After just having listened to The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks edited by Benedicta Ward, I recently listened to the Life of Saint Anthony by Saint Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria. [This is the text translated by H. Ellershaw: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 4. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1892. Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.] Saint Augustine was famously drawn to the Christian faith as he read this text (as he recounts in his Confessions). I’ve read the Life of Saint Anthony in full only once before (several years back), and it was far more meaningful this time. I hope to read it again and to write more in reflection upon it with time. Here are some initial notes from this last reading:
- Saint Anthony’s life was one of many new beginnings (with several admonitions to begin each day as if just setting out upon the acquisition of virtue). The stages and main events of his life provided examples of multiple types for a wide variety of those who would follow him in later years. For example, these various stages included living together versus in solitude as well as ministering in the desert versus within the city. Another important structure that takes shape is the life of the inner and the outer mountain.
- A critical and clarifying distinction is made between passion and desire (with desire being essential to the acquisition of virtue).
- Saint Anthony’s most visible public ministry (within a city) was in the direct support of those publicly facing death for the sake of Christ. Later in life, he also visited Alexandria for an extended time to publicly denounce the Arians (and during this visit many in the city were healed and came to the Christian faith).
- One brief passage made it clear that the shared life of the monks within the desert provided a beautiful example of the ideal civic life or human community: “So their cells were in the mountains, like filled with holy bands of men who sang psalms, loved reading, fasted, prayed, rejoiced in the hope of things to come, laboured in almsgiving, and preserved love and harmony one with another. And truly it was possible, as it were, to behold a land set by itself, filled with piety and justice. For then there was neither the evil-doer, nor the injured, nor the reproaches of the tax-gatherer: but instead a multitude of ascetics; and the one purpose of them all was to aim at virtue. So that any one beholding the cells again, and seeing such good order among the monks, would lift up his voice and say, ‘How goodly are your dwellings, O Jacob, and your tents, O Israel; as shady glens and as a garden by a river; as tents which the Lord has pitched, and like cedars near waters’ (Numbers 24:5-6).”
- One passage claims that there are many types of demons in complex rankings and that these rankings can be studied profitably (although Saint Anthony did not himself feel called to become an expert in such matters).
- A major theme is the powerlessness of demons and their fear of being mocked and humiliated for their false displays of power.
- One passage made it clear that demons have serious limitations within both space and time. Demons can therefore predict the future only in the same ways as humans who forecast based on what they have already seen. Nonetheless, the demons used these predictions of the future in oracles as a means of deceiving the pagans.
- The clear differences between good and evil spirits are given by Saint Anthony in a long list that highlights how good spirits do not push themselves upon people, create distractions or sustain fear (as all evil spirits will try to do).
- “And again others such as these met him in the outer mountain and thought to mock him because he had not learned letters. And Antony said to them, ‘What do you say? Which is first, mind or letters? And which is the cause of which — mind of letters or letters of mind.’ And when they answered mind is first and the inventor of letters, Antony said, ‘Whoever, therefore, has a sound mind has not need of letters.’ This answer amazed both the bystanders and the philosophers, and they departed marvelling that they had seen so much understanding in an ignorant man. For his manners were not rough as though he had been reared in the mountain and there grown old, but graceful and polite, and his speech was seasoned with the divine salt, so that no one was envious, but rather all rejoiced over him who visited him.” [This is one of several remarkable exchanges with Greeks, philosophers and learned pagan wise men.]