St Anthony of the Desert
FOR ALL THE SAINTS: ANTHONY THE GREAT
Christian faith spread through the Ancient Near East, which was part of the Roman Empire, very early. In 313 the faith was legitimized in the Empire. In time, people began to move out of cities into desert hermitages. These grew into great monastic centers, and St Anthony was at the heart of the movement.
Desert spirituality is austere, lively, and oriented to our experience of God in the present moment. It is full of tales of spiritual warfare, with monastics fighting for their souls against the forces of Evil. The Desert Fathers and Mothers left behind a collection of pithy proverbs, maxims, and stories. They stick in your mind and make you think deeply, even if they seem simple at first.
Anthony burst onto the scene early. The child of wealthy Egyptian parents, he gave his inheritance to the poor. Anthony went to the desert at the age of twenty and died at the age of 105 in 356. He became the model for all future monastic leaders and his rule, developed further by St John Cassian and St Benedict, became the model for all monastic rules east and west.
St Athanasius, the towering figure of the First Ecumenical Council (325), wrote the Life of St Anthony. Think about that: the saint who defended the intellectual integrity of the faith wrote the biography of one noted for pastoral ministry and spiritual life. Anthony left no writings, but only sayings recorded by others; yet during his eighty-five years in the desert, he gathered what one writer called “an entire army of disciples and emulators.” Anthony became the source of an entire movement, thereby proving that a consecrated life is more powerful and alluring than written teaching. Hence the biography.
Anthony originated the main rule of Desert spirituality, that we should follow the will of God in all things: “Therefore, whatever you see that your soul desires according to God, do that thing, and you shall keep your heart safe.” Cardinal Newman of the Roman Church said of him: “His doctrine was pure and unimpeachable; and his temper is high and heavenly, without cowardice, without gloom, without formality, without self-complacency.”
Whole towns sprang up in the desert during those centuries as people flocked to these spiritual guides. When we think about holiness, do we not turn instinctively to faithful people we find attractive? May we today find models like St. Anthony (commemorated 17 January), and turn to them for guidance in faith and hope.
Published 11 Feb 06