Day Twenty-two: St. Athanasius: Life of Anthony: Chaps. 11-20
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 112 here: lentfatherscomplete.pdf
Today we will see what began as a simple desire for personal growth with God, eventually became one of the most influential movements within not only early Christianity, but the faith as a whole.
Anthony is regarded as the father and founder of desert monasticism, and today we will see how it all started.
The old hermit that Anthony met previously, he asked to go into the desert with him to dwell, “more eagerly bent on the service of God”. The old man declined due to his age, but also because “there was no such custom” of living in the desert, so Anthony left on his own to live in the mountains and the devil attacked him again.
Twenty years of solitude
After going into the desert, Anthony arrived at the Nile and found an abandoned fort on the other side of the river, where he set up camp to live, surviving only on bread which was brought to him by some friends every so often.
Anthony spent twenty years alone in this fort, save for the demonic attacks he suffered. At one point they were so much that the villagers thought he was under physical attack from men, but discovered him alone and in prayer, singing praises and hymns to God.
When two decades has passed, he finally left the fort to find a great crowd had amassed waiting for him so they could learn of his discipline.
On seeing Anthony, though, they were all amazed because he had the “habit of body as before, and was neither fat, like a man without exercise, nor lean from fasting and striving with the demons”; and being full of the Spirit, “through him the Lord healed the bodily ailments of many present, and cleansed others from evil spirits” and with godly wisdom he countless counselled many various people in need.
He began preaching from Romans 8:32 about how God didn’t hold anything back, but gave up even his only Son, and continued “exhorting all to prefer the love of Christ before all that is in the world”, which led many to prefer the solitary life of devotion to God than to their worldly pleasures, and eventually caused many groups to gather “even in the mountains, and the desert was colonised by monks, who came forth from their own people, and enrolled themselves for the citizenship in the heavens”.
To me, that seems pretty amazing! That such conviction could fall on so many people to die to self and truly live a live devoted to God at the expense of the world – it’s inspiring I think, and not something you see a great deal of happening today to that kind of level (in the Western Church at least, and not en masse).
Monastic communities form
As more monks gathered in the desert, they came to Anthony to hear what he could teach them, and he gave basic rules, saying that “the Scriptures are enough for instruction, but it is a good thing to encourage one another in the faith, and to stir up with words”, and to take what you learn and pass it on to others and to keep strong in their devotion to God so that they may gain their inheritance of eternal life when they pass from this life.
Nor let us think, as we look at the world, that we have renounced anything of much consequence, for the whole earth is very small compared with all the heaven … Therefore let the desire of possession take hold of no one, for what gain is it to acquire these things which we cannot take with us?
He encouraged his followers to not grow weary of their devotion and discipline, but to keep their focus right, similar to what Paul wrote in Col 3:2 about setting your mind on things above, and again, in Phil 3:14, about pressing on towards the goal and heavenly prize of Christ. To “die daily” (1 Cor 15:31) to self and keep pressing on in Christ.
“Wherefore having already begun and set out in the way of virtue, let us strive the more that we may attain those things that are before”, Anthony taught, not to “feel regret and to be once more worldly-minded”, basing his interpretation and teaching on Luke 9:62.
Contrasting entering the Kingdom of God with how other nations attain the things they want, Anthony uses the example of the Greeks. They cross seas to gain knowledge, but believers have no need to do that, since Jesus had already said that “the kingdom of heaven is within you” (Luke 17:21), so we “have no need to depart from home for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, nor to cross the sea for the sake of virtue”.
His encouragement here, I think, is that no matter where we are, and whatever capacity we have (or don’t have), we have no excuse nor reason to not do the work of the Kingdom which Jesus has assigned us all to do in the Great Commission. Reading this now reminds me of my favourite Scripture, which I’ll end today’s post with:
But I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace.