Memorial; Liturgical Color: White
Many extraordinary people who live heroic, path breaking lives remain unknown to posterity for one simple reason – no one writes their biography. How many other saints, heroes, and martyrs would be known to mankind if just one witness to their actions had put pen to paper! Just one author is needed to introduce a great man to subsequent generations. Today’s saint may have been forgotten forever, and may have wanted to remain unknown. But a talented and famous contemporary of his wrote what he knew. St. Athanasius, the great champion of orthodoxy at the Council of Nicea, wrote a short biography of his fellow Egyptian, The Life of Saint Anthony the Great. St. Athanasius’ work was so widely shared, and so often translated, that it was never lost to history. It has preserved St. Anthony’s memory down to the present.
The first three centuries of the Church saw sporadic persecutions of Christianity which at times turned vicious. These spasms of violence against Christians produced a large class of martyrs, many of whose last words and sufferings were recorded in official Roman judicial documents or in the written testimonies of witnesses. As Christianity was legalized at the start of the 4th century martyrdom ceased to be the primary form of Christian witness. A new form of radical witness to Christ emerged – the witness of radical isolation, fasting, prayer, and penance of the desert fathers. These monks retreated into remote places to lead solitary lives of dedication to Christ. Foremost among these desert fathers was St. Anthony of the desert, born around 250 A.D. He was not the first ascetic, but he was perhaps the first to take the radical decision to retreat into the desert.
St. Anthony had money and property as a young man. But upon hearing at Mass the words of Christ to the rich young man to “…go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven”, St. Anthony decided to seek not silver or bronze, but pure gold. He sold his goods, he removed himself from all temptation except those intrinsic to human nature, he battled the devil, he fasted, he prayed, and he even actively sought martyrdom. He became famous for being holy. St. Anthony preceded St. Benedict by two hundred years. He offers us an example of being a monk outside of a community of monks in a monastery. He sought Christ alone in every sense. Alone in the desert, without family, community, or money. Alone to the world, he clinged to the only person who truly mattered – God himself. St. Anthony’s path of holiness is both radical and refined. It is for few people to walk. But he was the first to walk it so well. He shows us that being alone, stripped of all worldly concerns, is a sort of rehearsal for death, where we will meet God alone, every last thread tying us to the world having been cut.
St. Anthony of the desert, we ask your powerful intercession to resist temptation and to help us cling to God alone. Like Christ on the cross, help us to strip ourselves of those daily needs and concerns which stuff our lives from morning to night. Help us not to be distracted from the one thing, the only thing, the last thing, God Himself in his fullness as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
From Butler’s Lives of the Saints
ST. ANTONY was born in the year 251, in Upper Egypt. Hearing at Mass the words, “If thou wilt be perfect, go, sell what thou hast, and give to the poor,” he gave away all his vast possessions. He then begged an aged hermit to teach him the spiritual life. He also visited various solitaries, copying in himself the principal virtue of each. To serve God more perfectly, Antony entered the desert and immured himself in a ruin, building up the door so that none could enter. Here the devils assaulted him most furiously, appearing as various monsters, and even wounding him severely; but his courage never failed, and he overcame them all by confidence in God and by the sign of the cross. One night, whilst Antony was in his solitude, many devils scourged him so terribly that he lay as if dead. A friend found him thus, and believing him dead carried him home. But when Antony came to himself he persuaded his friend to carry him, in spite of his wounds, back to his solitude. Here, prostrate from weakness, he defied the devils, saying, “I fear you not; you cannot separate me from the love of Christ.” After more vain assaults the devils fled, and Christ appeared to Antony in glory. His only food was bread and water, which he never tasted before sunset, and sometimes only once in two, three, or four days. He wore sackcloth and sheepskin, and he often knelt in prayer from sunset to sunrise. Many souls flocked to him for advice, and after twenty years of solitude he consented to guide them in holiness — thus founding the first monastery. His numerous miracles attracted such multitudes that he fled again into solitude, where he lived by manual labor. He expired peacefully at a very advanced age. St. Athanasius, his biographer, says that the mere knowledge of how St. Antony lived is a good guide to virtue.
Reflection.— The more violent were the assaults of temptation suffered by St. Antony, the more firmly did he grasp his weapons, namely, mortification and prayer. Let us imitate him in this if we wish to obtain victories like his.
Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed.