Friday, January 17, 2014

Feast of St. Anthony of Egypt

O God, by your Holy Spirit you enabled your servant Antony to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil: Give us grace, with pure hearts and minds, to follow you, the only God; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

This is my St. Anthony sermon, edited for the Dance Party

Today is the feast of St. Anthony of Egypt. He was one of the first Christian monks and developed the monastic tradition in Christianity. What we know about him comes from “The Life of St. Anthony” by Athanasius, the Patriarch of Alexandria.

Anthony was born in the middle of the second century. around the year 251 to wealthy Christian parents. He had a younger sister. When he was twenty years-old his parents died and he and his sister inherited quite a lot of land. Anthony was a little troubled by this wealth and had been thinking about the Apostles and how they gave up everything to follow Jesus. Six months after his parents’ deaths he went to church and arrived as the gospel was being read. It was the story of the Rich Young Man, and he heard Jesus tell the young man “If you would be perfect, go sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” Anthony took this gospel message seriously and actually went and gave most of his land to the villagers and sold his possessions, giving the money to the poor. Not long later, he heard the passage: “Do not be anxious about tomorrow” and sold the rest of his possessions, put his sister into a Christian Community of Dedicated Virgins, and went to the edge of the village to live the life of an anchorite. Anchorites were people who withdrew from the world to live solitary lives of silence, prayer, meditation and mortification. In those days anchorites lived along on the edges of towns. Much later, anchorites were closed into cells to spend their lives in prayer, and many times the cells were attached to churches. To live alone on the edge of the village was unusual, but Anthony later moved farther away from the village and lived in a tomb away from everyone. It was here that he had his first encounters with demons who would appear as wild beasts and beat him, at times leaving him near death. After fifteen years living on the edge of town in the tomb, he decided to withdraw completely, crossing the Nile and into the mountains where he found an abandoned fort. To live in the wilderness away from everyone, leaving civilization behind was like moving to the moon would be nowadays. He lived away from humanity, in the fort, for some twenty years. Pilgrims would come to see him but he avoided them. Some hermits came and lived in the caves around the fort, and eventually a community of hermits had developed, and they requested Anthony to come guide them in the spiritual life. He finally came out of seclusion around the year 305 and according to Athanasius, people were amazed that he didn’t look any different than he had when he had left the village twenty years earlier, “vigorous in body and mind.” He worked with this colony which had formed around him, developing a spiritual community and developing a rule of life. He did this for about six years and then decided to withdraw again. This became a kind of cycle for Anthony; he would live in community for a few years, then withdraw to the wilderness deeper and deeper each time, and, after several years of seclusion, return to civilization for a few years, eventually withdrawing once again. He withdrew to a mountain between the Red Sea and the Nile where a monastery in his name still stands. In the year 321 he came out of the desert and into Alexandria to help encourage and strengthen the martyrs of Maximinus’ persecution, and once again around the year 350 to preach against the Arians. According to Athanasius, Anthony was 105 years old when he died, and Jerome places his death around the year 357.

The form of monasticism developed by Anthony was dominant in Northern Egypt, while that of his disciple Pachomius was the form preferred in the South. He wasn’t a great organizer like Pachomius; he concentrated on getting a group of people living in separate caves and cells to work together. Athanasius describes the first monastery there in the mountains as follows: Their cells like tents were filled with singing, fasting, praying, and working that they might give alms, and having love an peace with one another. That’s what was most important to Anthony, that the brothers live together in love and unity, and not be fighting or in spiritual competition.

The Desert Fathers collected many sayings of, and about, Anthony. Here are a few of my favorites: When the holy Abba Anthony lived in the desert he was beset and attacked by many sinful thoughts. He said to God, “Lord, I want to be saved 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.

He also said, “Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.”

He also said, “Some have afflicted their bodies by asceticism, but they lack discernment, and so they are far from God.”

A brother renounced the world and gave his goods to the poor, but he kept back a little for his personal expenses. He went to see Abba Anthony. When he told him this, the old man said to him, “If you want to be a monk, go into the village, buy some meat, cover your naked body with it and come here like that.” The brother did so, and the dogs and birds tore at his flesh. When he came back the old man asked him whether he had followed his advice. He showed him his wounded body, and Saint Anthony said, “Those who renounce the world but want to keep something for themselves are torn in this way by the demons who make war on them.”

Abba Anthony said, “A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, ‘You are mad, you are not like us.’”

Abba Anthony said, “I no longer fear God, but I love him. For love casts out fear.”

Anthony took the gospel message seriously and lived a life which is a model for those called to solitary meditation. He didn’t want to draw attention to himself, and he had his burial place kept a secret so that it would not become a place of pilgrimage, remaining solitary in death just as he had in life.

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