Book Reviews

Day Twenty-nine: St. Athanasius: Life of Anthony: Chaps. 81-94

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 heresyCertain 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.

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When: Somewhere between 356 and 362 AD

You can find today’s reading on page 144 here: lentfatherscomplete.pdf

Here we are at the end of the Life of Anthony in the final chapters of Athanasius’ biography, and the final chapters of Anthony’s life at the grand old age of 105! By this point in his life he had become widely renowned and respected far and wide, so much that judges and rulers would come and seek his advice on things, or sought out encouragement in their faith. Many looked up to Anthony as a father figure, even the emperor Constantine Augustus, and his sons Constantius and Constans the Augusti, who “wrote letters to him, as to a father, and begged an answer from him” since they themselves had come to the faith. Despite rulers and kings writing to him and seeking his advice, Anthony thought nothing of it and didn’t allow himself to become puffed up with pride over the status of men.

After meeting and seeing the various people who would visit, Anthony would retreat to the “inner mountain” where he resided and spent much of his time in prayer. It was here that those who accompanied him would often see that Anthony was “wrapped in a vision” and would not speak or move.

Anthony foresees persecution

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At one time while Anthony was working, he fell into a trance with loud groans and trembling. Those with him “trembling and terrified, desired to learn from him what it was” that he saw, and after a while, Anthony explained that persecution was coming upon the Church from the Arian heretics. Athanasius interjects here to say that two years after Anthony saw these things, the “plunder of the churches took place, when [the Arians] violently carried off the vessels” from the churches along with “the heathens” who they also conscripted to help them. But Anthony encouraged his brothers and told them that things would be put right and everything would be restored in the end, and to avoid the teaching of the Arians in the meantime, “for their teaching is not that of the Apostles, but that of demons and their father the devil”.

How Anthony was used by the Lord

Here it is stated that although many great signs and wonders were done through the hands of Anthony, he never let this go to his head and always pointed to Christ as the reason and source of all the wonders. He would often teach on faith from the words of Jesus; that if you have only faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains and that nothing shall be impossible (Matt 17:20), and that if you ask the Father for anything in the name of Jesus, it shall be given (John 16:23), such as casting out demons, healing the sick and raising the dead (Matt 10:8).

He did this so that when he prayed for people, he “healed not by commanding, but by prayer and speaking the name of Christ. So that it was clear to all that it was not he himself who worked, but the Lord who showed mercy by his means and healed the sufferers”.

Persecutions from Arian sympathisers

At another point, a General Balacius came against the Christians who didn’t hold to the Arian view of Jesus (the doctrine which states that the Son had a beginning and wasn’t eternally with the Father always). He was so ruthless that he “beat virgins, and stripped and scourged monks”! Anthony took it upon himself to write to this man with a prophetic warning telling him to cease his persecutions, otherwise wrath would come on him very shortly since “it is on the point of coming upon” him already. He ignore the warning, and only eight days later, died from an unusual horse riding accident where one of his regular steeds, which was known to be a mild-mannered and temperate horse, suddenly bucked him off and bit through his leg which led to his death.

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This served as a warning to all who were cruel or who may have planned to inflict punishment on the Christians, and many people sought out Anthony to hear him speak, or to receive prayer, with a lot of people turning from their worldly ways and dedicating themselves to the monastic life.

The death of Anthony

Anthony had learned “from Providence” (meaning either he learned it from God or just felt it was near because he was 105 years old), that his end was near and so he went out to see the monks in the “outer mountain” to bid them farewell and give them one last exhortation before he left them, “as though sailing from a foreign city to his own”. He encouraged them to remember all he taught them, to keep in the discipline and to “observe the traditions of the fathers, and chiefly the holy faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, which you have learned from the Scripture”. The monks “wept, and embraced, and kissed the old man” and he advised them on how to bury him, since the Egyptians liked to wrap their dead and display revered men in their homes as a display. Anthony instructed them that since Jesus was buried in the ground, that that was the only proper way to treat the dead; not to display them.

So he left for the inner mountain where he had his two companions promise to bury him secretly, and then he lay down and died with a smile upon his face, “as though he saw friends coming to him and was glad because of them”.

Athanasius closes his record of Anthony’s life by praising the type of life he lived and how he lived it purely for God from his youth.

This is the end of Anthony's life in the body and the above was the beginning of the discipline. Even if this account is small compared with his merit, still from this reflect how great Anthony, the man of God, was. […]  Read these words, therefore, to the rest of the brethren that they may learn what the life of monks ought to be; and may believe that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ glorifies those who glorify Him. … Amen

I feel like I'm parting ways with an old friend after reading about St Anthony in so much detail over these last few days, his life story has definitely had an impact on me and given me things to consider and areas I want to be more disciplined in.

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