Lessons from Athanasius’s Life of Anthony
The Desert Fathers, among students of Christian spiritual literature, have a name for both wisdom and alienness. They were among the earliest Christian monastics, leaving the increasingly secure and prosperous life of Roman Christians for poverty, celibacy, and spiritual warfare in the wildernesses of Egypt. Their most enduring legacy has been a large body of concise but often difficult quotations concerning the spiritual life and the trials of the soul seeking perfection. Today these collected sayings, odd and profound, have received several translations into English.
St. Anthony was among the earliest and greatest of the Desert Fathers, and his biographer was St. Athanasius of Alexandria, Athanasius contra mundum, the irascible fourth-century champion of orthodoxy. As the Christian world was troubled by the rise of heresies among the bishops and the often clumsy involvement of the state in doctrinal disputes, Athanasius, possibly during one of his several exiles, wrote eagerly of the holiness and deeds of Anthony as an example of perfect piety not only to the growing monastic movement, but to the whole Church. The Life of Anthony was completed around 360 and was translated into Latin soon after. Athanasius makes good reading; he is concise, engaging, and easy to understand. The Life was a much-read classic throughout late antiquity and the middle ages, inspiring thousands to seek the monastic life.
I am here in Kakheti during the September grape harvest. The glory of golden sunlight and clear skies over the mountains alternates with the beauty of mist and pouring rain. Eating and drinking and celebrating, not the rigors of the ascetic lifestyle, surround me; the deserts of Egypt are as distant psychologically as they are geographically. Nevertheless, the contrast itself seemed to render the Life of Anthony complementary to my current, somewhat self-indulgent lifestyle. It was compelling and challenging, not in the sense of difficult to understand, but insofar as it made the comfortable conventions of my American life, already unsettled by moving to a foreign country, appear less and less natural, with its abundance of consumer goods and cultural expectations of accumulation. Justifying such an existence is hard when one is faced with examples such as Anthony and other self-giving saints provide. And, even in the midst of the simpler worldly joys of Kakheti, I think it is a good thing to ponder the riches of spiritual poverty.
According to Athanasius, Anthony, born to wealthy Egyptians of the third century, was called to a life of poverty and celibacy when in his twenties he heard and heeded the words of Christ that if one wishes to be perfect, one must sell all that one has and give the money to the poor. He worked with his hands for his bread, and he traveled about to visit and learn from anyone with a reputation for piety. He soon came under spiritual assault, but he guarded himself zealously and Christ gave him victory over the demons that tempted him with lust. Encouraged, he shut himself up in some desert tombs to fight the demons there. The demons left him badly beaten, but failed to either kill or terrify him, and at length he drove them away. He lived in a ruined fort in the desert for twenty years, and became a leader of the growing ranks of Egyptian desert monks, teaching them to keep no possessions and cultivate virtue through discipline. He taught them to also recognize the powerlessness of the demons, and to ignore their deceptions and clamor as just that. During the persecutions he sought but was denied martyrdom. Eventually he pressed further into the desert, driving out hordes of demons who wrestled with him in vain. He died peacefully in 356 at the age of 105, famous throughout the Roman world.
The most immediate factor weighing upon Athanasius’s decision to write the life of St. Anthony was probably the heresy of Arianism, which had been around for almost four decades. Athanasius was a lifelong opponent of this teaching, then popular in the Church hierarchy, that Jesus Christ was a created being. Its proponents crafted skilled arguments from reason and scripture. Athanasius and others insisted, to the contrary, that Arianism was dangerous, and that it made nonsense of the core beliefs of Christianity. Nicene (orthodox) Christianity taught that Jesus Christ was co-eternal with God, sharing one substance, begotten not made. Egypt was staunchly Nicene, and Anthony served as an orthodox paragon who could stand in contrast to the intrigues, sophistry, and political opportunism displayed by certain Arian leaders. Consequently, in the Life, Anthony characterizes Arianism as “the last heresy,” and frequently warns his followers against it.
Nevertheless, the Life is about a great deal more than the contemporary issue of Arianism. It depicts Athanasius’s vision of a Christianity standing triumphant over the world. Its most memorable scenes describe Anthony’s battles with demons, who torment him physically and spiritually for years (and the temptation of St. Anthony was later a popular subject for European artists, from Michelangelo to Salvador Dali). Anthony defeats them simply by understanding that they are powerless; Christ has stripped them of all authority, and they can but parade endless illusions before his senses. Even the persecutions of the demons, insofar as they are allowed by Christ, can but serve to purify his own soul. By the end of Anthony’s life even the Roman Emperor has bowed to Christianity, and the faith has been brought to distant regions of the earth. Anthony’s “flight from the world” is not an abandonment of the struggle against evil, but its extension. As Satan himself confesses in the narrative, the forces of darkness are driven out everywhere the Christians go, and Christians now populate all the great cities. Now even in the desert the demons are being driven out.
Anthony, far from being isolated from the world, affects it deeply by his ministry of prayer and holiness in the desert. Thousands flock to him for advice, blessings, and miracles. He becomes the model for many. Anthony lives the new life of the resurrection, supernaturally sustained. He affords little attention to the care of his body, declining the luxury of bathing, taking a little bread and water only. Nevertheless, like many ascetics to this day, he continues in good health and vigor to an ancient age; when he goes to his grave, he has not even lost any teeth.
Thus, the Life presents a monastic ideal of simplicity and the pursuit of holiness directly sustained by God. This strenuous calling is accessible to anyone, man and woman, learned and unlearned, willing to give up their worldly consolations and accept the discipline. Anthony himself is an appealing figure, and embodies the direct knowledge of God possessed by the saints, achieved by a victorious road through suffering and the mortification of the passions, led by Christ. Anthony is simple; there is no special cleverness in him or degree of worldly intelligence, or any desire for theological speculation, but he humbles the wise by the sanctified greatness of his soul.
There are several scenes in the Life in which the “unlettered” Anthony is confronted by Greek (i.e., pagan) philosophers, who are aware of his reputation for wisdom. Some wish to mock and confuse the old man, while others are genuinely interested in his opinion, but they all ask for reasons for the Christian faith. Anthony surprises them all with his clarity of thought and expression. He begins by warning them that if they truly think him wise and good, they ought to imitate him rather than coming to him to satisfy their intellectual curiosity. He is gracious and unassuming as he defends the Cross from derision. As he asserts, the Cross, when united with the Resurrection and ministry of Christ, is a beautiful contrast to the abductions, rapes, and scandals perpetrated by the Greek gods. Pagan religion, not Christianity, is morally and intellectually bankrupt. Foreseeing protestations that the educated take these myths as allegories about the world, he suggests that cloaking nature in myths implies a failure to see past the beauty of nature to the beauty of the divine source of nature, which the philosophers claim to seek and which the Cross revealed.
Additionally, Anthony questions the whole enterprise of demanding demonstrative arguments in favor of Christianity. Sight, he points out, is prior to argumentation. Those to whom God has revealed himself have no need of argumentation to prove to themselves that they see truly. This is faith, which arises from the work of God in a well-disposed soul, and not from the skill and rhetoric of argument-crafters; it comes alike to the learned and the unlearned, and shines forth in the dignity of the martyrs and virgins, displacing paganism and superstition wherever it goes.
But of course he still has not satisfied the philosophers’ demands for reasons for the faith. Then Anthony drives out demons from the possessed before the philosophers’ sight. This, he informs, them, is not his power but the living power of Christ. The power of Christ is not in a “trick of words, but faith through love,” which, when received, makes demonstrative arguments superfluous.
This apologetic is decidedly not of the dialectical mold. The philosophers, though impressed by Anthony’s response, are disappointed when they look for arguments of the sort that went on incessantly in Alexandria, where educated Christians and Jews and pagans carried on a lofty rational conversation concerning the merits of their respective metaphysical commitments. Although Anthony uses some of the language of the philosophers and does not totally denounce philosophy in general, he asserts in the end that their project, to produce verbal demonstrations of a proposition, is neither as reliable nor as primary as believed experience. To embrace Christianity, one must first behold the beauty of Christ in the Cross and Resurrection, and in the continuing power of the Church expressed in the saints. Thus enlightened, arguments for Christianity appear as unnecessary as arguments for the sun. If you wish to be convinced, taste and see.
Anthony in the Life thus reflects the clear white light of the ascetic’s experience of God as more real, even more self-evident when perceived, than the physical world, and certainly beyond human ability to comprehend. God is simple, pure light in whom there is no trace of shadow, beauty manifest in Christ. To see this light, one has simply to discipline oneself, to bring oneself under order and strip the senses of their accumulated debris that obscure recognition of goodness and beauty. Monks, Anthony once explained, are like fish; they cannot remain long on the dry land of the workaday world, or they perish. They must continually return to the vision they receive by contemplation, or they are reburied under the concerns that cause them to lose their discipline and lose their attention to Christ.
Like the other Desert Fathers, Anthony had many insights also into the struggle against sin in one’s own body. For instance, Anthony recommended writing down one’s specific sins at the end of every day. The shame of seeing one’s sins written out is similar to the shame of having them exposed to other people, and may help one fight temptation the next day. On his deathbed, too, Anthony told his followers to “live as though dying daily.” If they recalled their mortality, living each day as if it were their last, they might live more fruitfully and the better resist sin.
I have here summarized some of the points of this short book that stood out most to me. Yet now I must return to the present day, and ponder how to discern and apply its lessons.
Georgia has known ascetics and many saints; ancient monasteries and churches, some dating back almost to Anthony’s day, dot the landscape. Nevertheless, much has changed. The church as a whole is no longer threatened by Arianism, any more than it is yoked to the blessing and curse that is empire. And to this modern American Protestant, even in Georgia, the days of Anthony and Athanasius seem almost like something that happened in a dream, though one that grows more and more vivid with time rather than less. If the Life of Anthony can unsettle me, can it do anything more? I am not a monk or proficient ascetic, and I am not likely, as a married man and as a weak-willed creature, to ever become one. I doubt my confrontations with demons will have the dramatic tenor of Anthony’s.
Yet the nakedness of the ascetic intersects with the constancy of human nature. While Athanasius’s narrative is fixed in the peculiar conditions of the fourth century, Anthony could have lived in any age. The progress of his soul through purgation and toward union with God is a journey required of all souls; Christ called us to renunciation of our very lives, that we might be one with him in his death and resurrection. Though I am currently in a land like that described in Deuteronomy 8, a land without lack of anything good, I know that the microcosm of my soul is not consonant with it. In many ways, I live unconsciously and complacently in sin, as if still a slave in Egypt. The way to the true paradise is through the desert, “that great and terrible wilderness, wherein [are] fiery serpents, and scorpions, and drought,” led and sustained by the Holy Spirit. Even in bountiful Kakheti in summertime, satisfied and enjoying all manner of sensual delights, I must not fail to attend to my inner self and seek to achieve the poverty of spirit that receives its portion from God. If paradise be contained within the soul, even the desert becomes a land of plenty.
For man does not live by bread alone.