Day Twenty-six: St. Athanasius: Life of Anthony: Chaps. 51-60
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 131 here: lentfatherscomplete.pdf
Today we pick up at the start of a new chapter in Anthony’s life. He’s just relocated to a new mountain further in the Egyptian desert with the aid of the Saracens and with what is described as a ‘divine love’, Anthony was moved to love the area he found. But it soon became a small burden to him as people would seek him out and look to visit him, or to bring him bread. This area was a three day and night trek from where he previously lived, so the thought of other people taking this treacherous journey concerned him dearly. Eventually, after asking some to bring him corn and seeds, he managed to till the ground to be able to make his own bread and grow his own herbs to save others from needing to bring him food.
Sometimes the wild animals would ruin his garden looking for food and water, but at one point Anthony gently captured an animal and said to it, “Why do you hurt me, when I hurt none of you? Depart, and in the name of the Lord come not nigh this spot” and as though they could understand his words, no longer did the animals come back!
Not against flesh and blood
By this point in time, Anthony was an old man and some of the other believers who had served him, would bring olives and oil and other supplies once a month. Upon visiting him they would sometimes witness strange things going on as spiritual events formed against Anthony, as though soldiers and beasts were attacking him, but he would be seen praying against them and the demons fleeing.
They “heard tumults, many voices, and, as it were, the clash of arms … and [Anthony] also fighting as though against visible beings” since he wrestled not against ‘flesh and blood’ “but against opposing demons” as Athanasius learned from those who visited him during these times.
At other times, demons would make appearances to try and bring fear and to shake his trust in Christ, or they would cause all the hyenas nearby to come and surround Anthony. But, not fearing the Evil One and having his mind set on Christ, he rebuked them and commanded they leave in the name of the Lord if they were sent by demons, which they did and he was then left alone.
Anthony visits the other monks
Some time later, the other monks enquired of Anthony and wanted him to come and visit them, so he set off on the journey with those who came to him. On their way through the desert, their water ran out and they were still some way from any water source, and so the men despaired and let their camel go, and sat on the ground unable to move. Anthony, seeing the danger, went a short walk away to pray to the Lord for help, and immediately, water sprang up where he was standing! So they filled their bottles, found the camel and went on their way refreshed and restored.
On arriving at the the cells of the other monks, Anthony rejoiced in seeing their earnestness and was also happy to find that his sister had become the leader of the nuns in her old age.
During this time, Anthony gave some teaching to the monks and hermits who were living there which were his guidelines for his discipline:
Believe on the Lord and love Him; keep yourselves from filthy thoughts and fleshly pleasures, and as it is written in the Proverbs, be not deceived "by the fullness of the belly." Pray continually; avoid vainglory; sing psalms before sleep and on awaking; hold in your heart the commandments of Scripture; be mindful of the works of the saints that your souls being put in remembrance of the commandments may be brought into harmony with the zeal of the saints.
He also encouraged them to live by the words of Paul in Ephesians 4:26, where he said not to let the sun go down on your anger. Anthony interpreted this further to mean not just anger, but any sin which was committed so that before the end of the day you have set things right with others or have prayed and repented to the Lord. Even further still, he would teach that in order to control our thoughts so that we let nothing sinful enter our mind (ie. “take every thought captive” – 2 Cor 10:5), that the monks should write down every thought they have as though they were to read them out loud to one another at the end of the day. Through seeing what we think and with the idea of others knowing it, the shame ought to keep us in check and help to strengthen our minds against evil thoughts, “thus fashioning ourselves we shall be able to keep the body in subjection, to please the Lord, and to trample on the devices of the enemy”.
Miracles of healing that the Lord did through Anthony
Anthony would spend a lot of his time praying with those who suffered, and sometimes those with illnesses would receive healing. But he taught not to boast if they were, and not to mutter if they weren’t, but to rejoice in all things and to be patient because “healing belonged neither to him nor to man at all, but only to the Lord” and God would do good to those he chose, when he chose to, and “those who were healed were taught not to give thanks to Anthony but to God alone”.
At one time, a man named Fronto, an Officer of the Court, came to Anthony with a terrible disease where he “used to bite his own tongue and was in danger of injury to his eyes” and sought prayer. On seeing him, Anthony sent him away saying that on his departure he would be healed. But the man remained for a few days, so Anthony went again to him and told him that he wouldn’t get what he wanted until he went on his way back to Egypt, so the man left and upon seeing Egypt, suddenly he received his healing as Anthony had said, “which the Saviour had revealed to him in prayer”.
Another time a woman from Busiris Tripolitania came to him who was paralysed and had strange fluid issues coming from her eyes, nose and ears. Her parents had heard of Anthony and because they had read the Gospels of when Jesus healed the woman who had been bleeding for many years, they took her to the monk seeking prayer for healing too. On arriving at the place where the monks were staying, some of Anthony’s companions went to find him and tell him about the girl, but on coming to him, he already knew about her and her condition. He told them to go back to the girl and they will find her healed, since “the accomplishment of this is not mine, that she should come to me, wretched man that I am, but her healing is the work of the Saviour”. Anthony always made sure to place the glory where it belonged and never to take any credit for himself in these things.
At another time, two monks were travelling through the desert, and their water supplies ran dry. One of them died and the other was on the brink of death when Anthony, during prayer, it was revealed to him that this was happening, so he sent two men to that location with water to save the monk.
One other time when Anthony was sitting and praying, he looked up and saw a man in a vision, being taken upwards towards many who were joyful at his arrival. Wondering what this was, he prayed and enquired of the Lord, who responded by telling him it was the soul of “Amun, the monk at Nitria” being taken up into the presence of the Father, for he had died. The companions of Anthony, seeing the amazed expression on his face, asked what he was seeing, and he explained that Amun had died. This monk lived about thirteen days travel away and was well known to the monks where Anthony was staying.
Amun had often stayed with them, and was known for the signs which the Lord had performed through him also. One of these which is recollected here was of a time when he had to cross the river Lycus with a companion of his. To avoid the shame of seeing the other naked while swimming, Amun went first while his friend Theodorus stayed a little distance away. But he became afraid of having to become naked, even of seeing himself that way, that while pondering on this and how he should approach the situation, he suddenly found himself on the other side of the river standing by Amun!
If that wasn’t surprising enough, he noticed that Amun wasn’t even wet and so he asked how it was possible, but Amun refused to tell him. Theodorus grabbed his feet and wouldn’t let him go until he explained it, so Amun swore him to secrecy until after his death and told him that he had not even touched the water as the Lord had carried him across the river in a similar way that Jesus allowed Peter to walk on water. Now that Amun had died, Theodorus recalled the story to the other monks.
About thirty days later, some men from Nitria arrived to tell the news of the death of Amun, and those who met them enquired of the time of death and saw that it was at the very moment when Anthony had seen the vision from the Lord, and they all marvelled and rejoiced at the things the Lord did through Anthony.
That’s all from today’s reading, but wow what a lot to take in! The Lord surely did some amazing things through his servant Anthony which in turn caused many to come to faith after hearing his reputation for his dedication to the Lord and the wonders worked through him.
I hope this inspires you to seek the Lord more and to persevere more with your faith and the discipline of living as Jesus commanded us and as the Apostles taught us via their letters.