Episode 103: Anthony in the Tomb

Please note: This is an abbreviated script for the coming podcast Wisdom of the Ancient Monks. The podcast is scheduled to begin August 30th.

In the Star Wars movie The Empire Strikes Back the hero, Luke Skywalker, begins his training as a Jedi. He travels to the swamp planet of Dagobah and discovers that the Jedi Master he is to learn from is the humble Yoda. Quite a strange place for a young man who grew up on the desert planet of Tatootine. Quite a strange master for him to learn the ways of the Force from. Luke soon learns the power of faith and grows to trust Yoda. 

Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons – Metropolitan Museum of Art

As part of his training, Yoda sends Luke into a cave where the dark side of the Force is strong. He must face the darkness about who he is if he is to continue down his path of becoming a Jedi. So he descends and quickly is confronted by an image of Darth Vader. He is the demonic personification of the dark side and Luke battles him. He overcomes this image of Darth Vader only to discover that it is his face behind Vader’s mask. He now understands that Darth Vader is in fact his father Anakin Skywalker and that if he is not vigilant, he too will fall to the dark side. 

Going deep and confronting demons is a common theme in spirituality and in literature. From Elijah at Mount Horeb to Henry David Thoreau’s retreat to Walden’s Pond spiritual people are made by first retreating, contemplating, and listening in solitude. With Saint Anthony the Great this is no different. For him the retreat was a tomb and it was there he battled demons. Let’s hear his story.

In this way, then, Antony girded himself and left for the tombs that lay some distance from his village. After asking one of his friends to bring him bread every few days, he went into one of the tombs and, closing the door of the tomb behind him, remained inside, alone. The Enemy, however, could not stand his being there. He was afraid that little by little Antony would turn the desert into a city of asceticism. Coming out one night with a mob of demons, he beat Antony with so many blows that he was left lying on the ground, unable to speak because of the torturous blows. Antony said with certainty that human beings could never wield such blows or inflict such punishment, so great was his suffering.

But by the providence of God (for the Lord does not disregard those who hope in him), the next day Antony’s friend came, bringing some bread for him. When he opened the door and saw Antony lying on the ground as though dead, he lifted him up and carried him to the village church and laid him on the ground. Many of his relatives and people from the village sat down around Antony as though he were dead. Around midnight, though, Antony regained consciousness and raised himself up. When he saw all of them asleep and only his friend keeping watch, he beckoned to the friend to come over and asked him to pick him up again and carry him back to the tomb without waking anyone.

So, Antony was carried back to the tomb by this man and, with the door closed, as was his custom, he was once again inside by himself. He did not have the strength to stand because of the blows from the demons but continued to pray while lying down. And after his prayer he would cry out, ‘Look, here I am—Antony! I will not run from your blows! Even if you do worse things to me, nothing “will separate me from the love of Christ’”. Then he also recited the psalm: ‘Though an army should array itself against me, my heart will not be afraid’. The ascetic thought and said these things, but the Enemy, who hates what is good, was amazed that after all these blows Antony was brave enough to return. Summoning his dogs, and so angry that he was about to burst, the Devil said, ‘You see that neither with the spirit of fornication nor with blows have we stopped this fellow. On the contrary, he stubbornly opposes us! Let us approach him some other way!’ (It is easy for the Devil to take on other forms to do evil.)

The Life of Antony: The Coptic Life and The Greek Life – Translated by Tim Vivian and Apostolos N. Athanassakis

While there is much to talk about it we will focus on simply three truths this chapter from Anthony’s life reveals. The first truth is that we all have something dark within us and/or oppressing us. For Anthony it was his sexual drive. He was human like anyone one else and he had urges like anyone else. Now let it be said clearly that there is nothing wrong with having these urges, it is part of our biology. It was that he was tempted to employ them outside their proper context. “What’s wrong with a bit of pleasure?” some may ask. Well it often involves fantasy about another person (living in delusion), it places the pleasure above love, and in many cases it leads to an addiction. Sexual addiction is something that can really make a mess of a young person’s life. Believe me, I am a university chaplain and I have seen how unhealthy it is.

The demon’s plan is to trip up Anthony just like how it trips up the lives of so many young people. Anthony, however, recognized the danger and went to an extreme not to fall into an act of self-fornicaiton. Saints Benedict and Francis are said to have thrown themselves in thorn bushes to remove their temptations. I don’t suggest this myself, but it seemed to work for them. Instead I recommend a snap of a thick rubber band worn on the wrist. Seeing how Anthony had neither thorn bushes nor rubber bands in his tomb he most likely threw himself against the walls. The aim was to get the mind to focus on the feeling of pain rather than pleasure.  Only it worked too well for Anthony, he must have given themself a concussion hitting his head against the wall. Which is why my advice is if you are going to use negative reinforcement, please keep it simple and don’t hurt yourself. 

We now come to the second truth, when you are down, turn to the church, it will be your support network. When Anthony was out cold a friend discovered him and brought him into his local church. Pope Francis has called the church “a hospital for sinners.” Christians like to view the Word of God proclaim there and the sacraments received there as balms for the sinner weary soul. Anthony in avoiding the sin of “self-abuse” ironically abused his own body. He sinned in damaging the good body God gave him. In church he comes to his senses. When he returns to the tomb to face the demons once again notice how things have changed. Instead of punishing himself to get rid of his urges he instead places his trust in God. He comes to understand that he alone cannot overcome sin, it is not through the grace of God. 

The final truth is that spiritual growth always involves a sort of dying. When Anthony engages in this calling to live out the gospel as literally as he could, he saw that some things about his character had to die. It is indeed providential that he entered into a tomb to seek to become a new man in Christ. For Anthony he needed to die to his notion that he can fight off temptations through his own power, he needed God’s grace and he needed the help of others. 

Monks of my congregation undergo their own tomb experience when they make their solemn vows. Before making vows, the monk lies on the church floor and is covered over with a funeral pall, symbolically being buried. Then, the monastic community calls upon the intercession of the saints and on God to aid the monk in keeping the vows. Once this call for grace is made, the pall is removed and a new monastic is born, one fortified enough to make vows that will last until for life. 

Anthony was called “the Great” because he gave us so great an example to live our spiritual lives by. We should learn from him and die to our false notions of self-reliance and be willing to turn to God and to his church when our demons attack us. May Anthony himself intercede for us as we learn to be born-again in Christ.

Assigning Blame

Envy – from the British Museum

Note: This topic may be considered mature.

Talking about others is something that has been going since humanity first developed speech. Our attention often turns towards what other people are doing and how it annoys us. Next comes the compulsion to share that annoyance with others hoping we can form a large enough block to pressure ‘those people’ to conform to ‘our’ expectations. The ancient monks knew all about this. Gossip and shaming were just as active in their world as in ours. This is why they promoted the practice of silence. Better to stay silent than speak destructive words. Here is a saying that addresses this problem.

A brother, tempted by a demon, went to an old man and said, “Those two brothers are always together.”

But the old man understood that the brother was being mocked by demons and he sent and called the two to him. When evening came, he laid out a rush mat for those two brothers and covered them with a single blanket, saying, “These sons of God are saints.” Conversely, he said to his disciple, “Shut that other brother up in a cell nearby, for he has in himself the very passion which he accused the others of having.

from Becoming Fire Edited by Tim Vivian

Where to begin? Why not with the one who is the real ‘bad guy’, the demon. Now let’s be honest, we want to condemn this tattling brother. The old man, who has seen and experienced much in his desert sojourn, sees the situation differently. He sees the evil that is at work in this tattling brother. The demon’s oppressing the brother has one goal, to sow chaos. By sowing chaos it is able to undermine the good at work in him and in those around him.

There is indeed good at work even in a tattling brother who tries to condemn two of his brothers. He is a brother after all. He answered God’s call to go out to the desert and join the monastics in seeking purity of heart. He sees what he thinks is wrong, two brothers involved in what earlier generations called a ‘particular friendship’. So, he refrains from handling the situation himself and instead seeks an elder monk. He may believe that he is doing what is right. Yet, it is all wrong. How can this be?

When we are not careful in examining our inner motives we quickly become blind to why we do the things we do. The tattling brother grew lax in his examination of conscience for reasons we do not know. The demons that lurk in the murky background of all our thoughts saw an opening and took advantage of it.

The demon found within the brother an unmet yearning for intimacy. He wanted to feel loved by another, in this case by another brother. The need was legitimate. Of course, what was forgotten was that he was already loved by God and his fellow monastics. The demon perceived this desire and pointed out the two other brothers who were apparently enjoying what he did not have, mutual love. Envy soon set in and brought chaos to the brothers mind and soul. A chaos that he could not contain within himself.

The demon’s plan was to destroy this brother from within and the rest of the monks from without. The primary target may well have been to two brothers who are described in this saying as saintly. Demons find the saintly particularly annoying because they too are envious of the love they enjoy. It would seem that the two saintly brothers shared a mutual love for God. They saw this love within each other and so were drawn towards each other in true friendship. A true friendship is one where each friend seeks what is best for the other. When it is found it should be honored and reverenced, just as the old man does in this saying.

Demons hate this kind of friendship which is based on love. So the demon tries to use the weak, tattling brother to destroy it. If successful, the demon can then throw a cloud of suspicion over all other friendships that monks would form. “They are not friends, but depraved lovers! Punish them, cast them out!” Monks would be afraid to get close to one another and begin to isolate themselves. Once isolated that would become easier targets for the other demons.

Of course, improper relationships between monastics was a problem and sadly continued to be so. The demons that afflict our souls are relentless. Those who set out seeking a pure love for God alone despair and settle for a love-like experience that is at hand. The tattling brother’s weakness is revealed to the wise old man. So, the tattling brother is treated as a sick person, confined to bed (a nearby cell) in order to be nursed back to spiritual health. The old man, I suspect, will have the sick brother acknowledge his yearnings for love and then help him direct those yearnings correctly toward God. This will be a tricky operation, no doubt.

So what does this saying say to us? Without a doubt, it is telling us many things. It calls us to confront our own daily battle against envy. We are reminded to acknowledge what are true yearnings for even if we know they are not, as yet, correctly directed. The challenge is to be willing to discover what is dark within us and be willing to seek healing even when that means revealing the darkness to another. This saying invites to consider how today’s demons may be at work sowing chaos in ourselves and in our societies. Our racism, classism, sexism, and self-righteousness all stem from a deep and hardly acknowledged hatred for that which is not ourselves. It challenges us, ultimately, to love God alone and to share that love with others. The simplest and hardest thing we mortals must do.

Episode 102: Anthony’s Calling

Monastery of St. Anthony, Eastern Desert of Egypt, from Wikimedia Commons

Note: This is a condensed script for the Wisdom of the Ancient Monks Podcast.

If you have been to a sporting event you have an idea of the power of words. At sporting events we simply think of this as cheering but it is an important part of the game. In Seattle, the city my monastery is closest to, the fans of their football team (American Rules) consider themselves the ‘Twelfth Man’. The fans of the soccer team (International Football) are the “Emerald City Supporters’. They see their role of chanting, singing, stomping, and yelling as an important factor in their team’s performance. The players and coaches agree with them, too. At the time of the recording of this podcast, sports teams are being required to play in empty stadiums. The lack of fans and their vocal support is having an effect on the players who find that they receive much of their drive from hearing the fans. Great voices have great power.

Of course, it doesn’t take the combined voices of thousands to make words have power. The classic example from Scripture is the prophet Elijah’s experience at Mount Horeb. He found the Word of God not in the great noises of wind, earthquake, or fire, but in a light, nearly silent sound. Most of our experiences with the power of words come from the latter type like Elijah’s , I expect. Yet, it is safe to say we all have some experience with words that stopped us, made us reconsider, gave confidence, or provided new direction. Let us hear about a young Anthony’s experience of words that gave his life a new direction.

[Once] when Antony entered a church and heard the Lord saying in the Gospel ‘Do not be concerned about tomorrow’, he could not bear to remain there, so he left and distributed his remaining things among those less well off. His sister he entrusted to well-known and faithful virgins, giving her to them to be raised in virginity, while from that time on he devoted himself to ascetic discipline in front of his home, watching over himself spiritually and practicing patient endurance.

There were not yet monasteries in Egypt neighboring on one another, and no monk at all knew the remote desert; each one who wished to watch over himself spiritually would practice ascetic discipline by himself not far from his own village.

Now there was at that time an old man in the neighboring village. From his youth he had practiced the solitary life of an ascetic. When Antony saw him, he emulated him in goodness. So, like him, Antony began his ascetic practice by staying in places outside that village. While there, if he heard about someone who was seriously practicing ascetic discipline somewhere, he would go like the wise honeybee and search out that person, and he would not return again to his own village unless he had seen him. Thus, he was like someone who received provisions from that person for travelling the road to virtue.

This was the way he initially occupied himself in that place. He resolved not to think about his parents, nor was he mindful of his relatives. All his desire and all his energies he directed toward the great effort of ascetic discipline. So, he worked with his hands, having heard ‘Let the lazy person not eat’. He would spend part of what he earned on bread and part of it he would give to those who were begging. He prayed all the time, having learned that it is necessary to pray by oneself without ceasing. Indeed, he paid such close attention to the reading of Scripture that nothing in the Scriptures was wasted. He remembered everything, with the result that for him memory took the place of books.

A casual reading of the Bible will reveal that when one encounters God, big changes are about to take place. Abraham migrated into a new land and learned what it means to have faith. Moses changed from being a man hiding from the law into the bringer of God’s Law. Isaiah and Jeremiah encountered the Lord and discovered they had no choice but to speak out against the abuses of their times despite the troubles it brought upon them. The fishermen Peter and Andrew, James and John encountered God Incarnate and left behind their nets. And Saul the Pharisee encountered the Risen Christ and became Paul the Apostle. Encountering God does that.

Anthony, like all Christians today, encounters God through the proclamation of the Gospel. Unlike most Christians, however, he listens intently to what is being proclaimed in his local church. Monks like to call this ‘listening with the ears of heart.’ That is, hearing the Word, believing that is from God, and taking to heart what is being asked. In Greek of the New Testament this is called metanoia, a changing of one’s life in response to a new reality.

The bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, the author of The Life of Anthony, uses Anthony as a model for how all Christians can allow God to call them into further conversion. When reading the Life, it is helpful to keep this in mind. Athanasius is not just providing us with information about an interesting character who lived in the Egyptian desert. No, he is preaching as any bishop would and his text is Anthony’s and the Scriptures.

Now earlier in the Life, Athanasius wrote how Anthony was inclined from a young age to become the man he would later be. You see, Anthony is not self-made or self-defined. We Americans like to imagine ourselves like that, but that is not how Athanasius and the ancient monks saw it. God prepared Anthony from the beginning to take on his special calling. God always acts first. Thus, Anthony was born into a Christian family, he preferred not to be around noisy people (even to the point of not attending school), and he took Scripture seriously. He was already putting into practice the poverty which the first Christians lived as shown in the second chapter of Acts. God readied Anthony to hear his Word and receive it in his heart, Anthony part was to have faith in the God who was acting through him.

For ourselves who live in a different time and place than did Anthony and Athanasius, what can we take from this? I would say that we would be wise to ponder over what gifts and abilities we have been given in life so far. God readies us, too, just like he did Anthony. Then we should consider where our passions lie. We may be good at math, for example, but not called to be mathematicians. Maybe the math points to a kind of mind that is good at unwinding problems. What problems may we be called to solve for the sake of God of Kingdom God. Then we can take what we have learned from our pondering and allow the Word of God to communicate to us what our next steps should be. Instead of making life choices through economic and social considerations, maybe it is time to make those choices through faith.

Athanasius not only uses Anthony’s life to speak about the proper Christian response to the Word of God, but also to show that what was happening in the desert of Egypt was indeed a valid response to God’s Word. Monasticism has had its critics from its beginnings up to today. Some Christians will say it is simply ‘works righteousness’ with monks trying to prove themselves to God. Some saw it as establishing an elite who were somehow more Christian-than-most-Christians. Then we have today’s critique that it is life-denying and abusive to those who enter into it. Athanasius, who had personal experience with the monks, wants to show the readers of his Life that monastic life flowed from scripture. The monk’s aim is to demonstrate to the world that living the Scripture without compromise is in fact possible. To understand the ancient monks we need to understand this.

After Anthony accepts his calling notice what he does next. He does not immediately go out in the desert. He does not make the mistake which other saints like Francis of Assisi or Ignatius of Loyola will make by trying too much too soon. Francis and Ignatius would wreck their bodies and die prematurely because they embraced asceticism without moderation. Instead he allowed himself to be taught by others who had come before him. In a sense, he was keeping the commandment to honor his parents by looking to those ascetics who came before him for guidance.

We should keep this in mind. For Christians it is not meant to be ‘me-and-Jesus’ or ‘God-and-I”. Reading the New Testament we find that we are called into a community, the Church. While every human has its faults (even the communities the ancient monks will form) it is better for every Christian that we all gather for mutual support and shared prayer. I was taught in seminary that there is no such thing as a single Christian, we are all members of the Body of Christ.

The chapter reading closes with Anthony continuing to put the Scripture to practice in his own life. He worked for his food, following 2 Thessalonians 3. Yet, he gave away freely what he had in excess. His work was not simply performed for himself, but it enabled him to be generous towards those who may not actually deserve the bread he worked for. That does not matter, God forgives us our sins when we do not deserve it either. This shows that nothing Anthony heard in Scripture went to waste, he heard it and took it heart.

There is much to learn from Anthony. This is why a very busy bishop like Athanasius, who had a whole host of other problems that demanded his attention, took the time to formulate and write the Life of Anthony. It shows us how we Christians can put our trust in Scripture and try to live it out in our lives. We each have a calling, we have other Christians to guide us, and have ancient monks like Anthony who show us it can be done. What are we waiting for?

The Problem with Judging

Icon from St. Innocent Orthodox Church in Redford, MI by Archpriest Theodore Jurewicz

Why bother with these biographies, stories, and sayings of monastic men and women from centuries ago? What can these extreme ascetics have to say to us who live in more sophisticated and modern times? They may have had something to say to people of their own times but hasn’t the world evolved since? Have we not found that science delivers what we truly desire? Is not the pursuit of freedom and inclusion shown to be the true aims in life?

To these and other questions of the same ilk, I probably cannot give answers that will satisfy everyone. I have already admitted that these men and women appear strange to us. They simply refuse to act normal. Besides, how can I not see the wonderful advances brought about through science and the modern state. And yet, when I spend time reflecting on these early monastics, I find in them a new way of seeing what is happening in my own life. Let me give you a recent example.

A brother at Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to say to him, “Come, for everyone is waiting for you.” So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said to him, “What is this, Father?” The old man said to them, “My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.” When they heard that, they said no more to the brother but forgave him.

From Becoming Fire edited by Tim Vivian

We may say to ourselves, “Yes, I get it! I can open my bible to Matthew 7 and read, ‘Stop judging, and you will not be judged.’ So why the story about the old man and the leaking jug? He should have just quoted the bible when they asked him to come to the council.” Yet there is something about what Abba Moses did that really drives the point home. He doesn’t just tell the others that they were not acting according to the Gospel, he shows them. He introduces the notion of each person’s brokenness through the leaky jug. He reminds them that all of us are unaware of our own waywardness. When we think we are moving in the direction of righteousness we could very well be leaving behind a trail of sin. And finally he implies that he has been forgiven of his faults so he should do the same towards others.

At the university where I work one of our students recently committed a fault. On his Facebook page he posted an image that was racist. He thought it was funny, the community members did not. This young has sinned, that is without doubt. Being as we are in quarantine and this happening in the summer as it did, the following council was virtual for the most part. Some, I do not know how many, of our students, staff, faculty, and alumni called for the student’s expulsion from our University. Expulsion is the most severe penalty the university can impose on a student. Once expelled from a university it is unlikely that another university would accept that student into their institution. In effect, it locks the person out of getting a college degree. An action that will affect him for the rest of his life.

Now I imagine I could have increased my esteem among these members of our community if I would have added my opinion to theirs that this student should be expelled. I would have demonstrated that I stood on the right side of the issue, that I too abhorred racism in all its forms. Instead, I stayed in my cell so to speak. After some prayer, I wrote to our university president my opinion as the institution’s chaplain.

In the letter I stated that as a Catholic and Benedictine university we should always tend towards reconciling rather than expelling our wayward members. In the Catholic Church reconciliation is considered to be sacrament, a way that God touches us within our inner lives. As Benedictine we look back at the example set by these early monastics and try to follow in their footsteps. We see what Abba Moses did as a reflection on ourselves and how we are often not the best ones to judge. For who among us is truly free from racism? It is called our nation’s original sin for good reason. We are all stained by it.

The student will not be coming back in the fall. That saddens me. We had an opportunity for true reconciliation and conversation over racism to take place. The young man could have grown to understand how hurtful his sin is towards others. The community could have understood the context from which he was coming out of and why he saw what he was doing as funny. Instead we will have a young who will simply go on to another institution (we did not go as far as to expel him) and we will have several frustrated members of our community thinking that we are indifferent and unjust.

Does writing this make me a hero or a saint? No, it definitely does not. I am simply passing on what has been handed onto me through the grace of God. I am still a sinner with my own leaking jug on my shoulder as I walk through life. With the help of Scripture and the example set for me by these early monastics, I hope to become more humble in words and actions so as to allow God to act through me to bring reconciliation into a world that is sin sick.

Episode 101: Antony the Great

The brethren came to the Abba Anthony and said to him, “Speak a word; how are we to be saved?” The old man said to them, “You have heard the Scriptures. That should teach you how.” But they said, “We want to hear from you too, Father.” Then the old man said to them, “The Gospel says, ‘if anyone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.'” (Mt 5:39) They said, “We cannot do that.” the old man said, “If you cannot offer the other cheek, at least allow one cheek to be struck.” “We cannot do that either,” they said. So he said, “If you cannot do that, do not return evil for evil.” And they said, “We cannot do that either.” Then the old man said to his disciple, “Prepare a little brew of corn for these invalids. If you cannot do this, or that, what can I do for you? What you need is prayers.”

From The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translated by Benedicta Ward, SLG
St. Anthony, Fethiye Museum, – Wikimedia Commons

Note: This is a condensed script for the podcast episode to be published at the end of this summer.

Anthony was probably the most famous Christian holy man in Late Antiquity (300 – 600 AD). The Emperor residing in Constantinople (The New Rome of the late Empire) even invited him to his court. Anthony never went, though. So people traveled great distances to see him in the Egyptian desert. This would have been a hardship, but there was something about Anthony that drew people to him.

Some even began to imitate him. They too ventured out into the Egyptian desert. Men and women, both, left the security of family and community and formed new communities out in the wilderness. Some started as hermits like Anthony. Though in time they started networks of support to aid themselves in their desert lives. Others chose to live in groups that would pray and work together as a new kind of family. This movement which found its inspiration in a simple Egyptian hermit would become the model for Christian holiness for the next eight centuries to follow. Today, there are still men and women who choose to continue in the way pioneered by Anthony the Great.

It would seem that all Christian religious life begins with Anthony, but does it? From what we know about Anthony and his times, he was not entirely unique in his life as Christian. As hinted at in the saying above, Anthony believed that all he was doing was living out what the Gospel required of him. Had this not been true from the beginning of Christianity? Do Christians not try to put on the person of Jesus Christ as Saint Paul preached for them to do?

Besides, Christian widows had lived in community long before, from New Testament times in fact. As time went on, young Christian women would voluntarily join these women in their lives of prayer community, and service. Antony’s own younger sister would be one such woman to do this.

In Egypt, Christian men, too, chose to live a life of asceticism and prayer years before Antony did. They were inspired by the Christian scholars who lived in the great, ancient city of Alexandria. Men like Clement and his disciple Origen taught that Christians should strive to free themselves from harmful passions and thoughts that led to sin. They needed to detach themselves from worldly cares as they dedicate themselves solely to Christ. Christ was to be discovered in scripture, so the Word should be heard, remembered, and pondered upon slowly. This led some to forgo marriage and others to live outside of their towns or villages so as not to be distracted. As we will hear, Anthony had ascetic men such as these to mentor him in how to live a life dedicated to Christ alone.

So what made Anthony stand out? I would say it was his strangeness.

He is strange to us no doubt. He lived in a time and place quite foreign to us. His Egypt was not the Egypt of the pharaohs. The last pharaoh ruled 600 years previous. Nor was Anthony’s Egypt that of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, they were over 300 years previous. And it was not the Egypt of the sultans. That was not to come for another 300 years in the future. Instead, it was a time when ancient civilization was failing and many knew it.

The Emperor Constantine ended Christian persecution and instead promoted it with the hope that it would revitalize society. Conversions to Christianity began to increase now that it was safe and approved. Many pagans held on to their beliefs for generations, however. In Anthony’s time one could find people holding to all sorts of religious beliefs with Christianity only being the most energetic.

Christianity itself had to face questions about exactly what was correct belief. An Egyptian priest by the name of Arius, for example, believed that Jesus Christ was not equal with God the Father. He persuaded many to his views using philosophy and scripture. Another Egyptian, Athanasius (who will write Anthony’s biography), took the other position that all Persons in the Trinity are equally God. He did this by also employing philosophy and scripture. Their theological battle turned political as Christians took sides. Anthony found himself caught up in this debate and sided with Athanasius. This was only one of the many debates that kept Christians divided in these times when they could have transforming their culture.

Anthony would have also been strange to those of his own time, too. As I mentioned, there were already ascetics, both Christian and pagan, living in Anthony’s Egypt. It was to the extent that Anthony was willing to go that startled people. His going out beyond the reach of support was like walking a tightrope without a net, one slip and it is over. It spoke volumes about Anthony’s trust in God to support him in his quest. He was the living embodiment of anachoresis, fleeing from the desires of the world.

What mostly astonished Anthony’s peers was his wisdom. He was illiterate, yet all who met him found him to possess incredible composure, be able to judge the character of a person, and tell what lay at the root of question. Pagan philosophers thought they could easily show up this wise peasant with the advantage of their years of study. So they went to challenge him and came out the worse. Because of his wisdom civic leaders had him judge criminal cases and religious leaders sought his advise. Soon people from all over the ancient Mediterranean world sought out Anthony so he could give them a ‘word’.

Which brings us to the Saying from the beginning. Sayings were anecdotes of wisdom that were often paradoxical like Zen koans. They were not meant to clear the mind, however. Instead, they are to aid disciples to see beyond the first layer of interpretation and come to see what lies behind their own and others words and actions.

As we heard some ‘brethren’ came to Anthony seeking a word. I am going to assume that these were Christians and so brothers in Christ. They came wanting to hear Anthony give them a wise saying for them to ponder over. This word would help them as Christians to better embrace the Word, who is Christ, the Word Incarnate, so as to be saved. Now then, this all seems normal and routine. Just like those cartoons showing a person climbing a mountain to speak to the wise hermit. Anthony, however, appears to discern that something is amiss in these brethren’s hearts. So he tests them.

Anthony replies, “You have heard the Scriptures. That should teach you how.” Why answer this way? Because for Christians Scripture is the primary means of encountering God. Of course, as a Catholic priest I also hold that the Sacraments are also an encounter, though the Word should never be neglected. Sacraments apart from Scripture are impoverished. Anyway, what Anthony wants to discover is whether these brethren have laid down the groundwork of becoming good Christians by trying to conform their lives to Scripture.

“We want to hear from you too, Father.” is their reply. So they are implying that they have heard the Scriptures, but there is a telling lack of a definite ‘yes’ in their answer. Why is this? Are they finding Scripture to be insufficient? That cannot be, since for Anthony all his wisdom flowed out of Scripture. They appear to be wanting to hear something other than Scripture.

So Anthony tests further by quoting Scripture., “The Gospel says, ‘if anyone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.'” Now the truth comes out, “We cannot do that.” These brethren came to Anthony because they heard Scripture and found it too hard to accept. They came to Anthony hoping that he, a holy man, would tell them something else. Maybe something that was easier and more realistic to the way of the world. Of course, there have always been and sadly will always be, religious men and women who out of the weakness of vanity (wanting to be liked) will preach something other than the Word. Anthony was no such man. He had struggled with his own temptations to vanity and subdued them. He lived solely for Christ and his Word.

Anthony goes on to discover with further questioning that their rejection of Scripture goes deep. They cannot forgive and are willing to take up what is evil to justify themselves. Christians in the west would likely give these brethren an admonishment. If they do not change their ways then they are probably on the road to perdition. Good riddance!

Anthony, on the other hand, sees what is wrong as a sickness. He then goes on to treat them as though they were sick by giving them physical nourishment in the form of boiled grain and promises to prayer for them. This attitude that sin is disease in more common in eastern Christianity than in western. We in the west would do well to consider if it is not a better approach to aiding those who fail to live up to their baptism. As we continue in this series we will come across this approach again and again.

Now that we have had a sampling from this strange hermit who lived so long ago it is time to move into the major source on Anthony, The Life written by Athanasius. We will spend a couple months with this Life before returning to some of the Sayings about Anthony. In doing so I hope your will discover an extraordinary saint who indeed deserved his title of ‘the Great’. Anthony has much to teach us still, so let us sit in his presence, listen and ponder.

A Wise Woman

We should keep in mind that there were Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers. It is unfortunate that the human society being how it is did not preserve more sayings from these women of desert. So let us treasure the ones we have.

Amma Theodora, the Desert Mother we will hear from today, lived a life of privilege at first. She was a member of the ancient world’s 1% being married to a tribune of the Roman Empire. Such a position provided her wealth, comfort, and power; the very things most humans throughout different times and cultures have striven for. Most would say she had it made. Yet, as her fleeing to the Egyptian desert showed, those things were not enough to satisfy what she truly yearned for. She made a conscious decision to live up to her name, Theodora, by no longer being a taker but becoming a giver. Thus by walking away from wealth and privilege she became ‘God’s gift’ not just to the monks and bishops who consulted her for advice and wisdom, but to us as well. Let us hear what she has to say to us this day.

[Amma Theodora] also said, “It is good to live in peace, for the wise practice of perpetual prayer. It is truly a great thing for a virgin or a monk to live in peace, especially for the younger ones. However, you should realize that as soon as you intend to live in peace, at once evil comes and weighs down your soul through accidie, faintheartedness, and evil thoughts. It also attacks your body through sickness, debility, weakening of the knees, and all the members. It dissipates the strength of soul and body, so that one believes one is ill and no longer able to pray. But if we are vigilant, all these temptations fall away.

From The Saying of the Desert Fathers translated by Benedicta Ward, SLG

From my own experience I can say what Theodora says about prayer is true. You know it is good for you. It brings you closer to God who is Love. Yet, once you start to quiet yourself for prayer, all the other things you could be doing; watching television, finishing an assignment for work, even cleaning, come beckoning. You grow confused and end up worrying and not praying.

Theodora probably came to this wisdom through first observing her own difficulties and those of others around her. She notes first accidie, that primal enemy of all those intent on a devout life. The contemporary poet and spiritual writer, Kathleen Norris, writes about her struggles with it in her book, Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life. The troubles that Theodora lists next are often members of accidie‘s gang of demons; faintheartedness, evil thoughts, and feelings of weakness and illness. Accidie has a way of reverting ourselves back to children who are sickened at the thought of having to complete homework on a sunny day. Think Ferris Bueller.

How does one confront such an enemy? In the words of the founder of my monastic congregation, Boniface Wimmer, “Forward, always forward, everywhere forward!” Accidie is addressed through, as Theodora notes, vigilance. We first need to become aware that whenever we begin an activity that will demand of us our attention, and prayer is one such activity, accidie will occur. When we are ready for it then we can say to ourselves, “So there you are, you demon, I see you and you will not win the day over me.”

Next we need to persevere. We are engaged in a struggle that will continue until your mind and soul have gained the strength to concentrate for an extended period of time. Some days will not go well for us, that should be accepted and expected. But, by sticking to it, we will experience days that will provide us with the hope to continue. The point is to keep at it, especially if you do not feel like it. Remember, our feelings are fickle friends.

Finally, we need to remember that we cannot do it on our own, that we are in need of God’s grace to succeed at prayer or any other activity. Will power is good, but never sufficient. Look for God’s grace to manifest itself throughout your day. It will be in the things that happen, the things you read, and in the people you meet. Take it in and trust in it. That will bring the peace needed to confront the accidie and push past it.

To learn more of the Desert Mothers I suggest the following: Desert Daughters, Desert Sons: Rethinking the Christian Desert Tradition by Rachel Wheeler; and Praying with the Desert Mothers by Mary Forman, OSB.

Seeing the Wooden Beam

Abba Poeman was known among the Desert Fathers as the wise shepherd. This was a play off his name which in Greek actually means ‘shepherd’. He is called wise because he is the most quoted of the ancient Egyptian monks. Over a quarter the surviving sayings are from Abba Poeman or involve him. In this blog and in the coming podcast we will come to know this wise shepherd well. Let us consider this saying:

A brother questioned Abba Poeman, saying, “I have found a place where peace is not disturbed by the brothers. Do you advise me to live there?” The old man said in reply, “The place for you is where you will not harm your brother.”

From Becoming Fire: Through the Year with the Desert Fathers and Mothers edited by Tim Vivian

Now then, this seems like a reasonable request. The young disciple feels he is ready to take the next big step in his life as a Desert Monk, to live in a cell on his own. He has already taken some initiative in searching out a place in the desert where he can build a hut to live in. All he needs now is an okay from his spiritual father (abba) Poeman. In his mind this is all proper procedure. So why the snarky response from his abba?

Because Abba Poeman knows the gospels and understands how they can be applied in life. In this case, the parable of the splinter and the beam (see Mt 7:1-5). He is able to discern that this is an issue of judgment. The brother has passed judgment on his peers in the desert. They are prone to disturb him. He, who has left behind his former life and come to learn under the great Abba Poeman. The brother judges that he will reach his spiritual goals only if he can remove from himself those other splintered-eyed brothers who are such a disturbance to him. Surely the abba will understand his desire to go deeper into the desert so as to go higher spiritually.

Abba Poeman will have none of it. The problem is the wooden beam lodged in the brother’s eye. That beam is his pride. His pride in thinking he can judge his peers as disturbers of the peace. His pride in thinking he was ready to go it alone as shown by his eagerness to scout out a quiet place for his future cell. And his pride in questioning others when he should be questioning himself.

What the brother needs is not his own cell but some help, which his spiritual father provides in a simple yet wise reply. If the brother had been allowed to go out and live on his own he would have never discovered the prideful beam logged in his eye. Because of this, he would never have been able to see clearly. With his spiritual sight impaired he would be a danger to himself and to others. Abba Poeman correctly discerns that it best for this brother to stay where he is until he grows some more spiritually by grappling, with the help of his brothers, with the demon of pride.

May we, who are all probably splinter or beam eyed, find a spiritual guide like Abba Poeman to help us see clearly.

Episode 000: About Wisdom of the Ancient Monks Podcast

From the Prologue of the Rule of Saint Benedict

“First of all, every time you begin a good work, you must pray to him most earnestly to bring it to perfection. “

Welcome to the podcast! Nice to see that there are others who hold an interest in these fascinating figures from the early, Christian church. I am confident that as we together explore the wisdom left by the ancient monastic figures, we will grow in both insight and understanding. These monks were brave and fervent souls who threw caution to the wind and tested the limits of where devotion to God could go have many important lessons to teach us. The trick will be learning how to hear them speak.

We will begin in ancient Egypt around the 300 AD (or CE for the more secular). We will first encounter Anthony the Great. One does not get the title of “the Great” for being ordinary. No, much about Anthony was extraordinary. How he saw life – and how he lived it – amazed the people of his day. Many were inspired to imitate him and so began a movement which grew into what is today Christian monasticism.

From the Anthony we will meet other men and women who left all behind in pursuit of a heart so pure – that it only desired to know and experience God. They had obstacles in their way: The loneliness of being solitaries, the tedium of days spent in prayer and work, the fasts, and of course, the demons (we get to those creatures later). Some broke under the strain, but many did persevere and shared what they learned with others. The movement which started in Egypt soon spread throughout the Mediterranean world of Late Antiquity.

Even a few of the intellectuals of the day left their positions and places of power to joined these spiritual athletes. A cleric by the name of Evagrius left the majestic, royal courts of Constantinople and joined the rough and simple monks in the Egyptian desert. He worked out a psychology of the soul that would influence Christian spirituality and ethics in the centuries to come.

His pupil, John Cassian, would take what he learned and share it with the Christian West. Cassian’s works would influence Saint Benedict in his writing of a Rule for Monks that is still in use 1,500 years later. As a Benedictine monk, myself, I have made a vow to live by it.

Every project must have an end, of course. The podcast will close with another great man, Pope Gregory the Great. He was a monk himself and helped Western Christianity weather the storm of chaos that was descending down upon it as ancient civilization gave way to the so-called dark ages. So, the podcast will cover the approximate years 300 to 600 AD and will cover important monks of both the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity. Saint Basil the Great will not go unmentioned.

Each episode will be centered on a story or saying of an ancient monk. I give you some context and then try to explain, as best as I can, the wisdom contained. Now I must confess, that I am no expert in Patristics or of the late ancient world. I am simply a monk who prays and meditates on what has been written. With each episode I will point out to you resources that can help you grow in your own understanding.

Episodes will be organized into seasons. I am planning on 16 episodes per season. The first season will focus on Anthony the Great as told to us by Saint Athanasius, Bishop of Alexander, in his Life of Anthony (by the way – if there were best sellers in late antiquity, this would have been one). Expect episodes to begin Sunday, August 30th and to be published weekly.

Let us pray – Almighty Father, you inspired brave men and women to embrace lives that to us seem extreme. Through their striving, though, we now can share the fruits of there labors. Bless this project that is beginning and all those involved. May we find that the wisdom gained by these first monks lead us to you, who are our ultimate goal. We pray this through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord. – Amen.

Work and Prayer

Photo by Tope A. Asokere on Pexels.com

Before Anthony of Egypt (c. 251 -356 AD) there were Christian ascetics. Men and women who practiced fasting and poverty in order to improve their trust in God. Then came Anthony and he would be known as Anthony the Great, the template for a form of religious life which drew thousands to embrace extreme ascetic practice.

Anthony, like all of us, had to learn from experience. He had to deal with setbacks and frustrations that we today feel whenever we try to achieve something that involves a long commitment. Think of being on a diet. At first it is new adventure, but soon it become tedious and dull. We long for pizza and cheeseburgers and the thought of them becomes tantalizing. The ancient monks had a term for this feeling, accidie, also known as the ‘noonday devil.’ Let us hear how Anthony learned to cope with his noonday devil.

When the holy Abba Anthony lived in the desert he was beset by accidie, and attacked by many sinful thoughts. He said to God, “Lord, I want to be save but these thoughts do not leave me alone; what shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?” A short while afterwards, when he got up to go out, Anthony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and plaiting a rope, then getting up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct and reassure him. He heard the angel saying to him, “Do this and you will be saved.” At these words, Anthony was filled with joy and courage. He did this, and he was saved.

From The Sayings of the Desert Fathers translated and edited by Benedicta Ward, SLG

For us today work is ordinary, it is expected. Even today’s richest people, people who can sit back and live a life of leisure, choose to continue working. There is a sort of common scorn for those who are not productive. A scorn that prevents us addressing issues like addiction, homelessness, and poverty with compassion.

In Anthony’s times, things were different. Only the poor and slaves worked. If you were able, you purchased a slave to accomplish what needed to be done. The aim was to live a life of leisure. To be able to engage in the arts and enjoy a feast with others who were the fortunate few. So, what the angel was showing Anthony, would have been insulting. He was being told to be a slave. To humble himself so as leave the realm of thoughts for awhile, and instead focus on something that is right before him.

There is a realism to Anthony and the ancient monks despite their extremes. They came to realize that to pray (to focus on God) earnestly from sunup to sundown was beyond their capacities despite how much they disciplined themselves. We who err too much on the side of work, can learn from this realism. We should humbly accept that we can only truly concentrate for a couple hours a day. With training we can achieve 3 or 4 hours at maximum. So instead of berating ourselves for the committing the modern sin of being unproductive and vainly try to save ourselves from condemnation through looking busy, we would do well to look at days realistically and set aside times for focused work (and I hope prayer) and the rest of our time to lighter pursuits (I would like to say recreation, but it will probably be given to meetings). The message is: a realistic life is a life lived in balance.

Want to learn from the ancient monks day-to-day? I suggest Dr. Tim Vivian’s Becoming Fire: Through the Year with the Desert Fathers and Mothers, from Liturgical Press.

Want to learn about being realistic about your ability to work and focus? Carl Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Work in a Distracted World can help.

Abba Agathon on Friendship

Abba Agathon was a bit of a prodigy among the Desert Fathers. Early on in his monastic life he was recognized for his wisdom much to the surprise of others who worked for years to gain their wisdom. It is said that he held a stone in his mouth for three years so that he would learn silence. That is commitment, to say the least. Let us listen to what this wise abba has to say about friendship.

Abba Agathon said, “If someone were very specially dear to me, but I realized that he was leading me to do something less good, I should put him from me.”(1)

Abba Agathon said, “If someone were very specially dear to me, but I realized that he was leading me to do something less good, I should put him from me.”

From The Saying of the Desert Fathers translated and edited by Benedicta Ward, SLG

Let’s face it, you are not going to find this quote cross-stitched and hanging in anybody’s home. More likely you find this quote from Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 6:14, “Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter; whoever finds one finds a treasure.” We all depend on our friends to get ourselves through life. If we find someone who is ‘very specially dear’ to us why on earth would want to distance ourselves from such a friend? “Hey Abba Agathon, put that stone back in your mouth! Your advice sounds like nonsense!”

But is it nonsense? Why is Agathon telling us to distance ourselves from a dear friend? It is because while they are leading us to a good (say companionship and support) they are barring us from a good that is greater. For these ancient Christians the greatest good was union with God. To find this union they were willing to give up much. Some even gave their lives. Every Desert Father and Mother left behind friends in their villages or neighborhoods in search of a greater good. They stopped what they were doing and headed out into the desert to be alone so as to focus on their relationship with God.

For us who do not go to such extremes, what wisdom can we take from Abba Agathon? To begin with I would say that we need to understand that their are different sorts of friends that we can have. According to the ancient philosopher Aristotle there are three sorts of friendships. The first sort are those friendships that exist because you are useful to each other, friendships of utility. For example, it makes good sense to build a relationship with someone who can help you when your computer starts to act funny. There is nothing wrong with such relationships, but they are ad hoc in nature.

The second kind of friendship are those we have because we enjoy another person’s company, friendships of pleasure. These are people we go and do stuff with, whether it be going out on the town, exercising, attending concerts, or simply chatting away during the lunch hour. These friendships can become quite dear to us. For who among us disdains the pleasure of good company?

Which brings us to the third kind of friendship, friendships for the good. These are based on mutual love for the other and so are few in one’s life. To love another is to want the best for the other person, even if it is not the best for us. Abba Agathon is recommending to us that we should only commit ourselves fully to this kind of friendship. While the first is useful and the second is pleasant, only the third sort of friendship do we become fully ourselves and fully alive.

Sirach, of course, realized this too. “Pleasant speech multiplies friends, and gracious lips, friendly greetings. Let those who are friendly to you be many, but one in a thousand your confidant” (6:1-2). Wise persons will have all three sorts of friendships, yet will always seek to create and sustain the one in a thousand friendship that will lead them to there ultimate good. If that person is a committed Christian, that friend will lead them to God.