Today is the feast day of Saint Antony (Anthony). Ora pro nobis.
by Dom Prosper Gueranger, 1870
The East and West unite, today, in honouring St. Antony, the Father of Cenobites. The Monastic Life existed before his time, as we know from indisputable testimony; but he was the first Abbot, because he was the first to bring Monks under the permanent government of one Superior or Father.
Antony began with seeking solely his own sanctification; he was known only as the wonderful Solitary, against whom the wicked spirits waged an almost continued battle: but, in course of time, men were attracted to him by his miracles and by the desire of their own perfection; this gave him Disciples; he permitted them to cluster round his cell; and Monasteries thus began to be built in the desert. The age of the Martyrs was near its close; the persecution under Dioclesian, which was to be the last, was over as Antony entered on the second half of his course: and God chose this time for organizing a new force in the Church. The Monastic Life was brought to bear upon the Christian world; the Ascetics, as they were called, not even such of them as were consecrated–were not a sufficient element of power. Monasteries were built in every direction, in solitudes and in the very cities; and the Faithful had but to look at these communities living in the fervent and literal fulfilment of the Counsels of Christ, and they felt themselves encouraged to obey the Precepts. The apostolic traditions of continual prayer and penance were perpetuated by the Monastic system; it secured the study of the Sacred Scriptures and Theology; and the Church herself would soon receive from these arsenals of intellect and piety her bravest defenders, her holiest Prelates, and her most zealous Apostles.
Yes, the Monastic Life was to be and give all this to the Christian world, for the example of St. Antony had given her a bias to usefulness. If there ever were a Monk to whom the charms of solitude and the sweetness of contemplation were dear, it was our Saint; and yet, they could not keep him in his desert, when he could save souls by a few days spent in a noisy city. Thus, we find him in the streets of Alexandria, when the pagan persecution was at its height; he came to encourage the Christians in their martyrdom. Later on, when that still fiercer foe of Arianism was seducing the Faith of the people, we again meet the great Abbot in the same capital, this time, preaching to its inhabitants, that the Word is consubstantial to the Father, proclaiming the Nicene faith, and keeping up the Catholics in orthodoxy and resolution. There is another incident in the life of St. Antony, which tells in the same direction, inasmuch as it shows how an intense interest in the Church must ever be where the Monastic Spirit is. We are alluding to our Saint’s affection for the great St. Athanasius, who, on his part, reverenced the Patriarch of the Desert, visited him, promoted the Monastic Life to the utmost of his power, used to say that he considered the great hope of the Church to be in the good discipline of Monasticism, and wrote the Life of his dear St. Antony.
But, to whom is due the glory of the Monastic Institute, with which the destinies of the Church were, from that time forward, to be so closely connected, as that the period of her glory and power was to be when the monastic element flourished, and the days of her affliction were to be those of its decay? Who was it that put into the heart of Antony and his disciples the love of that poor and unknown, yet ever productive, life? It is Jesus, the humble Babe of Bethlehem. To Him, then, wrapt in His swaddling clothes, and yet the omnipotent God, be all the glory!
It is time to hear the account of some of the virtues and actions of the great St. Antony, given by the Church in her Office of his Feast.
Antony was born in Egypt, of noble and christian parents, who left him an orphan at an early age. Having, one day entered a Church, he heard these words of the Gospel being read: If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell all thou hatt, and give to the poor. He took them as addressed to himself, and thought it his duty to obey these words of Christ his Lord. Selling therefore his possessions, he distributed all the money among the poor. Being freed from these obstacles, he resolved on leading on earth a heavenly life. But at his entrance on the perils of such a combat, he felt, that besides the shield of faith, wherewith he was armed, he must needs fortify himself with the other virtues; and so ardent was his desire to possess them, that whomsoever he saw excelling in any virtue, him did he study to imitate.
Nothing, therefore, could exceed his continency and vigilance. He surpassed all in patience, meekness, mercy, humility, manual labour, and the study of the Sacred Scriptures. So great was his aversion for the company of, or conversation with, heretics, especially the Arians, that he used to say, that we ought not even to go near them. He lay on the ground, when necessity obliged him to sleep. As to fasting, he practised it with so much fervour, that his only nourishment was bread seasoned with salt, aud he quenched his thirst with water; neither did he take this his food and drink until sun-set, and frequently abstained from it altogether, for two successive days. He very frequently spent the whole night in prayer. Antony became so valiant a soldier of God, that the enemy of mankind, illbrooking such extraordinary virtue, attacked him with manifold temptations; but the Saint overcame them all by fasting and prayer. Neither did his victories over Satan make him heedless, for he knew how innumerable are the devil’s artifices for injuring souls.
Knowing this, he betook himself into one of the largest deserts of Egypt, where such was his progress in christian perfection, that the wicked spirits, whose attacks grew more furious as Antony’s resistance grew more resolute, became the object of his contempt, so much so, indeed, that he would sometimes taunt them for their weakness. When encouraging his disciples to fight against the devil, and teaching them the arms wherewith they would vanquish him, he used often to say to them:
“Believe me, Brethren, Satan dreads the watchings of holy men, and their prayers, and fasts, and voluntary poverty, and works of mercy, and humility, and, above all, their ardent love for Christ our Lord, at the mere sign of whose most holy Cross, he is disabled, and put to flight.”
So formidable was he to the devils, that many persons, in Egypt, who were possessed by them, were delivered by invoking Antony’s name. So great too, was his reputation for sanctity, that Constantine the Great and his sons wrote to him, commending themselves to his prayers. At length, having reached the hundred and fifth year of his age, and having received a countless number into his institute, he called his Monks together; and having instructed them how to regulate their lives according to Christian perfection, he, venereated both for the miracles he had wrought, and for the holiness of his life, departed from this world to heaven, on the sixteenth of the Calends of February (January 17th). (1)
The chief source of information on St. Anthony is a Greek Life attributed to St. Athanasius, to be found in any edition of his works. A note of the controversy concerning this Life is given at the end of this article; here it will suffice to say that now it is received with practical unanimity by scholars as a substantially historical record, and as a probably authentic work of St. Athanasius. Valuable subsidiary information is supplied by secondary sources: the “Apophthegmata”, chiefly those collected under Anthony’s name (at the head of Cotelier’s alphabetical collection, P.G. LXV, 7]); Cassian, especially Coll. II; Palladius, “Historica Lausiaca”, 3,4,21,22 (ed. Butler). All this matter may probably be accepted as substantially authentic, whereas what is related concerning St. Anthony in St. Jerome’s Life of St. Paul the Hermit” cannot be used for historical purposes. (5)
The monasticism established under St Anthony’s direct influence became the norm in Northern Egypt, from Lycopolis (Asyut) to the Mediterranean. In contradistinction to the fully coenobitical system, established by Pachomius in the South, it continued to be of a semi-eremetical character, the monks living commonly in separate cells or huts, and coming together only occasionally for church services; they were left very much to their own devices, and the life they lived was not a community life according to rule, as now understood (see Butler, op. cit., Part I, 233-238). This was the form of monastic life in the deserts of Nitria and Scete, as portrayed by Palladius and Cassian. Such groups of semi-independent hermitages were later on called Lauras, and have always existed in the East alongside of the Basilian monasteries; in the West St Anthony’s monachism is in some measure represented by the Carthusians. Such was St Anthony’s life and character, and such his role in Christian history. He is justly recognized as the father not only of monasticism, strictly so called, but of the technical religious life in every shape and form. Few names have exercised on the human race an influence more deep and lasting, more widespread, or on the whole more beneficent. (5)
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Prayer to St. Antony, Abbot and Confessor
O glorious Saint Antony, who, upon hearing only one word of the holy Gospel whilst assisting at the divine Liturgy, didst forsake the riches and ease of thy father’s house, thy native land and the world, in order to retire into the wilderness; who, notwithstanding the heavy burden of years and the ravages of a lifetime of penance, didst not hesitate to leave thy solitude and go up to Alexandria in Egypt to reproach openly the impiety of heretics and to strengthen the wavering faith of Christians, as a true confessor of Jesus Christ, eager to receive the palm of martyrdom, had thy Lord permitted it; ah, give us the grace to be ever zealous in the cause of Jesus Christ and of His Church, and to persevere even to the end of our days in our adherence to Catholic truth, in the observance of His commandments, in the practice of His counsels and in the imitation of thy virtues; that so, having faithfully followed thine example here on earth, we may come to marvel at thy glory in heaven and to be partakers of the same, through all the ages. Amen
Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be three times.
(An indulgence of 300 days.– June 3, 1896) (1)
Image: Hl. Antonius, circa 1480-1490, artist: Piero di Cosimo (10)
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