30 January 2010

'Most Accurate Rule of Virtue'—St Anthony the Great


Today, 17 January on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Anthony the Great (c. 251-356). To St Pachomius the Great he was ‘the perfect model of the anchoritic life’. [1] St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain calls him ‘the chief of the choir of ascetics’, who ‘attained to extreme virtue and freedom from passions’. [2] While Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette, OSB, refers to St Anthony typically as ‘the Father of Monks’ and ‘a lover of the solitary life in the desert’, [3] through his Life he ‘appears not as a remote hermit, but a servant to all—to victims of injustice, to the sick and the grieving, to burdened soldiers and discouraged monks’, in the words of Williams Harmless. [4] Harmless then quotes a famous statement of St Athanasius the Great in his Life of the Venerable One: ‘It was as if he were a physician given to Egypt by God.’ [5] Here is the account of St Anthony’s life in the Prologue:

He was an Egyptian, born about 250 in a village called Quemen-el Arons near Heracleopolis. After the death of his rich and noble parents, he shared his inherited possessions with his sister, who was still in her minority, made sure that she was cared for, gave away his half of the inheritance to the poor and, at the age of twenty, consecrated himself to the life of asceticism that he had desired from childhood. At first he lived near his own village but then, in order to escape the disturbance of men, went off into the desert, on the shores of the Red Sea, where he spent twenty years as a hermit in company with no-one but God, in unceasing prayer, pondering and contemplation, patiently undergoing inexpressible demonic temptations. His fame spread through the whole world and around him gathered many disciples whom he, by word and example, placed on the path of salvation. In eighty-five years of ascetic life, he went only twice to Alexandria: the first time to seek martyrdom during a time of persecution of the Church, and the second at the invitation of St Athanasius, to refute the Arians’ slanderous allegations that he too was a follower of the Arian heresy. He departed this life at the age of 105, leaving behind a whole army of disciples and followers. And, although Antony was unlettered he was, as a counsellor and teacher, one of the most learned men of his age, as also was St Athanasius the Great. When some Hellenic philosophers tried to test him with literary learning, Antony shamed them with the question: ‘Which is older, the understanding or the book? And which of these is the source of the other?’ The shamed philosophers dispersed, for they saw that they had only book-learning without understanding, while Antony had understanding. Here was a man who had attained perfection insofar as man is able on earth. Here was an educator of educators and teacher of teachers, who for a whole eighty-five years perfected himself, and only thus was able to perfect many others. Full of years and great works, Antony entered into rest in the Lord in the year 356. [6]

In last year’s post on St Anthony (here), I discussed several typical Logismoic points. This time, I would like to add one new one, and then expand on a point that I merely touched on in that post—the connection between St Anthony and St Augustine of Hippo.

First, as I often turn to the famous Inkling, Charles Williams, for his invariably unique perspective on Christian history, so today I looked to see what he might have to say about St Anthony the Great and was not disappointed:

Felicitas had asserted the divine order—‘Another for me and I for him.’ Clement had defined it among the faithful: ‘He demands of us our lives for the sake of each other.’ What the martyr and doctor declared another voice also proclaimed out of the desert. During the reign of Diocletian St Antony, the first of the Christian hermits, whose life was to be written by Athanasius, took up his dwelling between the Nile and the Red Sea. Alone, ascetic, emaciated, he gave to the Church the same formula: ‘Your life and your death are with your neighbour.’ [7]

The point is certainly a good one. Ever since the Reformation (to which my friend Kevin Edgecomb delights in referring as the ‘Deformation’), and even more since the Enlightenment, there has been a tendency even among Christians to regard St Anthony’s ascetic struggles as at best unnecessary and at worst as downright contrary to the Gospel. The notion that the monastic life, particularly in its anchoritic form, is somehow a denial or avoidance of the law of love is part of this, and Williams fortunately comes to his defense in that regard. Indeed, next to the importance of this point, my own comment is rather a quibbling one—Williams calls St Anthony ‘emaciated’. But this is in direct contradiction of St Athanasius’s description of him immediately after the most intense period of the great Abba’s ascesis: ‘And when they beheld him, they were amazed to see that his body had maintained its former condition, neither fat from lack of exercise, nor emaciated from fasting and combat with demons, but was just as they had known him prior to his withdrawal.’ [8] Harmless notes that it is a famous description, [9] and it is odd that Williams seems to have missed it.

As for the connection between Ss Anthony and Augustine, this was first brought to my attention by Helen Waddell’s remarkable introduction to her translation of Desert Fathers material in Latin. I have referred to this introduction, and specifically to her beautiful retelling of Confessions 8:6.14-7.16, not only in my post on St Anthony, but also in this one on an unattributed verse quotation she uses in that passage. There is much that could be said about this connection, for both Saints underwent a ‘conversion’, but, as William Clebsch observes, ‘not to Christianity—rather to the convertibility of one en route to Christian salvation’. [10] But while Clebsch notes that St Anthony’s ‘convertibility’ is what St Augustine ‘found so arresting in the story’ of his life, the similarity between them masks a difference. In Helen Waddell’s words, as he listened to St Anthony’s story—

Augustine sat, knowing that the thing to which he listened was that which he had sought and fled from for twelve years, ‘that whereof not the finding but the sole seeking is beyond the treasuries of kings and all this ambient bodily delight.’ [11] He sat in silence, and his soul quailed away from it as from death. [12]

Waddell goes on to remark that it was not St Anthony’s withdrawal or asceticism per se that moved St Augustine, ‘it was the secret renunciation, the doctrine of the power of the will’. [13] St Anthony responded immediately to his calling, and did not look back. St Augustine had ‘sought and fled from [it] for twelve years’. Waddell cites St Anthony’s own words concerning the power of the human will:

20. ‘Having therefore made a beginning, and set out already on the way of virtue, let us press forward to what lies ahead. And let none turn back as Lot’s wife did, especially since the Lord said, No one puts his hand to the plow and turns back is fit for the Kingdom of heaven (Lk 9:62). Now ‘turning back’ is nothing except feeling regret and once more thinking about things of the world. But do not be afraid to hear about virtue, and do not be a stranger to the term. For it is not distant from us, nor does it stand external to us, but its realization lies in us, and the task is easy if only we shall will it. 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 heaven is within you (Lk 17:21). All virtue needs, then, is our willing, since it is in us, and arises from us. [14]

This was precisely the trick for St Augustine, and I don’t believe it was solely because he was too attached to the physical pleasures. Surely his real problem was what Ramfos calls ‘the tortuous psychology and constant spiritual trials of the cultivated (i.e. the more or less individualized) intelligentsia’, which he contrasts with the ‘intellectually uncomplicated and uncultivated people of the city or the countryside’. [15] St Augustine’s will is almost completely paralysed. He knows what he ought to do, what he must do, and yet he cannot do it. When he finally receives his own ‘saving word’—the words of St Paul, ‘Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying: but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh to fulfil the lusts thereof’ (Rom 13:13-4)— the change that Grace works in him is so complete, so strengthening, that he finds himself unable to attribute any value to the human effort to keep these words, and his immoderate yet influential writings on the subject finally require correction by St John Cassian and the other Fathers of Gaul. [16]

The contrast between these two Lives is remarkable. There is an openness, an ease of action in the simple man, a paralysis in the intellectual that are not often observed in conjunction. When we do first see it, there is perhaps a temptation to mistake the difference between the two for something that, upon closer examination, we find it is not. It is not, as might be thought, the difference between one who behaves irrationally in the first instance and one who is rational in the second. Quite the contrary, it is St Anthony who was exhibiting reason in the truest sense of that word, and not St Augustine. In words attributed to St Anthony himself:

1. Men are improperly called rational [logikoi]; it is not those who have learned thoroughly the discourses [tous logous] [17] and books of the wise men of old that are rational, but those who have a rational soul [logike psyche] and can discern what is good and what is evil, and avoid what is evil and harmful to the soul, but zealously keep with the aid of practice, what is good and beneficial to the soul, and do this with many thanks to God. These alone should be called truly rational men [logikoi anthropoi].

2. The truly rational man is zealous about one thing: to obey and please the God of all creatures, and to discipline his soul with regard to this: how to do what is acceptable to God, thanking Him for His so benevolent and great providence and government of all things, whatever it may happen to be in the case of his own life. [18]

St Anthony is once again describing himself, as I noted concerning his letters in last year’s post.

Many years to my spiritual father on his nameday (though he will probably not read this)! In conclusion, here is the doxasticon from ‘Lord, I have cried’ at Vespers for the Saint:

Having preserved unblemished that which is according to God’s image, by ascetic endeavour determining the mind as leader against destructive passions, you ascended as far as possible to that which is according to God’s likeness. For bravely overmastering nature, you hastened to submit the worse to the better, and to make the flesh the slave of the spirit. Therefore you were named ‘summit of monastics’, ‘founder of the desert’, ‘trainer of those who run well’, ‘most accurate rule of virtue’, and now in heaven, Antony, where mirrors are abolished, you look directly at the holy Trinity, appealing with no intermediary on behalf of those who honour you with faith and love. [19]


[1] From the 1st Greek Life 136, in Armand Veilleux, tr., Pachomian Koinonia, Vol. 1: The Life of St Pachomius & His Disciples (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1980), p. 395

[2] The Philokalia, tr. Constantine Cavarnos (Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, 2008), p. 41.

[3] Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette, OSB, A Monastic Year: Reflections from a Monastery (Dallas: Taylor, 1996), p. 37.

[4] William Harmless, SJ, Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism (Oxford: Oxford U, 2004), p. 68.

[5] St Athanasius the Great, The Life of Antony & the Letter to Marcellinus, tr. Robert C. Gregg (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1980), p. 94.

[6] St Nicholas (Velimirović), The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 1, tr. Mother Maria (Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986), p. 69.

[7] Charles Williams, The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church (Vancouver: Regent College, 2002), pp. 45-6.

[8] St Athanasius, p. 42.

[9] Harmless, p. 64.

[10] William A. Clebsch, ‘Preface’, St Athanasius, p. xv.

[11] Conf. 8:7.17; Henry Chadwick notes that St Augustine is quoting or at least paraphrasing Cicero’s Hortensius, fragment 106 (Henry Chadwick, tr., Confessions, by St Augustine [Oxford: Oxford U, 1992], p. 145, n. 14).

[12] Helen Waddell, ‘Introduction’, The Desert Fathers, tr. Helen Waddell (NY: Vintage, 1998), pp. 5-6.

[13] Ibid., p. 6.

[14] St Athanasius, p. 46. Lest this last statement be misunderstood, however, it is important to recall that elsewhere St Anthony notes that we receive all of the virtues from God in the first place (Philokalia, p. 45).

[15] Stelios Ramfos, Like a Pelican in the Wilderness: Reflections on the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, tr. & abgd. Norman Russell (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross, 2000), p. 213.

[16] On this subject, see Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose), The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church, rev. ed. (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1996).

[17] St Anthony is using a play on words here—living in accordance with the Logos does not consist in mastering logoi, in the sense of discourses or writings.

[18] Philokalia, pp. 43, 45; see also in G.E.H. Palmer, et al., tr., The Philokalia, Vol. 1 (London: Faber, 1979), p. 329.

[19] From the translation by Archimandrite Ephrem (Lash), here.

2 comments:

Ian Climacus said...

Many years to your spiritual Father, and my thanks for [as always] a most illuminating and readable post on one of my favourite Saints.

aaronandbrighid said...

Well, he isn't called 'the Great' for nothing, is he?