05 April 2011

Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (5)

St. Anthony

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom


In my last post I mentioned that Pachomius had studied for a time with St. Anthony of Egypt. In this post I want to write a bit about St. Anthony.

Anthony was not the first Christian monk; neither was he the first to go out to the desert. But he is certainly the one most responsible for putting desert monasticism on the map of the Christian life. He is hailed as the father of the monks because of his impact on the movement as a whole.

Most of our knowledge of Anthony comes to us by way of St. Athanasius, the well-known defender of Nicene orthodoxy. During the time of the persecution of Nicene Christians, Athanasius went into the desert, and it was there that he met Anthony, who made such an impression on Athanasius that he decided to record Anthony's life (i.e., The Life of Anthony), one of the classics of Christian antiquity. (Well, I think so, anyway.)

Anthony was born in 251 and died in 356--105 years. When he was between eighteen and twenty years old, his parents died, leaving him their property and the care of his little sister. One day in church, Anthony heard the gospel reading in which Jesus says to the rich young ruler, "If you would be perfect, go so sell all your possessions and come follow me." To Anthony God on that particular day intended him to understand that passage as addressing himself, personally. So he sold most of his possessions and gave them to the poor. Later, he went to church and heard a story that induced him to sell everything he had; he did precisely that, taking up residence on the edge of the city under the direction of an old man who had been practising the ascetic life for some time.

What are we to make of this? Upon reflection, it is clear that Christ's command to the rich young ruler, was primarily for the rich young ruler, not to all, the point of the narrative being that at least one who would not follow Christ did so because he preferred the enjoyment of his wealth. Jesus does not call all of us to sell everything. Apparently, as far as Anthony was concerned, he was of a type with the rich young ruler. Very likely, upon hearing the gospel passage, he realized that he too preferred the enjoyment of wealth to the riches found in Christ. We would do well not to confuse our call with the call of others; otherwise, among other things, we'll all be vying for church pulpits! That being said, although he may not specifically require that we sell all our possessions, Jesus does nevertheless want us to be detached from the things of this world just as Anthony was detached. This detachment, however, must be first of all internal in nature. Anyone, really, can divest himself of all goods, and still be attached to the things of this world. Perhaps, unlike the rich young ruler we do not prefer the enjoyment of wealth, but rather the enjoyment of sex. If we are not prepared even to consider the celibate life, we may be no more ready to follow Christ than the rich young ruler. For some others, it may be neither sex nor wealth--alcohol, carousing with friends. Believe it or not, as innocuous as it may seem, if you cannot tolerate long periods without the company of friends, you may not be as ready to follow Christ as you think. On the other hand, if solitude is your preference you are in the same predicament. We must examine ourselves, and face up to what we find there.

But recall that the purpose of this detachment is not detachment for its own sake. The purpose of detachment is to free us up to serve Christ whole-heartedly. There is little good in detachment if, in your detachment, you are not serving Christ whole-heartedly.

Athanasius also informs us that St. Anthony went from place to place learning from others how to live the ascetic life. According to Athanasius, "He observed the graciousness of one, the eagerness for prayers in another. He took careful note of one's freedom from anger and the human concern of another. And he paid attention to one while he lived a watchful life, or one who pursued studies as also he admired one for patience, and another for fastings and sleeping on the ground. And having been filled in this manner he returned to his own place of discipline, from that time gathering the attributes of each in himself and striving to manifest in himself what was best in all."

St. Anthony didn't learn only from his observations of other ascetics, but he was also devoted to the Scriptures. "Not a word of holy scripture fell to the ground, but found ready obedience in the heart of Anthony." What sort of lessons can we take from this? First, Anthony learned from others, emulating those he thought superior to himself and he learned from scripture, putting into practice what he heard from it.

I doubt many, even many of us who are Reformed, truly compare favorably with Anthony. Many are content to learn the faith, meaning, specifically, learning theology in the academic sense as if this were the sum total of the Christian life. Oh, and obeying the Ten Commandments, barely. In most discussions faith and practice means theology and worship (meaning, the worship service, that is, Sunday mornings and, for some, evenings, and maybe Wednesday evenings). Expound a bit too much on practice (especially fasting) and you run the risk of being dismissed as a legalist. Suggest that regular times of church-wide fasting be observed (but not required) and you'll likely be warned that you are violating Christ's command about fasting in Matthew 6.16. After all, if everyone is fasting then everyone knows that everyone is fasting and that means everyone is practicing their righteousness before everyone else. Huh? You mean like in church when we're all praying and singing hymns before each other?

But I digress.

The fact is, for the most part, we learn for purposes of discussion, not obedient action. We may even prefer discussion to obedience. We may actually prefer to hear, rather than to do. In that case, Anthony teaches us an important lesson: that the goal of knowledge is wisdom, that is, putting truth into practice.

It should come as no surprise that Anthony (who was illiterate, by the way) became known throughout the empire for his wisdom and holiness. Once, the Emperor Constantius invited him to the capital for a visit. Anthony, honored by the invitation, nevertheless declined because he had asked another man for advice. His advisor, Abba Paul (who was also Anthony's disciple), said, "If you go, you will be called Anthony. But if you remain here, you will be called Abba Anthony". Incredible: Anthony asks his disciple for advice.

What does Abba Paul mean by saying that Anthony will be called, "Abba"? If Anthony were to have gone to the emperor, then the interview would have been on the emperor's terms. Anthony's presence would have been a show for the court, no doubt, a show in which Anthony, at the emperor's request would have done something wonderful or interesting, fascinating the court with his holiness. (In all probability, the audience would have been respectful, but in the end also aware that Anthony had come at the behest of Constantius.) If, on the other hand, the emperor were to come to Anthony the situation would have been quite different, but not contrary: Anthony would not have been entertained by the emperor's presence. The emperor would have a proper understanding of Anthony's motives. I mean, the emperor, not Anthony, would be the one to undertake the long journey into the desert, humbling himself in the process and being in the proper frame of mind to listen to anything Anthony might have for him. As opposed to entertaining him, Anthony could really help the emperor, if the emperor was willing.

I can't help but wonder how I would respond to an invitation from the White House. I know some people who "worked" their respective networks to meet and have their photographs taken with two presidents. It would be nice (not to mention self-flattering) to think I'd turn down the offer. But in my experience, most of us don't know how we'll act in a given situation until we find ourselves in that situation; and we're likely to disappoint ourselves and others. (I will admit the invitation would be particularly tempting if were extended by, say, President Ron Paul.)

I recall having the opportunity, a specific invitation in fact, to meet the men in the band, Petra. At the last minute, I thought better of the offer and didn't take the opportunity. I'd like to say it was due to my having achieved a certain amount of the detachment we should have. Perhaps to a certain extent it was. I'd been contemplating becoming either a Benedictine or a Jesuit and, in addition to the Scriptures, had been steeping myself in classics of monastic literature. Detachment was the goal and I was taking a serious stab at it. But, right at the moment of declining the offer, I actually was pleased with myself for having done so. I thought I had achieved some level of detachment; but all I really did was appear to have done so. (This is one of many themes C. S. Lewis deals with in The Screwtape Letters.) Like I said: we disappoint ourselves.

There is a certain "glitter" which surrounds superstars, whether we're talking superstars in politics, the academic world, or the arts. And rubbing shoulders with them, for almost any length of time could possibly give us a high. If these are "spiritual" superstars then, of course, the high is a "spiritual" one. Perhaps, some sort of spiritual high is what Constantius sought in a visit from St. Anthony. To be sure, Constantius probably had some admiration for Anthony; but if he were to learn something from Anthony, then his going to visit Anthony was the best way. For one thing, a visit to the desert removes all the distractions of court life.

Perhaps Anthony's greatest example is the way he died. Says Athanasius: "It is worthwhile for me to recall what the end of his life was like. For even his death has become something imitable." Anthony learned from God that he was soon to die and made preparation. He entrusted himself to two of his disciples and as he lay on his death-bed, he "lifted his feet and as if seeing friends who had come to him and being cheered by them (for as he lay there his face seemed bright) he died."

It's easy for us in the West, especially if we are Calvinists, to dismiss this sort of thing as undue focus on humans rather than God--works righteousness, even. But Athanasius sought to inform the world about St. Anthony because, as he saw it, Anthony was evidence of the power of the gospel to change lives: "The Lord chose those who are his men like lamps to everyone so that those who hear may know that the commandments have power for amendment of life and may gain zeal for the way of virtue." In other words, God made Anthony's life known to the world then and now so that people could know that the gospel has power to transform lives and inspire zeal. God's power can transform lives and inspire zeal. The gospel is the power of God to salvation to everyone who believes.

Anthony often makes me wonder about the extent to which I myself have been transformed by the power of God and the extent to which the gospel makes a difference in the way I live. Of course, he's not the only one who makes me wonder about those things.

Part 1, Legitimacy of Monastic Life

Part 2, Rise of the Monastic Movement

Part 3, Theology of the Desert

Part 4, St. Pachomius

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About Me

James Frank SolĂ­s
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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