He believed he was the first Christian to become and ascetic and to seek a quiet life in the desert away from the temptations of the world. Pride made him think that this made him the best of all monks. He was wrong on both accounts. “It was revealed to him in sleep, however, that another more worthy than he dwelt in the deeper recesses of the desert and that it was his duty to seek him out,” St. Jerome, “Life of St Paul the Hermit,” in Early Christian Biographies. Ed. Roy Deferrari (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1952), 229. It was because of his love of God that he accepted what he was told without complaint: he went out and found this man, St Paul the Hermit, whom he embraced as a long lost friend. More important than his experience with St Paul, Anthony learned that his spiritual equal was not, as he would have expected, a monk living in the desert. “It was revealed to Abba Anthony in his desert that there was one who was his equal in 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,” Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 6. It is not a monastic life that makes one great; it is the simple love for God manifested in the way we treat and respect others which makes us great.

The last mark of the great friend of God is their piety and holiness. Many people confuse this to be a life without temptation, a life without struggles. If Jesus struggled and resisted temptation, then we should realize that we are no greater than he, and we too will face such trials and tribulations in our life. Indeed, not only are we going to, we must in order to grow and become the one God wants us to be. St Anthony understood this when he said, “Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven […] Without temptations no-one can be saved,” ibid., 2. As a child learning to walk must develop muscles, so we, spiritual children, must develop ourselves and find out who we are through temptation; even as a child will stumble but never give up until they can walk on their own, so we too we shall stumble, but should never give up until at last we have reached spiritual perfection. We should not give in to despair when we falter, but rather look into the times we do not, because it is in our little victories that we know perfection is possible.

Holiness is not to be found in someone who has hid themselves from the world, fearful of the temptations it gives. It is found in the one who embraces the world in love, and conquers those fears through their love of God. There are two ways of not failing a test: not taking it and passing it; wide is the difference between the two; so too with temptation. Just because there is one you have not yet experienced does not mean you have overcome it; only in its overcoming is virtue established. True monasticism is not about a flight from temptation, but about achieving virtue. The early monks went out to the desert to fight devils, that is, to fight the temptations within. Yet we do not need to be a monk to do this; the greatness of St Anthony and his followers is available to all, if we would but desire (eros) God.

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