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.