Strange Wisdom: The Life of St Anthony by St Athanasius

In an essay entitled ‘On the reading of old books’ C S Lewis argues as follows for the importance of reading books from the past:

‘Every age has its own outlook.  It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.  We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.  All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny.  They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions.  We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth.  None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already.  Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill.  The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.  Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past.  People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes.  They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us.  Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.  To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.’

I think Lewis is right in what he says here. We do need to read the old books from the Christian tradition and one of the most Important of these books is a book that you may well never have heard of, The Life of Anthony.

This book was originally written in Greek around 360 AD by the Patriarch of Alexandria, St Athanasius, and was then translated in Latin by St Evagrius of Antioch. Particularly in its Latin version it became one of best known works of literature in the Christian world right through until the end of the Middle Ages and its influence was an important cause of the development of the monastic tradition, particularly in Western Europe. Given the subsequent importance of monasticism for the development of the whole of Western culture in a whole variety of different areas including art, architecture, theology, philosophy, science, agriculture and medicine this means that it is a book which helped to shape the whole of that Western civilization of which we are the heirs. Like a pebble dropped into a pond this book has caused ripples which are still expanding even today.

It is this book I want to introduce you to this afternoon.

So, what is this book? As its title suggests, it is a life, a work of biography, what in Latin is known as a Vita. It is the story of the life of St Anthony of Egypt, a Coptic monk who was born in around 251 AD and died in 356. The original heading is ‘Athanasius the bishop to the brethren in foreign parts.’ This indicates that it was written to tell Christians outside Egypt about the life of this monk. The prologue to the work then clarifies this point further:

‘You have entered upon a noble rivalry with the monks of Egypt by your determination either to equal or surpass them in your training in the way of virtue. For by this time there are monasteries among you, and the name of monk receives public recognition. With reason, therefore, all men will approve this determination, and in answer to your prayers God will give its fulfilment. Now since you asked me to give you an account of the blessed Antony’s way of life, and are wishful to learn how he began the discipline, who and what manner of man he was previous to this, how he closed his life, and whether the things told of him are true, that you also may bring yourselves to imitate him, I very readily accepted your behest, for to me also the bare recollection of Antony is a great accession of help. And I know that you, when you have heard, apart from your admiration of the man, will be wishful to emulate his determination; seeing that for monks the life of Antony is a sufficient pattern of discipline. Wherefore do not refuse credence to what you have heard from those who brought tidings of him; but think rather that they have told you only a few things, for at all events they scarcely can have given circumstances of so great import in any detail. And because I at your request have called to mind a few circumstances about him, and shall send as much as I can tell in a letter, do not neglect to question those who sail from here: for possibly when all have told their tale, the account will hardly be in proportion to his merits. On account of this I was desirous, when I received your letter, to send for certain of the monks, those especially who were wont to be more frequently with him, that if I could learn any fresh details I might send them to you. But since the season for sailing was coming to an end and the letter-carrier urgent, I hastened to write to your piety what I myself know, having seen him many times, and what I was able to learn from him, for I was his attendant for a long time, and poured water on his hands ; in all points being mindful of the truth, that no one should disbelieve through hearing too much, nor on the other hand by hearing too little should despise the man.’

What this tells us is that St Athanasius knew St Anthony personally and that he has written to Christians overseas in order to give them an account of the saint’s life as a model for their own monastic discipline. At the end of the fourth century the monastic movement was beginning to take off and St Anthony is being presented as the model for the monastic life.

The book begins by explaining that St Anthony was from a wealthy Christian family and was brought up as a Christian, but that after his parents died he was called by God to a life of more rigorous discipleship. The account of his call in chapters 2 and 3 goes like this:

‘After the death of his father and mother he was left alone with one little sister: his age was about eighteen or twenty, and on him the care both of home and sister rested. Now it was not six months after the death of his parents, and going according to custom into the Lord’s House, he communed with himself and reflected as he walked how the Apostles Matthew 4:20 left all and followed the Saviour; and how they in the Acts (Acts 4:35) sold their possessions and brought and laid them at the Apostles’ feet for distribution to the needy, and what and how great a hope was laid up for them in heaven. Pondering over these things he entered the church, and it happened the Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man (Matthew 19:21), ‘If you would be perfect, go and sell that you have and give to the poor; and come follow Me and you shall have treasure in heaven.’ Antony, as though God had put him in mind of the Saints, and the passage had been read on his account, went out immediately from the church, and gave the possessions of his forefathers to the villagers— they were three hundred acres , productive and very fair— that they should be no more a clog upon himself and his sister. And all the rest that was movable he sold, and having got together much money he gave it to the poor, reserving a little however for his sister’s sake.

And again as he went into the church, hearing the Lord say in the Gospel (Matthew 6:34), ‘be not anxious for the morrow,’ he could stay no longer, but went out and gave those things also to the poor. Having committed his sister to known and faithful virgins, and put her into a convent to be brought up, he henceforth devoted himself outside his house to discipline , taking heed to himself and training himself with patience. For there were not yet so many monasteries in Egypt, and no monk at all knew of the distant desert; but all who wished to give heed to themselves practised the discipline in solitude near their own village. Now there was then in the next village an old man who had lived the life of a hermit from his youth up. Antony, after he had seen this man, imitated him in piety. And at first he began to abide in places outside the village: then if he heard of a good man anywhere, like the prudent bee, he went forth and sought him, nor turned back to his own palace until he had seen him; and he returned, having got from the good man as it were supplies for his journey in the way of virtue. So dwelling there at first, he confirmed his purpose not to return to the abode of his fathers nor to the remembrance of his kinsfolk; but to keep all his desire and energy for perfecting his discipline. He worked, however, with his hands, having heard, ‘he who is idle let him not eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10),’ and part he spent on bread and part he gave to the needy. And he was constant in prayer, knowing that a man ought to pray in secret unceasingly. For he had given such heed to what was read that none of the things that were written fell from him to the ground, but he remembered all, and afterwards his memory served him for books.’

The rest of the book recounts how the saint went on to try to develop an ever more disciplined life by going into the desert and by spending time on his own in an old tomb and an abandoned Roman fort where he was tempted by numerous demons who appeared to him in a variety of disguises and who sought to tempt him into sin or frighten him into abandoning his monastic calling. It then further recounts how St Anthony tried and failed to achieve martyrdom during the persecution of the Church in 311 and how, after that, he retreated even further into the desert to what is described as the ‘inner mountain’ where he lived until his death at the age of 105.

The saint is described as living as a hermit, but he is not cut off from the world. Streams of people, including monks, clergy and laity, come to see him seeking counsel and healing and he goes out from the desert to visit people, and counteract the Arian heresy (the denial of true divinity of Christ) which was prevalent at that time. He also debates with Greek philosophers and on one occasion even has correspondence with the Emperor and his sons, to whom he wrote ‘approving them because they worshipped Christ, and giving them counsel on things pertaining to salvation: ‘not to think much of the present, but rather to remember the judgment that is coming, and to know that Christ alone was the true and Eternal King.’ He begged them to be merciful and to give heed to justice and the poor.’ (chapter 81)

St Athanasius summarises the saint’s influence in chapter 87 by stating that:

‘….it was as if a physician had been given by God to Egypt. For who in grief met Antony and did not return rejoicing? Who came mourning for his dead and did not immediately put off his sorrow? Who came in anger and was not converted to friendship? What poor and low-spirited man met him who, hearing him and looking upon him, did not despise wealth and console himself in his poverty? What monk, having being neglectful, came to him and became not all the stronger? What young man having come to the mountain and seen Antony, did not immediately deny himself pleasure and love temperance? Who when tempted by a demon, came to him and did not find rest? And who came troubled with doubts and did not get quietness of mind?’

If we ask what the major themes are that St Athanasius brings out in his account of St Anthony, we finds that the first and key theme is the need for discipline in the Christian life. This is emphasised, for example, in Anthony’s address to his fellow monks in chapter 19:

‘Wherefore, children, let us hold fast our discipline, and let us not be careless. For in it the Lord is our fellow-worker, as it is written, to all that choose the good, God works with them for good. But to avoid being heedless, it is good to consider the word of the Apostle, I die daily (1 Corinthians 15:31). For if we too live as though dying daily, we shall not sin. And the meaning of that saying is, that as we rise day by day we should think that we shall not abide till evening; and again, when about to lie down to sleep, we should think that we shall not rise up. For our life is naturally uncertain, and Providence allots it to us daily. But thus ordering our daily life, we shall neither fall into sin, nor have a lust for anything, nor cherish wrath against any, nor shall we heap up treasure upon earth. But, as though under the daily expectation of death, we shall be without wealth, and shall forgive all things to all men, nor shall we retain at all the desire of women or of any other foul pleasure. But we shall turn from it as past and gone, ever striving and looking forward to the Day of Judgment. For the greater dread and danger of torment ever destroys the ease of pleasure, and sets up the soul if it is like to fall.’

For St Anthony, this calling to a disciplined life means a life of extreme asceticism. He is celibate, he fasts continuously, he has one garment which he wears with the hair on the inside and ‘he neither bathed his body with water to free himself from filth, nor did he ever wash his feet, nor even endure so much as to put them into water, unless compelled by necessity.’ (Chapter 47). Such behaviour may we strike us as bizarre and even repulsive (would you want to spend time with someone who never washed?), but there is a serious point to it, which is that it gives expression to the conviction that in view of the imminence of death and judgment the needs of the soul have to take priority over the pleasures of the body. As St Anthony is recorded as saying in chapter 45:

‘…it behoved a man to give all his time to his soul rather than his body, yet to grant a short space to the body through its necessities; but all the more earnestly to give up the whole remainder to the soul and seek its profit, that it might not be dragged down by the pleasures of the body, but, on the contrary, the body might be in subjection to the soul. For this is that which was spoken by the Saviour: ‘Be not anxious for your life what you shall eat, nor for your body what you shall put on. And do you seek not what you shall eat, or what you shall drink, and be not of a doubtful mind. For all these things the nations of the world seek after. But your Father knows that you have need of all these things. Howbeit do you seek first His Kingdom, and all these things shall be added unto you (Matthew 6:31; Luke 12:29).’

It is also stressed in the Life that Anthony’s ascetic lifestyle was not contrary to his physical well bring. He lives to 105, as I have said, and is still hale and hearty at the time of his death. Chapter 93 tells us that St Anthony:

‘…from his youth to so great an age preserved a uniform zeal for the discipline, and neither through old age was subdued by the desire of costly food, nor through the infirmity of his body changed the fashion of his clothing, nor washed even his feet with water, and yet remained entirely free from harm. For his eyes were undimmed and quite sound and he saw clearly; of his teeth he had not lost one, but they had become worn to the gums through the great age of the old man. He remained strong both in hands and feet; and while all men were using various foods, and washings and various garments, he appeared more cheerful and of greater strength.’

The second theme is that St Anthony is someone who trusts in God’s protection and is therefore unafraid either of demons or of wild beasts. This theme comes out particularly strongly in chapter 51:

‘So he was alone in the inner mountain, spending his time in prayer and discipline. And the brethren who served him asked that they might come every month and bring him olives, pulse and oil, for by now he was an old man. There then he passed his life, and endured such great wrestlings, ‘Not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12),’ as it is written, but against opposing demons, as we learned from those who visited him. For there they heard tumults, many voices, and, as it were, the clash of arms. At night they saw the mountain become full of wild beasts, and him also fighting as though against visible beings, and praying against them. And those who came to him he encouraged, while kneeling he contended and prayed to the Lord. Surely it was a marvellous thing that a man, alone in such a desert, feared neither the demons who rose up against him, nor the fierceness of the four-footed beasts and creeping things, for all they were so many. But in truth, as it is written, ‘He trusted in the Lord as Mount Sion (Psalm 125:1),’ with a mind unshaken and undisturbed; so that the demons rather fled from him, and the wild beasts, as it is written (Job 5:23), ‘kept peace with him.’’

Furthermore, as someone who has learned to overcome the demons himself he is able to advise others how to successfully resist them too. We see this, for instance in chapter 42 where Anthony tells his fellow monks:

‘If, therefore, the devil himself confesses that his power is gone, we ought utterly to despise both him and his demons; and since the enemy with his hounds has but devices of this sort, we, having got to know their weakness, are able to despise them. Wherefore let us not despond after this fashion, nor let us have a thought of cowardice in our heart, nor frame fears for ourselves, saying, I am afraid lest a demon should come and overthrow me; lest he should lift me up and cast me down; or lest rising against me on a sudden he confound me…..For if they find us faint-hearted and cowardly, they mightily increase our terror, by their delusions and threats; and with these the unhappy soul is thenceforth tormented. But if they see us rejoicing in the Lord, contemplating the bliss of the future, mindful of the Lord, deeming all things in His hand, and that no evil spirit has any strength against the Christian, nor any power at all over any one— when they behold the soul fortified with these thoughts— they are discomfited and turned backwards. Thus the enemy, seeing Job fenced round with them, withdrew from him; but finding Judas unguarded, him he took captive. Thus if we are wishful to despise the enemy, let us ever ponder over the things of the Lord, and let the soul ever rejoice in hope. And we shall see the snares of the demon are like smoke, and the evil ones themselves flee rather than pursue. For they are, as I said before, exceeding fearful, ever looking forward to the fire prepared for them.’

The third theme is that St Anthony was someone used by God to deliver people from demonic oppression and physical illness. Thus we are told in chapter 48:

‘When therefore he had retired and determined to fix a time, after which neither to go forth himself nor admit anybody, Martinian, a military officer, came and disturbed Antony. For he had a daughter afflicted with an evil spirit. But when he continued for a long while knocking at the door, and asking him to come out and pray to God for his child, Antony, not bearing to open, looked out from above and said, ‘Man, why do you call on me? I also am a man even as you. But if you believe in Christ whom I serve, go, and according as you believe, pray to God, and it shall come to pass.’ Straightway, therefore, he departed, believing and calling upon Christ, and he received his daughter cleansed from the devil. Many other things also through Antony the Lord did, who says, ‘Seek and it shall be given unto you (Luke 11:9).’ For many of the sufferers, when he would not open his door, slept outside his cell, and by their faith and sincere prayers were healed.’

And in chapter 58 we are told about:

‘…. a maiden from Busiris Tripolitana, who had a terrible and very hideous disorder. For the runnings of her eyes, nose, and ears fell to the ground and immediately became worms. She was paralysed also and squinted. Her parents having heard of monks going to Antony, and believing on the Lord who healed Matthew 9:20 the woman with the issue of blood, asked to be allowed, together with their daughter, to journey with them. And when they suffered them, the parents together with the girl, remained outside the mountain with Paphnutius, the confessor and monk; but the monks went in to Antony. And when they only wished to tell about the damsel, he anticipated them, and detailed both the sufferings of the child and how she journeyed with them. Then when they asked that she should be admitted, Antony did not allow it, but said, ‘Go, and if she be not dead, you will find her healed: for 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, who in every place shows His pity to them that call upon Him. Wherefore the Lord has inclined to her as she prayed, and His loving-kindness has declared to me that He will heal the child where she now is.’ So the wonder took place; and going out they found the parents rejoicing and the girl whole.’

This second story also contains the idea that we find throughout the Life that St Anthony has been given the gift of supernatural knowledge. He knows things that he needs to know to help people, even though such knowledge is humanly impossible.

It is also stressed by St Athanasius that St Anthony’s power to heal is given to him by God and is effective only as and when God wills. Thus we read in chapter 56:

‘And with those who suffered he sympathised and prayed. And oft-times the Lord heard him on behalf of many: yet he boasted not because he was heard, nor did he murmur if he were not. But always he gave the Lord thanks and besought the sufferer to be patient, and to know that healing belonged neither to him nor to man at all, but only to the Lord, who does good when and to whom He will. The sufferers therefore used to receive the words of the old man as though they were a cure, learning not to be downhearted but rather to be long-suffering. And those who were healed were taught not to give thanks to Antony but to God alone.’

The fourth theme of the book is that although solitude is important to St Anthony for the development of his own spiritual life and discipline this does not mean that he rejects engagement with other people or with the world. As I have mentioned earlier, in the Life St Anthony is in constant contact with his fellow monks and with a whole variety of people who come to him or write to him seeking healing or spiritual advice.

In chapter 69 we are even told that having been summoned by ‘the bishops and all the brethren’ he travels all the way from the ‘inner mountain’ to the coastal city of Alexandria to refute the heresies of the Arians:

‘…and having entered Alexandria , he denounced the Arians, saying that their heresy was the last of all and a forerunner of Antichrist. And he taught the people that the Son of God was not a created being, neither had He come into being from non-existence, but that He was the Eternal Word and Wisdom of the Essence of the Father. And therefore it was impious to say, ‘there was a time when He was not,’ for the Word was always co-existent with the Father. Wherefore have no fellowship with the most impious Arians. For there is no communion between light and darkness. 2 Corinthians 6:14 For you are good Christians, but they, when they say that the Son of the Father, the Word of God, is a created being, differ in nought from the heathen, since they worship that which is created, rather than God the creator. ‘

The fifth and final theme of the book was that St Anthony was a humble man. Thus we are told in chapter 67 that, in spite of his possession of extreme spiritual power, as a lay monk he accepts the order and discipline of the Church:

‘Added to this he was tolerant in disposition and humble in spirit. For though he was such a man, he observed the rule of the Church most rigidly, and was willing that all the clergy should be honoured above himself. For he was not ashamed to bow his head to bishops and presbyters, and if ever a deacon came to him for help he discoursed with him on what was profitable, but gave place to him in prayer, not being ashamed to learn himself. For often he would ask questions, and desired to listen to those who were present, and if any one said anything that was useful he confessed that he was profited.’

That, then, is what we find in St Athanasius’ life of St Anthony. In the title of my talk I refer to this book as ‘strange wisdom.’ I think both words are apposite. For us living in the 21st century what we are told about the life of St Anthony can appear very strange and yet it is also wisdom.

For most people living in the 21st century the idea that we have anything at all to learn from the Anthony who appears in the pages of the Life would seem very odd indeed. What can we possibly have to learn from the story of man who rejected the material comforts of life, battled constantly against the demands of his own body and went off to live in a tomb, an abandoned fort and finally the remote desert where he spend much of his time wrestling with demons? For most people today St Anthony would appear to be a very strange man living a very strange life indeed.

However, from a Christian perspective what we can learn from the pages of the Life, as generations of Christians have learned before us, is wisdom. Wisdom, for a Christian, is knowing how to live rightly before God and this is what we can learn from the life of St Anthony.

This does not necessarily mean that we are all called to abandon our families and possessions and disappear off into the desert, if indeed you could find a desert in North Kent. Some people are called to a monastic lifestyle but not everyone.

What it does mean, however, is taking seriously the key themes in the Life because these are key themes in the New Testament itself.

Being a Christian does demand a life of discipline and self-denial. Thus St Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 that being a Christian is like being an athlete who has to learn discipline and self-control in order to race successfully:

‘Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.’

Furthermore, this life of discipline needs to involve finding our own places and times to intentionally cultivate our relationship with God, our own equivalent of Anthony’s ‘inner mountain.’

Being a Christian does mean engaging boldly in spiritual warfare (Ephesians 6:10-20) in the conviction that Christ has won the victory over the forces of darkness.

Being a Christian does mean being willing to be used by God as his instrument to bring healing to others. ‘Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.’ (Matthew 10:8). It also means being open to God giving us supernatural knowledge when this is needed (see Acts 10:9-33).

Being a Christian does mean not focusing solely on our own spiritual development, but engaging with other people and helping to meet their spiritual and physical needs. That is what Christ does in the Gospels and what the Apostles and Early Christians do in Acts and that is what we are called to do. We are also called to challenge false teaching when it arises, as Christ does in the Gospels (Matthew 23:13-36) and as the Apostles subsequently do (see Galatians throughout).

Finally, being a Christian does mean practicing a proper humility because ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble’ (James 4:6).

Ultimately, then, the value of the Life of St Anthony is that by its very strangeness as an ‘old book’ it challenges the assumptions of our day about what constitutes wisdom. From a 21st century secular standpoint St Anthony’s life might appear to be an unlikely source of wisdom, but from a Christian standpoint it can be a source of wisdom if it pushes us to take more seriously the teaching of the Bible and to live it out in our lives.

Proverbs 9:10 teaches us that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.’ That fear, and that knowledge is what we see in the life of St Anthony and what he can teach us too.

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