Tuesday, September 23, 2014

St. Anthony of Egypt : A New Kind of Athlete by Chris White

Icon of St. Anthony
St. Anthony (c. 251-356 AD) is considered the “Father of Monasticism” in Christianity.  He wasn’t the one who started this movement because he learned how to be a monk from someone else and later joins others who are doing the same.  But a famous Christian leader named Athanasius of Alexandria, wrote a book about him that not only made his story famous, but inspired many others to take a similar calling which eventually became a mainstream movement in the Church.  So in the  sense of being a great influencer, Anthony of Egypt is considered the father of a movement.

I find most people hold two common perceptions about monasticism.  The first is that living a life separated from society, from family life, even married life is an unworthy goal.  From a Christian perspective, there is from the Lord Jesus a command to be a part of society, that the Gospel will have a seasoning effect on it.  This is what Jesus means by being ‘salt and light.’  The other perception is that living under a form of daily regulation which all monastic people do is a form of sanctified legalism, one again denying the reality of God’s grace and promoting a lifestyle of works righteousness.
The solitary life for prayer and seeking God

Before I share the historic context of Anthony and his movement, I would point out that our modern society very much honors the goals of withdrawal and discipline at many levels.  Artists, writers, and musicians often must live a solitary life in the pursuit of creativity.  We also honor the soldier, the athlete, even the scholar who has regulated and disciplined their daily life as to achieve an excellence in their task.  In every respect a monastic is living a fully human existence but are re-channeling their personal energies towards the pursuit of God.  This is certainly no less worthy of a goal than writing a novel or running a 5 minute mile.

Anthony, however, had a different motivation.  In the society of antiquity, the monk philosopher was a venerable person and his work considered a noble pursuit.  In the ancient world, if you were fully devoted to philosophy, it was expected you would live a single and solitary life so that you could devote all your energies in the direction of thinking and learning.  In Syria and Egypt, Christianity took on a hue of philosophy and so the isolated holy man became a viable option for many.  And like the monk philosopher, though they lived alone, they would be pursued by disciples and members of the community for their advice and counsel on how to live.  In this way they were the salt and light in their society.

The goal of monasticism is a life fully alive to God.  This aliveness to God was a two-pronged activity.  First there was a full schedule of worship, prayer, meditation, and study of the scriptures.  These were done in cycles throughout the day and night.  Often sleeping and eating were minimal which created more time for this (think how much time a day is centered around the preparation and eating of meals). Secondly, there were disciplines of the mind and body that had as their end bringing the passions of the flesh come under the control of the spirit.  Monks had a realistic view of the fallen human nature and realized that bodily appetites were natural and yet often disordered and out of control.  The monk saw this as an ongoing spiritual training that was never complete and never perfected.  Did some monks become legalists, lazy, or even a bit crazy?  Of course some did, but we must not paint everyone with the guilt of an excessive few.
An Ancient Athlete

Another word that is commonly used for monks is ascetic.  Ascetic comes from the Greek word askesis meaning athletes.  Monks are spiritual athletes.  The idea is actually given to us by the Apostle Paul who speaks of bodily exercise being of little profit while spiritual exercise is of great profit (1 Tim. 4:8).  Thus, as we speak of Anthony of Egypt, we will think of many of his activities as spiritual training exercises that build his strength and endurance to follow Christ as a monk philosopher.

Anthony of Egypt was also a species of monk known as a Desert Father.  Why the Desert?   First, most of the population of Egypt lives and works in a narrow swath that follows the Nile.  If you are going to leave civilization, you have to go to the desert or at least it’s edge.  The desert is also barren and limited in its palette of colors.  The lack of visual stimulation made concentration and the life of the mind easier.  The desert was considered by early Christians as the habitation of the devil. In Luke 11:24, Jesus speaks of demons habiting the dry places.  It was also in the desert that Jesus battled Satan for 40 days.   For this reason the Desert fathers often regarded themselves as being warriors on the front lines and their testimony is that they regularly encountered evil spirits. 
Desert in Egypt

So here is Anthony’s story:  Anthony was between 18-20 years old.  He was a wealthy man by the standards of the day.  His parents had recently died (perhaps an epidemic but no one is certain) leaving him with 207 acres of farmland, a home, and a younger sister to look after.  As he walked to church he was thinking about how the early Christians sold all their belongings and gave the money to the apostles.

During the morning service the scripture reading is Mt. 19:21 which says: “ Jesus said to him, ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’”  As Anthony recalls his thoughts before church he takes this to be a direct word from Christ and immediately acts upon it.  Within a very short period of time he gives his land away, distributes his belongings to the poor and sells his home to provide a fund for a convent to take care of his younger sister.  Following his divestment of resources Anthony went into training to enter monastic life.
Jesus and Rich man

Such training is done in stages.  Anthony first started out living on the edge of his village near another monk who mentored him.  As he grew in his discipline he would seek mentors further out in the wilderness, learn from them, and then return to his monks hut near town.  All this time he disciplined his memory to not think of relatives, his past position in society, or the resources he once had.  He sought to be like St. Paul who said he forgot what lies behind that he might reach forward to what lies ahead (Phil. 3:13).  During the day he would do work to earn money for bread.   After buying his own daily allotment of bread (which was the normal diet of a monk) he gave the remainder of the money to the poor.  Another part of his training was the intensive memorization of scripture that it could be prayed and meditated upon while going through daily tasks.  It was not uncommon for monks to have memorized the entire New Testament, Psalms, and parts of the Old Testament.  Within a short period of time Anthony received the acclaim of his local townspeople.  They saw he had become a person of virtue and goodness and was for them a role model.  Having received his inauguration into the monastic life, Anthony prepares to move out on his own.

As he takes this step, like Jesus, he underwent a great period of satanic harassment and temptation.  The intent of the devil was to shipwreck him on the heels of his initial victory, but Anthony, like gold was purified in this process.  The temptations he underwent are quite instructive.  The first temptation was that of his memory and mind.  Past failures and concerns were brought to mind and the goal ahead was made to seem like it would be too hard to attain so why even start?  The second temptation was that of lust and foul thoughts stirring up physical drives which were set aside in this pursuit.  Apparently the devil even appears to him as a nude woman to beguile him and get him to turn aside from the path ahead.  The third and final temptation was that of comfort.  The desert offered no comfort and the devil placed in his mind all the comforts and pleasures he would never have access to again.
The devil plays on our fears and lusts

This barrage of temptation did not hit Anthony of Egypt in a state of helplessness.  He actually stood up against the enemy by meditation on the excellence of Jesus Christ, fully trusted that God would assist him in his weakness (I Cor. 10:15) and was strengthened in his continual prayers and fasting.  At some point this temptation resolves as Anthony confronts the devil and he leaves him for a time.  Anthony knew however, that the devil is never conquered in this life and continues to set traps and so he gave no quarter to complacency and arrogance but remained ever vigilant.

One of Anthony’s means of vigilance is what is called self-mortification.  In essence this is a denial of bodily comforts and needs at a level that the soul is alert and intensified.  Many people unaccustomed to such an idea often think of this as something very unhealthy physically and possibly a form of psychological self-hatred.  There is an extreme where this is probably so and many Christians who have taken this path with too much zeal early in life did in fact ruin their health in later life.  However, when done in a balanced way, it must contribute to overall health and longevity as many holy men who practiced self-mortification lived to be centenarians including Anthony himself!

How did Anthony practice self-mortification?  First of all he slept very little giving as much time as possible through the night to pray.  When he did sleep it was not in the comfort of a bed but a woven mat.  This would promote shorter sleep periods in general.  Although sometimes he went without eating, for the most part he observed a very simple diet of bread, salt, and water.  He gave up wine and all forms of meat completely.  Last of all, Anthony maintained a healthy attitude.  He never focused on his victories or failures of yesterday, but started each day as a fresh opportunity to live for God.  Think how often many of us choose to let yesterday use up today by focusing on our failures and regrets.  Living in the now, the present, is a wisdom all it’s own.

After 15 years of initial training, Anthony partakes in a transformative experience that seems bizarre and macabre to our modern sensibilities, and maybe it is, but it made sense to him and more than that, it sets the stage for the next phase of fruitful ministry in his life.  So what did Anthony do?  He had himself sealed inside a tomb for an period of weeks.  Why?  Because he had reached the age when Jesus died and was buried and resurrected.  He was not dead physically, but he wanted to pass through the tomb to an entirely new period in his life just like Jesus did.

In Anthony’s day it was not uncommon for people to build mausoleums for family burials.  It was also not uncommon for them to be broken into by grave robbers looking for valuable items buried with the dead.  It was also not uncommon for a tomb to be vacant and abandoned and be repurposed by a monk or even a poor family as a temporary home.  While probably not my first choice for a dwelling, sometimes practicality and availability prevail over aesthetics.  But I digress.

Modern depiction of Anthony in Tomb

So Anthony with the help of some local townspeople has himself sealed in a vacant tomb.  No doubt some water and food were put in for him before the final brick was mortared in place but no lamps.  All that Anthony encountered was darkness and eerie silence as he began his ordeal.  One of my dear friends moved to Oregon (where I live) from Phoenix Arizona.  Not only did he move from the hustle and bustle of a large city to the quietude of an isolated piece of land in the forest, he moved from leading a vibrant company with many employees that he had built up and sold to working by himself in a tiny office above his garage with nothing more than a laptop and phone connection.  While this might sound like an introvert’s paradise, (which it is) my friend was anything but an introvert and so this was an incredibly difficult adjustment for him.  It really took him more than a year to feel at ease with his new living and working environment but in the end he told me he discovered more about his true character and the reality of God’s presence working alone than he ever did surrounded by people.  I can’t help but think that as St. Anthony of Egypt contemplated his move to the outer desert to live as a hermit, he felt drawn to first test his mettle as a man to see if he was spiritually, emotionally, and physically prepared for such a change.

As the days turn into weeks, Anthony finds himself under great spiritual attack.  He feels great fear which translates in his body into excruciating pain.  He begins to see demons taking the form of grotesque creatures and this too scares him.  But he cries out to God with loud prayers for his assistance and resists the temptation to be released from his fear and pain.  As this ordeal nears the end, the Lord Jesus appears to him and tells Anthony, “I have been watching you and assisting you this whole time.”  Suddenly the fear and the pain end and Anthony senses his divine deliverance.  As the townspeople come on the appointed day to open the tomb they are shocked by his appearance.  Instead of a gaunt man half-crazed by light and sensory deprivation, Anthony comes out of the tomb more healthy and vibrant than when he entered it.  From this point forward, his vocation as a monk-philosopher soars to new heights.  Literally.

At this point St. Anthony heads to the edge of the desert to take up residence in a deserted fortress.  As he walks cross country he encounters in the middle of nowhere a store of silver and gold plate worth quite a bit of money.  He considers the situation and concludes this was actually placed in his path by Satan to distract him.  He steps over the plate and continues his journey.  Reaching his destination, Anthony begins praying and worshipping God.  This has been enemy territory but Anthony’s goal is that it will become part of the kingdom of God.  The enemy continues to assail him but now he is unmoved.  Anthony is actually attacking the demonic realm himself through his prayers and fastings.  Anthony stays at the fortress for 20 years and attracts many followers who want to pursue the monastic life under his tutelage.  He is now the holy man of the desert, able to counsel others, able to advise, to heal, to reconcile.  Many of the people of Egypt journey out to seek his spiritual advice and we are told the desert literally becomes a city of monks.

Watch a video on St. Anthony's Monastery today 

At age 55, St. Anthony moves to what is known as the “inner mountain”.  He is told about this new place by a group of Arabs he encounters.  The decision to move was based on the crowds and continual adulation he was receiving from the people.  He felt that if this continued he would become a victim of pride and self-conceit and lose the ground he had gained in the spiritual realm.  The inner mountain was a cell in an isolated spot on a mountainside several miles inland from the Red Sea.  At the foot of the mountain there was a natural spring and date palms which became a source of foot.  With the fresh water Anthony is also able to plant a small garden and eat food from it thus freeing anyone from having to bring food out to him.
Stairs leading up to Antony's cell on Mountain

These are the mature years of Anthony’s monastic calling.  He spends the remainder of his days giving counsel to fellow monks and any who venture out to see him at his cave.  He reports even in old age he had to continue to battle temptations and lusts of the flesh.  St. Paul in 2 Timothy 2:22 tells his protégé Timothy to “flee youthful lusts and pursue righteousness”.  As author Gordon T. Smith says perhaps the reason Timothy was to do this was because old age presents you with a whole new set of them.  Whatever the case, Anthony had an unusual way of dealing with his lusts.  He kept a “sin record book”.  He knew his human tendency was to deny his sinfulness and his lustful thoughts.  Instead of denying he had them, he wrote them down as not to hide his evil.  He felt in exposing it to himself, to the Lord and others, he was able to gain ground in his thought life.

St. Anthony's Monastery today
Anthony ends his years in a state of great popularity.  He is seen as the ‘spiritual physician’ of Egypt and had the supreme honor of everybody wanting him to be their father.  A great theological controversy broke out in Egypt and Anthony visited Alexandria to refute heretics and philosophers who tried to come against orthodox Christianity.  Just like a papal visit today, huge crowds gathered to see this great holy man and many conversions were recorded as a result of seeing him.

As he nears the end of his life, like Moses and the Patriarchs and Paul and the Ephesian elders, Anthony gathers his fellow monks in the desert and gives them a final charge to faithfulness to God before passing away.  Anthony arranged to have himself buried in a secret place that his grave would not be venerated.  He did have his few articles of clothing and possessions distributed among friends and they were immediately considered sacred relics.  But the best thing he left behind was a life well-lived and a holy example that still inspires today.
Death of St. Antony

The legacy of St. Anthony in the history of the Church is huge.  The story of his life inspired people such as Ss. Augustine, Jerome, Benedict and many other men of God who would also shape the life of the Church.  But more important are Anthony’s inspiring principles for living the Christian life.  I summarize them below:

1. Do not to grow fainthearted in the disciplined life because we receive a far greater return in
    eternity than we ever invested.

2. Do not to lose heart about the renunciation of this world.  We will lose it all at death anyway. 
    So why not grow in virtue which can be taken into the next life?

3. Live circumspectly and constantly for the Lord.  Each day is new and gains can be made. 
    Conversely, great losses can occur daily simply through laxity

4.  Dying daily---live each day as it is your last day—you will not sin, you will forgive, you will
     live earnestly.

5. The ultimate weapon against the Devil:  a just and godly life.  Fasting, vigils, prayers,
    meekness and gentleness, contempt for money, lack of vanity, love of the poor, gentleness
    towards others will all drive the enemy underfoot.

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