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?