There is a lot that I would like to say about St Anthony the Great, whom we commemorate on this day, 17 January
on the Orthodox calendar. Unfortunately, my own lack of time and my consideration for the attention spans of my readers hinder me. But I will do what I can for this most venerable of monks, the patron Saint of my spiritual father (to whom I wish many years!).
Although I knew nothing of his life, I vividly recall pouring over the paintings
of St Anthony’s temptations by Schöngauer, Bosch, and Grünewald as a teenager. Interestingly, my first acquaintance with the Orthodox veneration of St Anthony was through an icon in the chapel at the Greek parish here in town, a chapel dedicated to the Saint. A full-figure icon in an excellent Byzantine style, it depicted St Anthony holding a scroll which read: ‘EΙΔΟΝ ΕΓΩ ΤΑΣ ΠΑΓΙΔΑΣ ΤΟΥ ΔΙΑΒΟΛΟΥ ΥΠΛΩΜΕΝΑΣ ΕΝ ΤΗ ΓΗ’ (‘I saw the snares of the devil spread in the earth’). When I asked what it meant, for I had had no Greek at the time, the rector of the parish had a bit of trouble with the words ‘παγίδας’ and ‘ἡπλωμένας’, but it was enough for me that St Anthony was testifying to having witnessed intense demonic activity with his own eyes. Of course, later I discovered the context of this statement—in the Gerontikon
, it is Anthony 6, but while I thought there was a fuller version in the Life
, I can’t find it—wherein St Anthony ‘said groaning, “What can get through such snares?”’, and was answered, ‘Humility’ (Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection
, rev. ed. [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1984], p. 2).
Of course, I also discovered the Vita S. Antonii
of St Athanasius the Great of Alexandria, which I first read in Carolinne White’s translation from the Latin version of Evagrius of Antioch (not Evagrius Ponticus), published in Early Christian Lives
(London: Penguin, 1998), pp. 7-70. In his introduction to the Desert Fathers, William Harmless has, typically, overplayed the differences between the Gerontikon
and the Vita
, sounding a good deal like the common attempts to drive a wedge between the Christ of the Gospels and the Christ of St Paul (Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism
[Oxford: Oxford U, 2004], pp. 167-9). But I believe Stelios Ramfos is more sensible when he says, ‘All that we learn in the Life
about the teaching of Antony the Great is confirmed by the sayings in the Gerontikon
which contemporary desert pilgrims conserved and transmitted as his own’ (Like a Pelican in the Wilderness: Reflections on the Sayings of the Desert Fathers
, trans. and abgd. by Norman Russell [Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox, 2000], p. 55).
Again, it was the demonic warfare that stuck out so vividly in my mind. Speaking to some of the other monks about the deceits of the demons, St Anthony begins to address Satan directly, saying:
(VA 28) . . . But now when you attempt to deceive, using changes of shape as in a theatre (as if you were trying to deceive naïve children by means of illusions on the stage), you prove more clearly that your strength is exhausted. Surely that true angel, sent by the Lord against the Assyrians, did not need the alliance of the peoples (IV Kings 19:35, LXX)? Surely he did not require noises or applause? Did he not rather wield his power in silence when he laid low one hundred and eighty five thousand of the enemy, more swiftly than can be related, at the Lord’s command? But as for you, because your strength is weak, everlasting destruction attends you. (White, pp. 27-8)
It is a statement quite typical of the Vita
, which Harmless—despite his apparent preference for the Gerontikon
—has captured quite well when he writes, ‘The Life of Antony
seems, at first sight, obsessed with demons and demonology. But a closer look shows that the focus is not on demons, but on Christ’s victory over them’ (p. 85). Indeed, with this realisation, the true significance of the temptations and the warfare against the ‘spirits of wickedness’ becomes apparent for the first time. St Anthony is not a raving madman, crazed by hallucinations, for St Athanasius writes, ‘His mind was calm and he maintained a well-balanced attitude in all situations’ (VA
14; White, p. 19). But this is only because ‘the Lord was helping his servant, the Lord who took on flesh for our sake and granted the body victory over the devil so that any individual who became involved in this struggle could cite the words of the Apostle, Not I, but the grace of Christ which is with me (I Cor 15:10)’ (VA
5; White, p. 12). It was through the crucible of this struggle that St Anthony ‘persuaded everyone that nothing should be valued higher than the love of Christ’ (VA
14; White, p. 19). No wonder the Vita
transformed so many lives! In the brilliant introduction to her translation of Desert Fathers material, Helen Waddell tells us that the Vita S. Antonii
left young men in Late Antiquity ‘shaken’, and that the soul of St Augustine, unconverted as yet to the devout life, ‘quailed away from it as from death’ (Introduction, The Desert Fathers
, ed. and trans. Helen Waddell [Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan, 1957], p. 3).
Other aspects of St Anthony interested me still later. For instance, to my mind his simplicity seemed to be connected with his readiness to act upon the commandment of the Gospel εὐθὺς, ‘immediately’ (VA
9; White, p. 9). In his undivided will he knew exactly what to do, for according to the text attributed to St Anthony himself in the Philokalia
, ‘The truly intelligent soul, which enjoys the love of God [ἡ δὲ κατὰ ἀλήθειαν λογικὴ καὶ θεοφιλὴς ψυχή], knows everything in life in a direct, immediate way’ (The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Volume 1
, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al
. [London: Faber, 1979], p. 331).
Of course, we can now quibble about just how ‘simple’ he was. In Robert C. Gregg’s translation from the Greek Vita
, St Athanasius says that St Anthony ‘could not bear to learn letters’ (The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus
, by St Athanasius [NY: Paulist, 1980], p. 30). On the basis of St Anthony’s letters, however, Samuel Rubenson has made a strong case that he was at the very least literate in Coptic, that he ‘knew some Greek’, and that he had some ‘acquaintance with Greek philosophy and Origenist theology’ (The Letter of St Antony: Monasticism and the Making of a Saint
[Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995], pp. 185, 186). But it remains the case that St Anthony the Great was no St Arsenius the Great
, and the learning that Rubenson has attributed to him is largely that of the Alexandrian biblical tradition. As Rubenson himself points out, ‘he was no philosopher’, (p. 185), and in Douglas Burton-Christie’s words, he was, ‘if not illiterate, at least…of very limited education’ (Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism
[Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993], p. 64, n. 20).
This brings me to the last stop on my Antonine trail. It was St Anthony’s letters that convinced Rubenson, and I did not discover them until quite late. Interestingly though, when I did begin to read them, I found that the very first letter opened with a paragraph that immediately reminded me of the opening of the Vita
and the immediacy of response to God’s call that so impressed me about that:
There are those who are called by the law of love which is in their nature, and which original good implanted in them at their first creation. The word of God came to them, and they doubted not at all but followed it readily, like Abraham the Patriarch: for when God saw that it was not form the teaching of men that he had learnt to love God, but from the law implanted in the nature of his first compacting, God appeared to him and said, ‘Get thee out from thy country and from thy kindred and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee’ (Gen 12:1). And he went nothing doubting, but was ready for his calling. He is the pattern of this approach, which still persists in those who follow in his footsteps. Toiling and seeking the fear of God in patience and quiet, they achieve the true manner of life, because their souls are ready to follow the love of God. (Derwas J. Chitty, trans., The Letters of St Antony the Great [Fairacres, UK: SLG, 1995], p. 1)
Apparently, however, I was not the first to notice that St Anthony almost seemed to be describing himself here. St John Cassian, in his own description in Conferences
III.iv.1-2 of this kind of direct divine calling, borrows St Anthony’s example of the Patriarch Abraham, but he also mentions St Anthony himself—‘Swayed neither by human exhortation nor by human teaching, he received this commandment of the Lord [Lk 14:26 & Mt 19:21] with the greatest compunction of heart, as if it were directed right to him, and at once he renounced everything and followed Christ’ (The Conferences
, trans. Boniface Ramsey [NY: Newman, 1997], p. 121). May his example, in turn, inspire us!
Let me just say that I would really like to hear from anyone—and particularly Orthodox or else Roman Catholics on the lines of Sr Macrina
—who has read Flaubert’s La Tentation de Saint Antoine
and can tell me about it. Also, does anyone know what Waddell is referring to when she calls Anatole France one of St Anthony’s ‘disciples’ (p. 2)? Finally, I was very disappointed to learn here
that St Anthony’s relics are now to be found in darkest France, and in the hands—to boot—of an order so unlike the Antonine ideal as to be called ‘Canons Regular of the Immaculate Conception’! The bearer of bad news, Fr Mark, however, has also done a very nice post
on the Vita
thirteen days early, where he very sensibly passes on the recommendation that one read it through once a year. He also observes, ‘The feast of Saint Antony, falling between the Christmas festivities and the beginning of Lent, is an invitation to shake off the sluggishness that comes with winter . . . .’ So I’d better get started!