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St. Anthony of the Desert

Posted by Theology of Home on
St. Anthony of the Desert

By Denise Trull

When I open my saint book, I feel as though a giant cloud of wonder always seems to rise from the page on this feast day of January 17. Anthony is one of the shining stars on the Byzantine Church’s calendar. He is almost too large for me to think about sometimes -- this champion so victorious in battle over devils, who fasted, prayed, was tempted to the very edge of endurance, and who was ever sleepless. This is a saint whose wise sayings are also hard sayings. We shrink back from their wholehearted and radical simplicity sometimes, we who are so unaccustomed to such a courageous and total gift of self. I almost feel helpless where to begin to tell such a fantastical story as St. Anthony’s.

But here is precisely the crux of the matter: there was a beginning. Anthony was not always a giant soul. Anthony was once a very young man who lived in a small village in Egypt. He lived with his parents and a beloved sister there. When he was twenty, he lost his parents quite suddenly, and his happy life tasted its first deep sorrow. His parents left him a very large estate and entrusted him with the task of raising his younger sister.

Anthony, at twenty, was overwhelmed by the grief and the responsibility of it all. But day by day, just as we must, he learned to carry it, and learned to practice holy prayer which strengthened his soul. Loss had given him the wisdom to hold lightly to any earthly thing, and not to give his heart to anything that could not last. He discovered this slowly with each small surrender. It’s the weird nature of condensed time that makes Anthony so large in our minds -- the deeds of his whole lifetime squished on a two page spread in a saint book. It makes him look and feel superhuman. But if we could follow the timeline of his life just as he lived it, day by day, we would soon want to follow him down the road as he learned to be holy. He was kind, generous, and even short tempered at times and would have readily admitted that fact to us with a rueful smile. He was generous to the poor and loved and protected his little sister in a way that would turn all the warmth of our motherly hearts towards him. He was quite relatable as a young man. Anthony lived this way for a time and waited.

One day he heard a voice in prayer say, "Go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven." Most of us, if we heard this voice at all, might have talked ourselves into thinking that these were more like guidelines. Surely not everything, let’s be reasonable. Anthony read it differently. He sold the whole estate, but not unwisely. He kept enough money to help support his sister if not himself. That was the first inkling that this was no ordinary man. Yes, generously selling it all away, but leaving just enough for the care of another’s comfort as he had promised his parents he would do. Wisdom. Prudence. Magnanimity.

This great generosity was not lost on his sister. This was holiness personified in her brother. His courage to sell all, but his tender promise to take care of her. Perhaps that one act is what made her turn to a group of holy women in the town and seek her own treasure there -- to be like the brother she loved. She bid him farewell and sold her own share of the estate, making the gift total and complete -- brother and sister accomplishing it together. Holiness in those we love is attractive. It is spread by example.

His sister now taken care of, Anthony set his sights on learning his vocation. By nature he was very attracted to silence and lonely places. He longed most of all for solitude to commune with God in uninterrupted silence. Anthony longed for prayer. The desert. The lonely places. He was certain the treasure for which he had sold all would be waiting in that solitude. But he wasn't arrogant. He knew he had much to learn about this life of hermits. He sought out holy monks who could teach him how to live this way. He asked them many questions, imitated their actions, and dwelled with them for some time. He must have come, in later years, to appreciate their patience and their generous time. They, too, wanted to be alone, but they set down that desire to teach him the ways of the monk. Without their patience, he would not have been a saint today.

We each learn sanctity from so many others who sacrifice contentment for our sake -- who could be doing so many other things for themselves alone but turn to help us. First of all we learn from our parents, but also patient teachers, affable nuns who will sit and chat with a lonely, confused kid on a playground even though school is over and they want to go pray, holy physicians of mind and body who have pity and patience with our ailments, that old priest who will hear your confession at the drop of a hat whenever you ask him and console you with the best of advice. These kind of souls, so self-forgetful. They are the saint makers. They make us want to go and do likewise.

Saint Anthony Abbot Tempted by a Heap of Gold. Tempera on panel painting by the Master of the Osservanza Triptych, c. 1435. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Well, Anthony was a good pupil and he finally was ready. He journeyed out into the desert! Alone at last, the desire of his heart fulfilled. But no. He was watched and followed by many young men in just the same way he had followed the old monks himself. At first, he tried to run away. Each time he saw a cloud of dust on the horizon made by all those eager feet, he moved farther into the desert. It becomes almost comical to read about his desperate attempts to avoid being found. But never underestimate the tenacity of young men on a mission! Finally, Anthony remembered the old monks who had helped him. He stopped running and gave up his dreams of solitude. He welcomed the young brothers into his desert home.

Anthony had to control his impatience and teach other young men how to be good monks, a duty that for a soul like his, WAS a desert. He grew, day by day, in holiness. He fought his inner demons slowly but surely. He struggled to stay awake in prayer and fought through fasts and vigils. He was tempted to despair many times being all alone in the middle of the night in his hut. How frightening it must have been to face himself so squarely and to see such need and emptiness. Over time, Christ filled the emptiness with his grace.

The devil began showing up to tempt him away from his resolve. There were many fierce battles with the evil one, but Christ was there. He conversed intimately with Anthony in the end as with a friend who knew Him well. No one guessed at these trials and temptations, these frightening confrontations in the dead of night. All the young monks saw in the morning was placid Father Anthony smiling and giving them words of wisdom as he fetched the water and tended the fire. He spent many, many years in this way helping others to grow in holiness.

In very old age, Anthony at last was given permission by Christ to seek his beloved solitude. Anthony said farewell to his brothers and found a cave that was almost impossible to find and even harder to access. People eventually left him alone. It was time for his reward. Solitude at last --- the treasure of a whole life spent on purchasing that one field.

We don't go to Heaven alone, even if we are desert fathers like Anthony. We give each other our time and advice and kindness to help them seek and find their place in the Body of Christ. We must be happy with interruptions, with sudden changes in our plans, with prayer time cut into by a crying baby, or someone seeking comfort at our hands. We must believe that Christ knows best and that we will be rewarded with the solitude we each need to draw closer to His heart.

Anthony was a man who exemplified this generosity. He always said quite patiently, "Come and see" to other young men who asked him how to live. We won't always know the cost of those words to a solitary hermit like himself. That is why we celebrate a saint today. He knew the cost and willingly paid it.

Denise Trull is the editor in chief of Sostenuto, an online journal for writers and thinkers of every kind to share their work with each other. Her own writing is also featured regularly at Theology of Home, and has appeared in Dappled Things. She also can be found at her Substack, The Inscapist. Denise is the mother of seven grown, adventurous children and has acquired the illustrious title of grandmother. She lives with her husband Tony in St. Louis, Missouri.

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