Faithful Through the Ages - Friday, November 8, 2013
Anthony of Egypt - First of the Desert Monks
Verse: Matthew 19:21
Quote: "The mind of the soul is strong when the pleasures of the body are weak." (Anthony's motto)
"If you want to be perfect, go and sell everything you have and give the money to the poor." These are the words that stopped the rich kid dead in his tracks. His parents had died, and now all their wealth belongs to him. The much-heralded city of Alexandria offers infinite opportunities for luxurious living. His whole life is ahead of him. He can travel in comfort and see the wonders of the world if he so desires. But he hears the call of God in that very pointed gospel passage. His only travel will be to the desert. His journey of the soul begins by giving his wealth to the poor and leaving his childhood home. His goal is to become a true lover of God—to give himself entirely to Christ, ever vigilant in resisting the devil. His motto: "The mind of the soul is strong when the pleasures of the body are weak." He nourishes himself on bread and water, fasting altogether every other day and denying himself sleep, preferring to pray through the night.
Anthony (251 - 356), whose life story is told by Athanasius, lives among the tombs, where he is assaulted by wild animals and demons. This is God's way of training him to fight and win spiritual battles like an athlete prevailing in the arena. After a time he leaves the tombs, seeking an even more secluded area, where he remains for twenty years, becoming a celebrity—a superstar among desert saints. Disciples seek him out, and their encounters with him inspire generations of ascetics.
In one instance when a would-be follower tells him that he has given all his wealth away but for a small amount for necessities, the response is vintage Anthony: "If you want to be a monk, go into the village, buy some meat, cover your naked body with it and come here like that." When the man returns, his body is bloody and torn by wild dogs and vultures. The moral of the story: "Those who renounce the world but want to keep something for themselves are torn in this way by the demons who make war on them."
Anthony's activities intersect with the lives of other well-known figures of the era. During the brutal persecution under Emperor Diocletian in 303, he travels to Rome to minister to the suffering. He is also enmeshed in the theological controversies of the day. Athanasius persuades him to come to Alexandria from his desert hideaway to speak out against Arius, whose views are catching fire. Though he is no theologian, Anthony epitomizes sainthood. His life of self-denial is the support Athanasius most desires. Saint Augustine will later be put to shame by reading Athanasius's story of Anthony.
After his trip to Alexandria, Anthony returns to the desert with two companions who care for him in his final years. Despite all the privations he endures he lives to age one hundred and five, according to Athanasius, having secured the promise that his body will be buried in an unmarked grave. His concerns are not for dogs or vultures. He does not want his bones and remnants of clothing fought over and revered as relics. For him spirituality is self-denial and sacrifice, not saint-worship.
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