ANTONY the GREAT: The prototype of the monk
• His biography Vita Atonii is written by the great Alexandrian theologian and bishop Athansaius who had met Antony himself
• Is considered one of the most important works of early Christianity, certainly for the spread of monasticism, but also as an explication of orthodox teaching (polemics against Arianism are contained in it) and Christian anthropology, as we shall see.
La Vita Antonii
1. At the age of twenty (c. 270)––he is an orphan. Athanasius seems to be at pains to let his know that he is unlearned, illiterate. Keep this in mind.
• He hears the Gospel proclaimed: “If you would be perfect, go sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and come and follow me.” He obeys, but keeps a little money from the sale of family goods for care of his sister, but shortly after hears another Gospel read, “take no thought about tomorrow”; puts his sister in a Parthenon––a house of virgins, gives the rest away and moves into a pigsty or cowshed at the bottom of the garden of the family home.
• At this stage he himself is a devotee; he gets advice from another old devotee in the area, probably keeps to the full round of liturgical worship and listening to Scripture read (so much that he is said to memorize it); works with his hands––making ropes, mats, baskets, sandals, the kind of things his successors in the desert will do
• Athanasius does not call him a monk at this time
2. He then withdraws to live in the tombs near the village, to be even more strenuous in the ascetical work that is uniquely his: battling the demons (more on that later): once he has cast the temptations (demons) out his own mind, the demons begin to attack him from without––like Jesus in the wilderness 40 days.
3. At age 35 he retires into the desert completely;
• his old ascetic master refuses to go with him, this was not done yet in that day
• spends next phase living in a deserted fort on the confines of the desert; bread is brought to him twice a year
• after twenty years his friends break down the gate and he comes forth: “as from some inmost shrine, inititae into the mysteries and God-borne”
• his friends marvel to his that his body has neither grown fat from lack of exercise nor deteriorated from fasting and fighting with demons
• he is “all balanced, as one governed by reason and standing in his natural condition”
• in Athnasius’ Life of Antony this is when the bulk of the book takes place, a long discourse on the monastic vocation and battling demons/temptations
• it is here that Athanasius uses the words monk and monastery––monachos and mone; later they come to mean someone who lives in community and the community itself; but originally the strict etymological sense is a solitary and a solitary cell.
• Note: the flowering of desert monasticism in Egypt, as I said, is going to take place after the persecution ended and the Edict of Milan (313), but Antony is a frontrunner
4. As persecution arises in Alexandria, Antony leaves his monastery and lends support and encouragement to the “confessors,” those who are being persecuted for the faith, but he is not persecuted himself and so retires back to the desert;
• the persecution ends and suddenly he is flooded with visitors, which he does not want.
• He meets a band of Saracens (Arabs) wandering through the desert and goes with them until he finds a new place to be in seclusion, which he calls his “Interior Mountain,” somewhere between the Nile and the Red Sea
• “he traveled with them three days and three nights and came to a very high hill… Anthony, as though moved by God, fell in love with the place…”
• “lovers of the place”: Francis Kline, referring to Trappists, but to monks in general
• Evagrius (in the Practica ad Anatolium) reports him saying, “My book, O philosopher, is the nature of created things, and it is present when I will, for me to read the words of God.”
• The Arabs bring him food from time to time, his disciples come ‘round once in a while, but he does not want to be dependent: he sows his own grain, and he persuades animals not to disturb his garden or his peace (VA, 50)
• Some suggest that he was actually a boskos––a wanderer and grazer in the wilderness.
Lessons learned: anthropology
1. Main thing: the words used to describe Antony coming out of the tombs are very important: he is healthy and psychically sound: the words in Greek––kata physin
a. This is an argument against dualism; soon on in the monastic tradition there will be much polemic against the body, influenced by the neo-Platonists: Porphory says of Plotinus that he was “a man ashamed of being in his body.” But here Antony’s life of asceticism and virtue have led him to physical vigor as well as psychological balance.
b. This is a theme that abides in the eastern Christina tradition, a return to our natural condition––there will be the saying, “In the desert a garden,” meaning a return to Paradise, the Garden of Eden. And so you see, also the relationship with animals has been restored.
2. The other word in Greek is telios––Antony has become perfect. This is a Gospel term, a Pauline term, but also a term familiar to Greeks especially those “initiaties” familiar with the secret rites of the Eleusinian mysteries.
a. Antony has become a real initiate into the divine mysteries.
Many will flock to Antony for his advice; and many more will flock to the desert to imitate him, especially after Athanasius’ Vita comes out, like the influence of Merton’s Seven Story Mountain.
The one theme of Antony’s that I think is important and enduring for the tradition has to do with this battling of the demons, but really at the root of it is Self-knowledge:
• “Have fun storming the castle!” We must understand that this is ascetical solitude, not just being alone because of being an introvert, solitude that is a fast, a tapas. And the major ascetical work of solitude is self-knowledge.
• A maxim that Anthony frequently repeats is that “the knowledge of ourselves is the necessary and only step by which we can ascend to the knowledge and love of God.”
• going to remain in the desert tradition as the essential work of the desert solitaries, the basis of monastic asceticism, the practice of the desert fathers––self-scrutiny, self-knowledge or what Columba Stewart calls “radical honesty about the self.” For Anthony and the desert fathers this is the essential first step toward any other wisdom.
• In the famous passage recorded by Athanasius, Anthony lays it out this way: St Peter says don’t let the sun go down on your anger––Anthony says don’t let the sun go down on any sin of ours;
• … and the best way to avoid this is to “Examine yourself and test yourself. Daily let each one recount to himself not only his actions of the day but also the stirrings of the souls,” the secret thoughts of the heart, the breeding ground for sin.
• Anthony is of course famous for his bouts of battling with the demons. Even this is really here a metaphor for his work of self-scrutiny. The demons themselves are very subtle, and suggestive of just those psychological temptations to which individual monks are most susceptible, pointing out the importance of self-scrutiny as an essential and continuing part of progress in virtue. Going to be important when we get to Evagrius.
• Anthony has to go it alone. Besides the little instruction he gets from a few elders in his early days basically his hard work of self-knowledge is done alone, Athanasius records that his only Abba is an angel who is a sort of mirror image of himself. Perhaps this is where Anthony gets the idea later to tell his disciples that when they examine themselves even then they should pretend as if they were laying themselves bare to another:
• “...we record our thoughts as if reporting them each other. Let this record replace the eyes of our fellow ascetics, so that, blushing as much to write as to be seen, we might never be absorbed by evil things.”
• Important: It is by laying the thoughts bare that we are able to avoid the actions themselves.
This theme of the radical honesty about the self will pass on from Anthony and also the means by which one works toward this honesty.
• The principal element of the process among the desert fathers was the offering of the secret’s of one’s heart to another person for discernment, especially in the relationship between the abba/amma and his disciple.
• The abba is not someone who is lofty and sits as a judge. The abba is another human being who has suffered the same weaknesses, has done his or her own self-examination and can speak from experience as another human being. The desert elder is certified by his or her own experience, having had the shock of seeing oneself as a sinner, which gave them the ability to tease the secrets of others’ hearts as encourager and witness, rather than as judge. Not even necessarily to give advice or commentary: it is often just the very experience of opening the heart that brings healing and insight.
• Has more in common with Twelve Step spirituality than confession
• Perhaps this is why Athanasius stresses so much Anthony’s lack of learning; he doesn’t have facility in speech and argument, but his training has served to return his soul to its original state and this gives him clear faith and plain reasoning that can even silence scholars and sages.
But more importantly, this theme will pass into the desert tradition from Anthony, this radical honesty about the self becomes the heart of the desert quest.
• These monks staked everything on the effort to destroy illusion and deception. All of their asceticism was really intended to help cut through the garbage of lives that are hooked on the deception, hooked on materialism, hooked on our false self, and stuck in all the games we play with ourselves.
• First there is breaking from the illusion of self-sufficiency, a pose which encourages self-absorption, and can lead to a ‘devouring conscience’ in the words of Abba Poemen. There’s an old recovery adage that says “We’re only as sick as our secrets.” The desert fathers would say a sin that is hidden begins to multiply: one becomes tapped in obsessive and compulsive patterns.
• Second, there is the connection with humility. Abba Anthony said, “I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, “What can get through from such snares?” Then I heard a voice saying to me “Humility.”
• So for the desert fathers, the ability of a monk freely expose the secrets of the heart, and especially to open his heart to his abba/amma (or to any other) indicates a growth in humility. What one of us if we laid the secret thoughts of hearts bear would have any room for boasting, any room for grandiosity?
- The link between these two things, manifestation of thoughts and humility, gives us a pretty good understanding of what monastic humility is all about: it is the quality of someone who has begun to see as God sees, and who has started with the self.
- “If you have not sinned, avoid boasting; instead, persist in the good, and don’t become careless nor condemnatory of a neighbor, nor declare yourself… leaving the judgment to the Lord let us treat each other with compassion, and let us bear one another’s burdens.”
• “A calm clear heart allows for a clear eye, and humility becomes the basis for contemplating the rest of creation and then the Creator.”
• “The desert itself gave them a landscape which mirrored what they sought for their own hearts: an uncluttered view through clear air.”