“St. Antony, pray for us that we may know in our hearts the paradox of the saints, that you sought not fame and honors, not self-glorification or accolades, but to serve Him from whom all life flows.”
We celebrate the feast day of one of the most remarkable saints of all time, St. Antony of Egypt, on January 17th. He is known as Antony the Great, Anthony of the desert, Anthony the Abbot and also as the father of all monks. His fame and renown are impressive considering his life of seclusion. He remains to this day one of the most important figures for holy imitation. There are many accounts of the great desert monk, but perhaps the most complete and marvelous account was given by the great Church Father, the saint who stood against the world and Arianism, St. Athanasius.
St. Athanasius writes his Life of Antony from firsthand knowledge. He attended to St. Antony many times in the desert. We are told that the great desert monk, even during his lifetime, had nearly countless stories demonstrating his holiness and wisdom. St. Athanasius instructs us that we ought to believe them all and more, for even if we had been fortunate to hear all the stories about him, we would still be far short of a full account of his saintly life. One of the most amazing things about this great desert monk is that he lived a life of near total seclusion and yet during his life and throughout the ages he is known throughout the world.
A life of Solitude
Antony was raised by wealthy and faithful parents. As a boy he was not taken much with the company of others, but rather stayed at home with his family and knew little else other than his home and the Church. Antony’s desire was “as it is written of Jacob, to live a plain man at home.” His was never idle, but didn’t trouble his parents with worldly luxurious appetites or disobedience. He seemed always contented with what was in front of him as the basic virtues came easily to him. His fidelity at the Holy Mass never lacked for attentiveness and though he never learned to read, he was able to hear and retain the teachings emanating from the Lord’s word.
When Antony was around his twentieth year his parents died. Shortly after as he was attending Holy Mass he heard the words of the Lord as he was speaking to the rich man in Mathew 19:21 “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Believing that God was speaking to him, Antony went immediately out and gave substantial property and goods to the villagers who had greater need than he. Untethered form material attachments, Antony threw himself into the mission of the Cross.
There were not many monasteries at this time and most Egyptians knew nothing of the vast desert. Holy souls would practice asceticism and holiness at remote locations just outside their villages. Antony heard of one holy hermit in a nearby village and sought him out to discover the secret of his holy virtue. Antony was like a “prudent honey bee” as he searched for holy men in the land. He would approach them for lessons in holiness and extract from them the secrets of their holy virtue.
Throughout his meek travels he would work with his hands for sustenance and with each successive holy man he was driven by the desire to excel him in discipline and zeal as he acquired the virtues of graciousness from one, unceasing prayer from another, freedom from anger, loving kindness, endurance, fasting, meekness, long suffering, and most importantly of all “Christ and the mutual love which animated all” from another still. When Antony has acquired and been infused with these many holy virtues by imitation and grace, he had become known for holiness and had been well loved by those communities he entered.
Shortly after Antony mastered so many holy disciplines he entered a life of near total solitude. He went out into the desert for holy seclusion. He first went to tombs outside a village and would spend his days in disciplined prayer and contemplation. This attracted the attention of Satan and his demons and fierce spiritual combat soon followed. Satan feared that by Antony’s holiness that order and discipline would be brought into the desert. During intense battle that transcended the spiritual to the physical and raged even unto death, Antony heroically resisted temptation. At the end of unimaginable travails of pain, suffering and vicious torture by demons, Christ finally came to the aid of Antony. Antony asked Christ why he had not intervened earlier and Christ replied “Antony, I was here, but I waited to see your fight; wherefore since you have endured, and hast not been worsted, I will ever be a succour to you, and will make your name known everywhere.”
After Antony was aided by Christ in his combat, he went deep into the desert and lived a life of total seclusion for a prolonged period of time. He spent two decades alone in an abandoned fort practicing holiness and spiritual combat. Little by little other men seeking the holy way would travel into the desert to find Antony for guidance. St. Antony would occasionally advise the seekers through closed doors. Eventually, seekers of the holy life would make dwellings near the living saint and try to imitate him from outside the fort. Finally after twenty years Antony emerged from his solitude to lead this desert community and thus became the father of the desert monks.
The Paradox of Christian Living
There is an obvious and seemingly unintelligible paradox in all aspects of the life of Christ denoted by our saviors words that in the order of Heaven “the last will be first, and the first last.” St. Antony of the Desert lived a life of relative solitude but is known throughout the world and throughout the ages. He sought nothing of this fame and so it is manifested by the gifts of grace that we may have a holy model of imitation for the greater glory of God.
By stark contrast we know throughout the ages that countless men have sought with equal ardor and effort to promote themselves with the object of acquiring fame and fortune and yet they remain anonymous and impoverished for all of history. This is a particularly self-promoting age where public teachers and the collective ethos would have us believe in ourselves, have confidence in ourselves, promote ourselves and exaggerate our sense of self-worth that we might become popular, rich and perhaps even famous, though it may be for only fifteen minutes.
The great saint of the desert, St. Antony was just the opposite. He abandoned himself. He detached himself from all his material riches. He believed in God, not himself. He had confidence in God not himself. His entire sense of self-worth was completely in the hands of God. His perfected virtues were for the sake of the Kingdom, his solitude was for his savior, his humble servitude was born out of silence, and yet as Christ said I “will make your name known everywhere.” St. Antony decreased and Christ increased and took the desert father with him.
Let us abandon ourselves to God in imitation of the holy Saint Antony as he imitated Christ’s forbearance and charity. On this feast day of the great saint let us thank God for this holy model of grace, courage, strength and fidelity. Let us put our efforts not into ourselves but into the work required to acquire and to become infused by the Cardinal and Theological virtues that grant us citizenship in the City of God. Let us remember that our final end is in Heaven and that the world will not aid us in this fulfillment, but only Christ can and will. St. Antony, pray for us that we may know in our hearts the paradox of the saints, that you sought not fame and honors, not self-glorification or accolades, but to serve Him from whom all life flows. All the saints are the living manifestation of our savior’s words “the last will be first, and the first last.” Let us be in the world but not of the world, let us store up treasure in Heaven after the imitation of St. Antony, not that we might be first in the order of Heaven, but that we may serve Christ as he did. Amen!
January 17 is the Memorial of St. Anthony, Abbot (A.D. 251 – 356).