Day Twenty-eight: St. Athanasius: Life of Anthony: Chaps. 71-80
Who: Bishop of Alexandria; Confessor and Doctor of the Church; born c. 296; died 2 May, 373 AD. He was the main defender of orthodoxy in the 4th-century battle against the Arianism heresy. Certain writers received the title “Doctor” on account of the great advantage their doctrine had on the whole Church, Athanasius especially for his doctrine on the incarnation.
What: The biography of Anthony the Great’s life, which helped to spread the concept of Christian monasticism, particularly in Western Europe.
Why: From the letter’s own prologue: “The life and conversation of our holy Father, Anthony: written and sent to the monks in foreign parts by our Father among the Saints, Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria.” They wanted an accurate account of his life so they imitate his life and teaching.
When: Somewhere between 356 and 362 AD
You can find today’s reading on page 140 here: lentfatherscomplete.pdf
Well here we are at the penultimate reading before we read the end of this biography and move on from the Life of Anthony.
Today we see the ways in which the Greek philosophers would come and listen to Anthony speak and how they would sometimes discuss things with him, or at other times would mock him and the message of the Cross. They came to mock Anthony because he had never “learned letters” and so was unable to read or write, so the Greeks thought he would be an unkempt and ignorant man, reared in the mountains and unable to reason properly.
Anthony vs Greek Philosophers
At one time during some event, Anthony noticed there were two Greek philosophers present (due to the way they were dressed), and so he approached them asking them why did they “come to a foolish man”, to which they said they didn’t think he was foolish, but “exceedingly prudent”. I’ll admit, I had to look up what prudent meant so I could understand what the Greeks were meaning. In this context it means: “wise; having or showing acute mental discernment”, so the Greeks recognised that Anthony wasn’t just some mountain-dwelling bumpkin!
He answers them saying that if they thought him foolish, then their journey would be a wasted effort, but since they think he is prudent, and since they would agree that we should imitate that which is good, then therefore they ought to imitate him if they wish to also be prudent. Since it was they who sought out Anthony, then they should become as he was, ie. a Christian. “But they departed with wonder, for they saw that even demons feared Anthony”.
Another time some more Greek philosophers came to mock Anthony for his lack of learning with regards to reading and writing. So he asked them, “which is first, mind or letters?” to which they obviously replied, “mind”, saying it was “the inventor of letters”. So Anthony said to them that whoever has “a sound mind hath not need of letters” and at this they marvelled at him since he reasoned so well despite his appearance and lack of education from living in the mountains.
Philosophers try to mock the Cross
At another time, some more Greek philosophers came and tried to mock the beliefs of the Christians for the preaching of the cross, which as we know from Scripture, is not something unexpected (1 Cor 1:18). On hearing their objections, Anthony answered them by turning their own beliefs against them;
Which is more beautiful, to confess the Cross or to attribute to those whom you call gods adultery and the seduction of boys? [...] Next, which is better, to say that the Word of God was not changed, but, being the same, He took a human body for the salvation and well-being of man, that having shared in human birth He might make man partake in the divine and spiritual nature; or to liken the divine to senseless animals and consequently to worship four-footed beasts, creeping things and the likenesses of men? For these things, are the objects of reverence of you wise men. But how do you dare to mock us, who say that Christ has appeared as man...
He goes on to say that they talk endlessly about “the wanderings of Osiris and Isis, the plots of Typhon, the flight of Cronos, his eating his children and the slaughter of his father” as their form of wisdom, yet mock the cross but marvel at the resurrection! But “the same men who told us of the [resurrection] wrote [about the cross]”, Anthony responds. They would mock the cross but be then are silent about all the miracles and wonders which Jesus did which show that “Christ is no longer a man but God”; so they do themselves “much injustice” to have not read the Scriptures properly in order that they should see that “the deeds of Christ prove Him to be God come upon earth for the salvation of men”.
Since they allegorise all of creation with the Greek legends of Poseidon, Apollo, Artemis etc, they “do not worship God Himself, but serve the creature rather than God who created all things” and “make gods of the things created” instead of giving the rightful honour to the “master builder” who is the Creator of all things; and at this, Anthony silenced his opponents.
Anthony’s critics silenced
He continued to preach the message of the Cross to them though: “Tell us therefore where your oracles are now? Where are the charms of the Egyptians? Where the delusions of the magicians? When did all these things cease and grow weak except when the Cross of Christ arose?”
He argues that if by the rising of the cross and the death of Christ put an end to all these powers (Col 2:15), then how is it something to be mocked, surely the only things worthy of mockery now are those powers which have been disarmed. For in every city, “our side flourishes and multiplies over yours” despite the persecutions and mockery Christians receive. Even though the Greek legends are honoured everywhere, their followers diminish and their faith perishes, yet the Christians, even though killed by kings, flourishes all the more! As Tertullian is recorded as saying, which relates to this, “the blood of the martyrs are the seed of the Church”!
These signs, Anthony argues, are the proof of our faith. Proof doesn’t lie in fancy, well-worded arguments, as the Greeks would have it or want, but rather in the manifestation of faith. To which, Anthony pointed out that in their midst were some who were “vexed with demons”; so they had them brought before him. He goes on to say that with all their wordy arguments, magic, arts or idols, they cannot cleanse such a person. So “put away your strife with us and you shall see the power of the Cross of Christ” he declares before praying for these people, signing them with the cross a few times and then calling upon Christ, to which they got up whole and were totally healed and now free of the demons!
The Greek philosophers “were astonished exceedingly at the understanding of the man and at the sign which had been wrought”, but Anthony rebuked them saying “we are not the doers of these things, but it is Christ who worketh them by means of those who believe on Him” and called on them to believe in Jesus. But they “saluted him and departed, confessing the benefit they had received from him”.
What is sad, is that I’ve seen so many times the power of God at work in people’s lives like this similar to these Greek philosophers, yet even though they have recognised and acknowledged God in it, they still do as the Greeks did, and just “salute and depart”, taking the blessing but refusing to change their lives and follow Christ, being in some sense the fulfilment of the Parable of the Sower (Matt 13:1-9).
Tomorrow we will conclude with Athanasius’ telling of the life of Anthony, so stay tuned to see how it ends!