Adapted from Thomas Merton’s book The Wisdom of the Desert
In the 4th century AD the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia and Persia were settled by people who left behind them a strange reputation. They were the first Christian hermits, who abandoned the cities of the ancient Roman world to live in the solitude and silence of the desert. Why did they do this? The reasons were many and various, but they can all be summed up in one brief phrase: the quest for salvation. Among these men (and women!) the life and witness of St. Anthony the Great is unique.
St. Anthony, called “the father of monasticism”, was born in central Egypt about 251 AD, the son of peasant farmers who were Christian. Sometime in 269, he heard the Gospel being read in Church and applied to himself the words of Jesus to the rich man: “Go, sell all that you have, give it to the poor and come, follow Me” (Mark 10:21). He sold everything he owned, gave the proceeds to the poor and devoted himself to a life of asceticism under the guidance of a recluse living on the outskirts of his village. Around 285 AD he went alone into the desert to live in complete solitude. It was in this solitude and silence that Anthony heard clearly the Word of God for his life. After 20 years in solitude, Anthony emerged “as one initiated into the mysteries of God and inspired by the Holy Spirit (he became) a physician given by God to Egypt through whom the Lord healed many people” as his friend and biographer, St. Athanasios of Alexandria wrote in his book, The Life of Anthony. This book, one of the earliest Christian biographies, became an immediate literary and theological sensation in the ancient Roman world and a prototype for all later writing about the lives and witness of the saints. As a result, Anthony’s fame spread and people who thirsted for authentic Christian spirituality sought his counsel in greater and greater numbers, populating the deserts of Egypt. St. Anthony died at the age of 105 in 356 AD and his memory in the life of the Church is celebrated on January 17th.
What can we, more than 1500 years later, learn from Anthony’s witness? What is the meaning of his flight from society into the desert? First, society—which meant classical Roman pagan society, limited by the horizons and prospects of life “in this world” – was regarded by Anthony and the many other desert fathers and mothers as a shipwreck from which each had to swim for their lives.These were men and women who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the non-Christian tenets of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster. These Coptic hermits—for Anthony, like so many of his brothers and sisters, was Coptic and spoke no Greek or Latin—who left the world as though escaping from a shipwreck, did not merely intend to save themselves. They knew that they were helpless to do any good for others as long as they floundered about in the wreckage. But once they got a foothold on solid ground, things were different. Then they had not only the ability but even the obligation to pull the world to safety after them. Perhaps we cannot do exactly what Anthony did and seek God in the deserts of Egypt. But we must be as thorough and as ruthless in our determination to break our spiritual chains, cast off the domination of alien compulsions and find our true selves in Christ Jesus in order to share His salvation with the world.
Sayings of St. Anthony the Great
Abba Anthony said: “This is the work of a great man: always to take responsibility for his own sins before God and to expect temptations until his last breath.”
Abba Anthony said: “A time is coming when people will go mad and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, “You are mad, you are not like us.”
He also said: “Whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it in accordance with the testimony of the Holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved.”
He also said: “From our neighbor is life and death. For if we gain our neighbor, we gain God; and if we scandalize our neighbor we have sinned against Christ.”
He also said: “Always have the fear of God before your eyes. Control your tongue and your stomach. Test yourselves to see if you are worthy of God.”
– SAINT OF GOD, PRAY FOR US! —