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?

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.

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 blog! Nice to see that there are others who hold in interest in these fascinating figures from the early Christian church. I am confident that as you accompany me on this journey you will grow in insight and understanding. These brave and fervent souls who threw caution to the wind and tested the limits of where devotion to God could go have important lessons to tell us. The trick is learning how to hear them speak.

The journey will begin in Egypt of the 300s AD (or CE for the more secular). We will meet 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. People 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, but many persevered and shared what they learned with others. The movement 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 royal courts of Constantinople and joined the 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 influenced 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. The podcast will close with another great man, Pope Gregory the Great. He was monk himself and helped Western Christianity weather the storm of chaos that was descending upon it as ancient civilization gave way. So the podcast will cover the approximate years 300 – 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 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 (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.