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 106 here: lentfatherscomplete.pdf
Just from reading a little background research on this book, I'm excited to read it! It sounds as though it was a very influential text, not only on the Church as a whole in setting the way for ascetic monasticism, but on convicting a great many who read it, bringing them to conversion. One such person you may recognise the name of, who had this experience, was Augustine!
Athanasius even opens his letter by saying that, “I know that you, when you have heard … will be wishful to emulate [Anthony’s] … pattern of discipline”. Being a bit partial to the monastic lifestyle, I'm curious to see how I personally respond to this.
In this letter, Athanasius says he planned to enquire of those monks who had spent more time with “Anthony the Great”, but due to the season of sailing coming to an end, and the letter being urgent, he decided to write down all that he personally knew about this monk, “having seen him many times, and what I was able to learn from him, for I was his attendant for a long time”.
Anthony was of Egyptian descent, from an affluent Christian family, but growing up he didn't rely on his family's wealth. Instead he endeavoured to live a simple life like he saw from Jacob in Genesis;
When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents.
At around eighteen his parents died leaving him to look after his sister, but it didn't deter him from going to “the Lord's house” as was his custom, upon which “he communed with himself and reflected as he walked how the Apostles left all and followed the Saviour (Matthew 4:20); and how they in the Acts sold their possessions (Acts 4:34)”.
Upon entering the Church one day, there was being read Matthew 19:21 where Jesus tells the rich man to sell all of his possessions. It struck him as though it had been selected and read out just for him, and so he “went out immediately from the church, and gave the possessions of his forefathers to the villagers”, and sold everything else he had and gave the money to the poor, keeping only a little back for his sister.
But then later, at another time while he was at church, he heard a reading from Matt 6:34 where Jesus teaches us but to worry about the next day because God is in control of our needs. So, like before, he ran out of the church and gave away the last little bit he'd kept aside for himself and his sister. After doing this, he committed his sister to a well respected convent to be brought up, and then went away outside of his house to dedicate himself to ascetic discipline (such as prayer, solitude and self control).
There weren't many monasteries in Egypt at this time, so he eventually went into the desert to find greater solitude for prayer and discipline, which was an unusual practice, since other ascetics and monks would just stay in remote places near their villages.
In the next village there was an old man who had been a hermit since his youth. Anthony sought him out to learn piety from and then went about his own discipline, incorporating what he'd learnt. As he heard about other similar men, Anthony would travel far and wide to find them and learn what he could, “having got from the good man as it were supplies for his journey in the way of virtue” before returning home again. Then “henceforth would strive to unite the qualities of each, and was eager to show in himself the virtues of all”.
He observed the graciousness of one; the unceasing prayer of another; he took knowledge of another's freedom from anger and another's loving-kindness; he gave heed to one as he watched, to another as he studied; one he admired for his endurance, another for his fasting and sleeping on the ground; the meekness of one and the long-suffering of another he watched with care, while he took note of the piety towards Christ and the mutual love which animated all.
When his reputation had spread throughout the villages, the people “saw that he was a man of this sort, used to call him God-beloved. And some welcomed him as a son, others as a brother”.
But as we draw closer to God, the more attention we can also draw from our adversary, the devil. Having seen that someone so young could be so pious, the enemy began “whispering to him the remembrance of his wealth, care for his sister, claims of kindred, love of money, love of glory” trying to cloud his mind with the things of the world.
During this time, the devil went to great lengths to tempt and attack Anthony to try and cause him to stumble. In various ways and forms (some physical, even!) the devil took his best shots but Anthony put his mind to Christ and the Scriptures to overcome these trials.
“All this was a source of shame to his foe. For he, deeming himself like God, was now mocked by a young man” — Anthony overcame the devil's attacks and made him look foolish in his attempts. It was because of his faith and trust in Christ’s death and resurrection, that those “who truly fight can say, 'not I but the grace of God which was with me’ (1 Corinthians 15:10)” because we can do nothing of our own.
Not boasting nor being puffed up in this victory, he, “having learned from the Scriptures that the devices of the devil are many (Ephesians 6:11), zealously continued the discipline”, because he knew that the devil “would endeavour to ensnare him by other means” still.
Continuing more with his discipline, he would not focus nor remember the past, but would press on with the current day and what lay before, meditating on Paul's words;
I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Eventually, Anthony withdrew to a burial ground far from his village and set up camp in a tomb. He had friends lock him in, but they would return every couple of days with bread and water for him.
But the enemy “could not endure it” and thought that within a “short time Antony would fill the desert with the discipline” and so one night a multitude of demons came to Anthony and physically attacked him, cutting up his back with “stripes”. In the morning, his friends found him and though that he was dead!
Upon waking up, he was taken back to the tomb where the devil once again tried to attack him, but this time with loud noises as though there were an earthquake, and with many terrible apparitions of wild beasts trying to come at him. Though this made Anthony’s body ache from the wounds, his mind was clear and he rebuked the demons, unafraid, because “faith in our Lord is a seal and a wall of safety to us”!
At this time, he had another vision where it appeared that the roof of the tomb opened up, and rays of light spewed in, causing the demons to vanish and his body to heal and be freed of pain. But pondering on this, he asked of the Lord, “Where were you? Why not do this in the beginning, why wait?” to which the Lord responded in saying that he was always with him, but waited to see how he fought the enemy and whether he endured or was made worse. After this, he was filled with strength, more than he thought he had before, and went on his way. By this point, Anthony was around thirty-five years old.
I started out this reading intrigued and excited to see what it held in store, and I am not disappointed. I look forward to reading more tomorrow to see how Anthony progresses in his new ascetic life, and to go on the journey with him vicariously through Athanasius’ telling of Anthony’s life story.
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