Sunday, October 14, 2007

Lessons from the Life of St. Antony

These reflections are drawn from one of the classic works of Christian biography and devotion, St. Athanasius' Vita Antoni. This was one of the most influential books of the first thousand years of the Christian tradition, shaping almost every subsequent form of monasticism and setting the pace for all the works of Christian biography produced through the following millennium. It's not a long book, and well worth reading.
St. Antony was the most famous of the Egyptian desert fathers, carrying out his ministry in the late third and early fourth century. As the story goes, his parents died when he was a young man, and he was left caring for his sister. But one day he heard a reading from the Gospels, in which Jesus tells the rich young man to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor. Antony, taking this word to heart, put his sister in the care of a local group of Christian women, sold his inheritance, and became a hermit. These are some lessons I gleaned from Athanasius' tale of his life:

Seek out the wisdom of experienced mentors. (When beginning his life as a monk, Antony sought out godly men who had pursued similar courses of life, learning all he could from them).

When pursuing a ministry and a calling from God, expect the attacks of Satan against your efforts--first in trying to dissuade you through reminders of the high cost of your sacrifice (for Antony, this was the memory of his sister and his feelings of obligation to her) and then by offering the temptations of the flesh, comfort and sensuality.

After a victory against temptation, double your guard.

No matter how viciously the Enemy attacks you, never give in. He has no real power to do you harm, save that which God allows.
(Antony was under nearly constant torment by demonic forces, but he never stopped rebuking them with Scripture and the authority of Christ. His disciples would come out to the desert expecting to find him dead from this dramatic spiritual warfare, but instead they would find him singing).

Anchoritic monasticism (the life of hermits) is not a selfish life, nor is it a form of escapism. It is a direct and intentional effort to combat demonic forces through the exercise of a holy life, and therein to break their power.

A concerted life of private devotion is powerfully useful and necessary for the outward work of the Kingdom of God.

Holiness attracts both disciples and inquirers.

Material possessions are insignificant when compared to the possession of virtue.

A life of virtue is simple (at least in some sense), for "it is within us", and all that is required is concerted and conscientious effort.

Christians need not have any fear of demons--"by prayer, fasting, and faith in the Lord their attack immediately fails."
(A large portion of the Vita is a sermon by Antony on this very topic--it is one of the central theses of the book).

The working of signs and wonders, or of consistent victory over demonic forces, is not a cause for boasting--it is the Lord's work, not ours.

A life of holiness and asceticism is a life of rich and unfettered joy.

The discipline of physical labor is as much a spiritual discipline as prayer.

Even the person of greatest spiritual maturity will bow his head to the authority of the church.

No matter how poor you may be, you can always live generously and offer what you have in the service of hospitality.

Love solitude. It can be a well of strength for the godly person, especially in contrast to the hectic superficiality of the world.

The Lord will glorify himself even through secret works of devotion.

The life of the body and the life of the spirit are wholly intertwined; and any discipline of spirit will likely fail without discipline of body.