For 5 Wednesdays in Lent at St Michael’s Church you have a chance to get up close and personal with St Antony in a Reading Group guided by historian Oliver Nicholson, who spent over 30 years teaching at the University of Minnesota. This is also instead of having St Michael’s Lectures in February & March.
Wednesdays February 21st, 28th and March 7th, 14th, 21st at 7.00 – 8.15 pm. You may optionally like to come to Stations of the Cross from 6.00-6.50pm.
Antony was the son of a substantial farmer. When his parents died, he inherited about 200 acres of land, “most beautiful to behold”. One day he went to church and heard the deacon chant the Gospel. It was Christ’s advice to the rich young ruler: “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me” (Matt. 19, 21). Antony took the message personally. He sold the farm and distributed the proceeds to the poor, he gave his sister into the care of a community of religious women and he went to live on the edge of the desert.
He worked with his hands, ‘having heard that “if any would not work, neither should he eat’ (2Thess. 3,10)”. His heart was set on living a life like that of the angels, a life directly and wholly dependent on God for everything. Eventually he settled in an abandoned fortress on the banks of the Nile. After twenty years, people came and broke the door down. Antony came out; to everyone’s astonishment he was neither fat from lack of exercise nor wasted with excessive austerities, he was not depressed nor hysterical, “he maintained utter equilibrium, like one guided by reason”.
People came to find Antony because they wished to emulate him. The harsh Egyptian desert became populated like a city, like “gardens by the river’s side” (Num. 24, 6). Others arrived asking for advice or help. They became so numerous that Antony had to withdraw further into the desert, and rely on disciples to bring them up to him in relays. Still he welcomed them, Greek philosophers, other monks, top brass from the army, a young woman who was paralysed and half-blind, even messengers from the Emperor Constantine.
Antony’s solitary life, like that of other early monks, seems curiously crowded with visitors. The word “monk” derives from the Greek monos, meaning “one and only”, yet monks showed constant hospitality, the two collections of Sayings of the Desert Fathers which survive from the time of Antony and his followers are gossip of the most edifying kind. The paradox of monastic gregariousness was mocked by the pagan poet Palladas:
“Solitaries ? I wonder whether – Real solitaries live together…”
He missed the point. The essence of monastic solitude lay not in excluding other people but in a single-minded direction of attention towards the One God, the source of all integrity: “we ought”, said Antony, “to fear God alone”.
This singleness of mind seems to have been the product of immense effort. The early monks were not like characters from Beau Geste, soldiers from the 19th century French Foreign Legion who got lost in the desert and started seeing things which were not there, mirages of oases, palm-trees and non-existent camels. Antony and the early monks set about their business deliberately, they worked at their prayer as they worked with their hands (often weaving rush mats). The Sayings of the Desert Fathers suggest not hallucination but an uncanny exactness of self-knowledge, achieved not by philosophical speculation but through constantly confronting the impulses essential to human life. We do not necessarily use the same words (demon, miracle) as Antony and his successors, but we can learn from their experience:
“In the desert of his days – Teach the free man how to praise”.
Antony died in about 358 A.D., aged more than 100 (so he was doing something right!). His Life was written soon after his death, and became instantly popular; it was quickly translated from Greek into Latin (twice) and so influenced the conversion of Saint Augustine to Christianity in Italy in 386. It survives also in the languages of the Christian East, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Arabic, Old Church Slavonic. Around 700 Guthlac, a hermit in the soggy Fens of East Anglia, would model his practice closely on what Antony had done among the sands of Egypt.
The Life of Antony, in fact, was one of the best-sellers of the Middle Ages. There is a modern English translation by Robert C. Gregg of the Life of Antony available in the series Classics of Western Spirituality and an excellent older translation by Archibald Robertson (Bishop of Exeter 1903-16) on the Internet at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2811.htm
A group will meet to talk about it at St Michael’s on Wednesday evenings during Lent (February 21, 28; March 7, 14, 21) and copies of the text will be made available. All are welcome.
Tr. Robert C. Gregg Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus (New York, Paulist Press, Classics of Western Spirituality, 1980, I.S.B.N. 0-8091-2295-2)
St Michael and All Angels’ Church, Dinham Road, Mount Dinham, Exeter, EX4 4EB