Saint Anthony (+356) is commonly called ‘the Abbot’, or Anthony ‘of Egypt’, where he retreated to the wilderness as a young man to live completely devoted to God and His Christ. His eponym as the ‘Abbot’ was given to him as the founder of that perfect and narrow living out of the imitation of Christ now known as monastic life, particularly in its eremitical, or ‘hermit’, form.
As a young man of 18, Anthony had a deep conversion upon hearing Christ’s counsel, ‘Go, sell what you have, give it to the poor, and come follow me…’, and an even deeper one when he subsequently heard ‘Be ye not solicitous for the morrow…’.
Anthony sold his inheritance – a beautiful, fertile 200 acres – and everything else, keeping just enough to provide for his sister, whom he entrusted to a group of virgins. Then, off he went into the desert, where he remained for the rest of his long life. He prayed and worked with his hands, and this modus vivendi was the foundational principle of all religious life, indeed, the life of every Christian in whatever path: ‘ora et labora’, pray and work, and leave the rest up to God.
Anthony lived this to perfection. Although the majority of his life was spent in solitude, others soon gathered around him. The Abbot would help them for a while, then retreat even further, withdrawing into his own cell to be alone with God. He fought demons and spirits, temptations of the grossest sort – for the Devil, as with the Cure d’Ars centuries later, grew frustrated with this unconquerable foe – implacable in his striving for that perfection to which Christ calls us, the hard and narrow way to salvation.
Anthony, along with all other consecrated and religious who followed after him, reminds us that this earthly life is fleeting, a preparation for eternity where, as Pope Leo XIII reminds us, we will truly begin to live. Focusing too much upon this ante-chamber to the next and real life, our minds and passions absorbed in thoughts of marriage, mortgages, money, degrees, travel and ‘experiences’, is a dangerous tendency, even within the Church. Although there is much that is good in all the troubles and cares of this life, and they are most people’s ‘narrow way’, we must be willing to give everything to Christ, whatever He asks of us, in His own gentle and persuasive way, in the depths of our conscience.
Anthony’s remarkable life was written not long after his death by a fellow saint, Athanasius, the future patriarch of Constantinople, himself God’s primary instrument in saving the Church from the heresy of Arianism. Anthony’s life was more hidden than his one-time disciple; in fact, the only time Anthony left his retreat was to visit the great city of Alexandria, the centre of theological dispute with its unmatched library and schools, to refute the aforementioned heresy in the very heart of its origin.
But Anthony’s primary work was interior, as is the purpose of all our labour: To transform ourselves, or more properly to allow ourselves to be transformed by grace, into the very image of Christ we are meant to be, by whatever path He calls us.
As Pope John Paul II exhorted young people in his 1984 Letter Dilecti Amici:
The Church finds Christ’s “Follow me” at the beginning of every call to service in the ministerial priesthood, which simultaneously in the Catholic Church of the Latin Rite is linked to the conscious and free choice of celibacy. The Church finds the same “follow me” of Christ at the beginning of the religious vocation, whereby, through the profession of the evangelical counsels (chastity, poverty and obedience), a man or woman recognizes as his or her own the programme of life which Christ himself lived on earth, for the sake of the Kingdom of God. By professing religious vows, such individuals commit themselves to bearing a particular witness to the love of God above all things, and likewise to that call to union with God in eternity which is directed to everyone. But there is a need for some to bear an exceptional witness to this before other people.
And as the holy Pontiff continues, perhaps with Saint Anthony and so many others, himself included, in his mind:
I wish to say this to all of you young people, in this important phase of the development of your personality as a man or a woman: if such a call comes into your heart, do not silence it! Let it develop into the maturity of a vocation! Respond to it through prayer and fidelity to the commandments! For “the harvest is plentiful” and there is an enormous need for many to be reached by Christ’s call “Follow me”.
Follow Christ. Follow Saint Abbot Anthony and the host of witnesses to the evangelical path, to that narrow way God shows each one of us, the only one that leads to life. We will find that, with charity and grace, His yoke is indeed easy and the burden light. With great love, all sacrifice seems sweet and pleasant, and such joy should be the hallmark of all the saints.
Saint Anthony went to his eternal reward in 356 at the age of about 105 (!), full of life and health to the end, signifying the healthy aspects of an ascetical and ordered regime, from youth onwards consecrated solely to God. His example, spread throughout the empire by Athanasius’ biography, was the impetus in the monastic movement, which would save not only countless souls, but, in the dark days that were ahead, save civilization.
If one saint can do this, what might many do? Abbot Anthony, ora pro nobis!