Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Patriarch of Monks

The introduction to the Life of St. Antony, written by the great St. Athanasius, (297?-373), reads: "The life and conversation of our holy Father, Antony: written and sent to the monks in foreign parts by our Father among the Saints, Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria."  

The fame of Antony the Abbot (c. 251-356) was legendary among the monks and solitaries of the desert.  Unfortunately, few knew him all that well.  Athanasius, who was well-acquainted with the holy man, wanted to draw upon his own experience and share the real Antony with them.  "Wherefore do not refuse evidence to what you have heard from those who brought tidings of him; but think rather that they have told you only a few things, for at all events they scarcely can have given circumstances of so great import in any detail...I, at your request, have called to mind a few circumstances about him, and shall send as much as I can tell in a letter...I was desirous, when I received your letter, to send for certain of the monks, those especially who were wont to be more frequently with him, that if I could learn any fresh details I might send them to you.  But since the season for sailing was coming to an end and the letter-carrier [was] urgent, I hastened to write to your piety what I myself know, having seen him many times, and what I was able to learn from him, for I was his attendant for a long time..."

Antony was an Egyptian by descent.  He came from a good and rather wealthy family, and was raised in the Christian faith.  Athanasius notes that from infancy on Antony was pretty much a home-body.  As he grew into boyhood and adolescence, "he could not endure to learn letters, not caring to associate with other boys; but all his desire live [as] a plain man at home."  But Antony was no dummy.  He was attentive and obedient.  He attended church with his parents, helped them with chores, and always respected them.  He was a rich kid, of "moderate affluence" according to Athanasius, yet was content with his state in life and didn't seek out "varied or luxurious fare".  He accepted the status into which he'd been born, without seeking beyond it.

When Antony was somewhere between 18 and 20 his parents died, leaving him and a younger sister orphans.  Despite his youth, Antony sought strength and guidance in his religion, and thought and prayed long hours about what he should do next.  At length he determined to sell the property, some 300 "productive and fair" acres, since he realized that he and his sister would be unable to keep it up.  As for the rest, he sold all that was movable, thus realizing a good bit of money.  He set sufficient funds aside for his sister, then gave the remainder to the poor in a spirit of true Gospel poverty.  

As God's plan for him was becoming clearer to him, he took his sister to "known and faithful virgins", and placed her in a convent to be raised there.  A hard decision, both for the little girl, and for such a young man.  Feeling the draw to monastic life, "he henceforth devoted himself outside his house to discipline, taking heed to himself and training himself with patience".  There were few monasteries at that time, and desert hermits were virtually unheard of.  So those drawn to a solitary life chose to live ascetically near their own villages.  Antony discovered a mentor in the next village over, an old man who'd lived as a hermit from his youth, and Antony began to live as he did.  "Like a prudent bee", Athanasius says, he worked with his hands and used what money he had to help the needy and to buy bread for himself.  He prayed constantly and, attentive as he'd learned to be all along, he trained his memory to retain what he heard and, according to Athanasius, "afterwards his memory served him for books."  Surely cheaper than it is for many of us today! Apparently, this became commonplace for the early monks who used to memorize the Psalter, and therefore had a vast reservoir upon which to draw as they counselled others.

Antony was apparently a lovable human being.  He learned from his elders and only competed with those his own age in not being second to them in things of the spirit.  So much so that people of his village and his other spiritual colleagues and associates referred to him as "God-beloved".  

But the life of a solitary was by no means a bed of roses for Antony.  From the start he was tested and tried by the forces of evil.  Every demonic trick which could be employed was used against Antony, especially at the very points of his spiritual strength.  Antony figured it out early on, and could exclaim, once temptation had subsided: "the Lord is my helper". He kept a determined focus and by working with his hands, constant prayer, fasting, and vigilance he moved, step-by-step, ever closer to union with God.  Athanasius recounts one particularly intense encounter which Antony, when he was about 35, had with the demons: "...But Antony, feeling the help and getting his breath again, and being freed from pain, besought the vision [of God] which had appeared to him, saying, 'Where were you? Why did you not appear at the beginning to make my pains stop?' And a voice came to him, 'Antony, I was here, but I waited to see your fight; since you have endured and have not been worsted, I will ever be a succour to you, and will make your name known everywhere..."

After that, Antony set off for the mountains and greater solitude, and settled in there for the next twenty years. Acquaintances would check on him periodically, to deliver bread and to see if he was still alive, but though they couldn't see him, they could often hear him singing.  Finally, says Athanasius, "...Antony, as from a shrine, came forth initiated in the mysteries and filled with the Spirit of God.  Then for the first time he was seen outside the fort by those who had come to see him.   And they, when they saw him, wondered at the sight, for he had the same habit of body as before, and was neither fat , like a man without exercise, nor lean from fasting and striving with the demons, but he was just the same as they had known him before...he was altogether even as being guided by reason...[God] gave grace to Antony in speaking...he persuaded many to embrace the solitary life.  And thus it happened in the end that cells arose even in the mountains, and the desert was colonized by monks, who came forth from their own people, and enrolled themselves for the citizenship in the heavens..."    

As the monastic movement, in imitation of God-beloved Antony, grew and prospered, Antony maintained his steady, day-by-day, routine of simple living, prayer, and penance.  Nevertheless, he and the other monks were definitely attuned to events in the world around them.  They even emerged from their solitude when Maximinus began to persecute the Church, in order to be of assistance to their sisters and brothers.  Once the threat subsided, Antony returned not only to the desert, but to the "inner desert" which he'd learned about from some Saracens.  "Antony then," declares Athanasius, "as it were, moved by God, loved the place...And recognizing it was his own home, he remained in that place for the future."  He grew old here, with others seeing to his necessities.  He himself wove baskets for those who came, in return for what they brought him.  Occasionally Antony would visit the little cells of monks which had grown up in the general area.  Even his sister, "grown old in virginity", herself now a leader of other virgins, gave him the joy of a visit.  For the most part, he remained in his chosen seclusion.  Only when certain people involved in the Arian heresy claimed that Antony's opinions where the same as theirs, did Antony become so upset that he marched down the mountain and into Alexandria where he denounced the Arians as "forerunners of the Antichrist".  He clearly taught the people that the Son of God was not a created being, nor had He come into being from non-existence, but that Christ was "the Eternal Word and Wisdom of the Essence of the Father...Wherefore have no fellowship with the most impious Arians..."  Antony, despite his lack of book learning, was intelligent, "ready-witted, and sagacious".  Through his refutation of the Arians and his brilliant teaching in Alexandria, Athanasius observes that " many became Christians in those few days as one would have seen made in a year..."

If his dates are close to being accurate, Antony was certainly in his 90's, perhaps close to 100, when he finally fell ill. Knowing that he was going "the way of the fathers" and being "called by the Lord", he summoned two faithful and seasoned monks who'd been with him on the mountain for 15 years in order to make his final arrangements.  He asked them to personally bury his body and hide it underground in a place which only they would know.  His garments were to be divided: one sheepskin and the garment on which he was laid, to Athanasius, who had given him the garment when it was new; the other sheepskin, to Bishop Serapion; the hair garment, they could keep themselves.  'For the rest, fare ye well, my children, for Antony is departing, and is with you no more.'"

Athanasius concludes: "...This is the end of Antony's life in the body...Even if this account is small compared with his merit, still from this reflect [on] how great Antony, the man of God, was.  Who from his youth to so great an age preserved a uniform zeal for the discipline...For his eyes were undimmed and quite sound and he saw clearly; of his teeth he had not lost one, but they had become worn to the gums through the great age of the old man.  He remained strong both in hands and feet...he appeared more cheerful and of greater strength...For not from writings, nor from worldly wisdom, nor through any art, was Antony renowned, but solely from his piety towards God...For from whence into Spain and into Gaul, how into Rome and Africa, was the man heard of who abode hidden in a mountain, unless it was God who makes His own known everywhere...

Read these words, therefore, to the rest of the brothers that they may learn what the life of monks ought to be..."



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