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.