This past Saturday, 17 January, we celebrated the Memorial of St. Anthony of Egypt–also known as St. Anthony the Great or St. Anthony, Abbot. He became one of the great monastic models, in the East and West, thanks to the biography about him written by St. Athanasius of Alexandria.
At Vigils that day we heard about St. Anthony’s relationship to the other hermits in Egypt and his balance of solitude and concrete contact with other monks. He helped direct their spiritual lives and monastic formation. We read in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers: Abba Anthony said: “Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we gain our brother, then we have gained God; but if we scandalize our brother, then we have sinned against Christ.”
His was a hermit vocation and ours is a cenobitic vocation faithful to the wise Rule of St. Benedict. The Church needs both ways of life within it. We follow the way which Christ places before each of us in his provident care for the whole Church. St. Anthony had the spiritual balance: he was grounded in Christ and docile to the Holy Spirit’s directives. St. Anthony wasn’t trying to follow some pre-conceived image of himself. His one goal was to follow Christ by detaching himself from everything he wanted to cling to.
It all started for young Anthony when he heard the Gospel text proclaimed at Mass: Go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor; then com, follow me. Getting rid of land and possessions was the easy part. Anthony then spent decades in solitude battling the demons within himself. St. Athanasius present those battles in very dramatic fashion, violent as they were. But Athanasius concludes with Anthony emerging from his struggles looking perfectly ordinary and peaceful, centered within himself–because he was now centered in Christ. Anthony was whole, not divided. Freed of his demons and free in Christ, Anthony was able to be responsive to whatever the moment required. Perhaps Anthony last and greatest personal attachment was to give up the longing to be a martyr for Christ in the persecutions. That wasn’t God’s plan for Anthony. And he surrendered to that last, greatest attachment, in order to be what God chose him to be rather than his own personal wish. However great a good that seemed to him, it was not what God intended for Anthony.
Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac, is the paradigm of every seeker of God. Our God is a consuming fire but we wrongly feel the need to save ourselves from that fire of God. If we continue now on the path we have begun–and how each of us must pray to remain on that path– we will meet the fire of God, individually in ourselves and as a community. If we know that and still go forward–through faith and through fire–we will be what God intends us to be. We will be blessed!
from a chapter Talk by Abbot Robert, 18 January, 2015