Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Father of Monasticism

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

According to our ecclesiastical calendar, every year on January 17 we commemorate one of the truly extraordinary saints of the Church; and one whose impact on the Church’s historical and spiritual development can hardly be over-estimated. And that would be St. Anthony the Great (+356) who is universally proclaimed as the “Father of monasticism.”

St. Anthony withdrew from the world to seek the Kingdom of God with an intensity and focus that was humanly speaking, practically “impossible,” but as the Lord said, “with God all things are possible”(MATT. 19:26). He was inspired toward this act of radical withdrawal when he heard the words of the Lord in church one Sunday: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (MATT. 19:21). After many years of prayer, fasting and vigil in the desert — during which he had to battle countless demons — St. Anthony learned that whatever he “accomplished” in the ascetic life was made possible by the grace of God. His Life became one of the most widely-read and influential books of the Church in late antiquity, the reading of which was instrumental in the spiritual development of Blessed Augustine of Hippo (+430); and has maintained its powerful attraction to this day. Perhaps the fact that it was written by St. Athanasius the Great (+373) has a great deal to do with that.

Some of St. Anthony’s most memorable “sayings” have been recorded and thus preserved throughout the centuries, so that his ancient wisdom can guide us to this day, whether we are married, celibate or a monastic. In the Alphabetical Collection of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, we hear his voice reaching to us from the 4th c. desert of Egypt with a timeless wisdom:

“This is the great work of a human being: always to take blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath.” (4)

If that produces a sense of discouragement or anxiety, St. Anthony further taught the “positive” side of this insight:

“Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” He even added: “Without temptation no-one can be saved.” (5)

He also said, “Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.” (9)

If you would like to read more about this extraordinary figure who has so profoundly shaped our spiritual tradition, here is a link to the OCA's detailed summary of his Life based upon what we have learned from St. Athanasius the Great in the 4th c.

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