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"Too heavenly-minded to be of earthly use?" - Saint Antony the Great

00:00 / 07:44

16 Jan 2024

For St Antony's Day

Antony of Egypt – 18th January, 2024

-       Antony a man who withdrew into the Egyptian desert to live solitary life of prayer (251-356)

-       Major biography written by Athanasius of Alexandria, The Life of Antony: ‘…simply to remember Antony is a great profit and assistance.’

-       Why is it profitable to think about a man who lived by himself among tombs and in mountains in the Egyptian desert over a thousand years ago?

Antony one of the earliest Christian monks: paradigmatic and influential in several ways.

1)    A life of prayer: “He prayed constantly, since he learned that it is necessary to pray unceasingly in private.”

2)    He worked with his hands so as not to burden anybody. Ora et Labora (Prayer and Work)

3)    He practiced rigorous asceticism: fasting, long hours of prayer, limited sleeping, wearing hair-shirts, etc.

4)    He fought constantly with Satan and Demons: Demons tempted Antony to break his fasts, give up his life of prayer, indulge in lustful thoughts etc. Demons also appeared in the form of wild beasts and monsters to frighten him. Speaking of Satan: ‘When the enemy could stand it no longer – for he was apprehensive that Antony might before long fill the desert with the discipline – approaching one night with a multitude of demons he whipped him with such force that he lay on the earth, speechless from the tortures’.

Pretty strange. So was Antony so heavenly minded that he was of no earthly use?

-       Antony’s life not just withdrawal but withdrawal and return. For example: ‘Nearly twenty years he spent in this manner (withdrawal for prayer) pursuing the ascetic life by himself, not venturing out and only occasionally being seen by anyone. After this, when many possessed the desire and will to emulate his asceticism, and some of his friends came and tore down and forcefully removed the fortress door, Antony came forth as though from some shrine, having been led into the mysteries and inspired by God’.

-       Antony became hugely influential upon entire movement of monasticism in early church and beyond. Renowned for his wisdom given to ordinary people, in debate with highly educated Greek philosophers, even towards Roman emperors Constantine the Great and Constantius. Crowds came to be healed of their afflictions and converted to Christ. Accounts of mass conversions and healing reminiscent of the Gospels and the book of Acts.

-       He was ‘famous everywhere and marvelled at by everyone’: ‘Neither from writings, nor from pagan wisdom, nor from some craft was Antony acclaimed, but on account of religion alone. That this was something given by God no one would deny. For how is it that he was heard of, though concealed and sitting in a mountain, in Spain and Gaul, and in Rome and Africa, unless it was the God who everywhere makes his men known who also promised this to Antony in the beginning? For even though they themselves act in secret, and may want to be forgotten, nevertheless the Lord shows them 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’.

For us?

-       Great desire to manage ourselves to spiritual fruitfulness and progress. Managerialism will not work.

-       Spiritual fruit comes from the Lord, who must be sought in periodic withdrawal from the world followed by faithful engagement with it. The former is absolutely vital to the latter. If we try to engage in our own strength and in the power of worldly wisdom we will tire ourselves out and fail. But, if we seek the Lord and his strength, the Lord will bring about spiritual fruit in and through us, often in ways we could not previously have imagined.

Final words of Antony: “Now the Greeks leave home and traverse the sea in order to gain an education, but there is no need for us to go abroad on account of the Kingdom of heaven, nor to cross the sea for virtue. For the Lord has told us before, the Kingdom of God is within you. All virtue needs, then, is our willing, since it is in us, and arises from us…If the task depended on something external that must be procured, it would be truly difficult, but since the matter centres in us, let us protect ourselves from sordid ideas, and, since we have received it as a trust, let us preserve the soul for the Lord.”


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