Saint Anthony and the Spirituality of the Desert

A copy by the young Michelangelo after an engraving by Martin Schongauer around 1487–1489, The Torment of Saint Anthony. Oil and tempera on panel.

Sunday 17 January 2021, is the liturgical feast of St Anthony of Egypt or Anthony the Great. In the words of Pope Francis when he addressed a meeting and prayer with priests, religious and seminarians during his apostolic journey to Egypt on Saturday 29 April 2017 at Saint Leo the Great Patriarchal Seminary in Maadi, “Saint Anthony, the holy Desert Fathers, and the countless monks and nuns … by their lives and example opened the gates of heaven to so many of our brothers and sisters.”

Anthony came on the scene as a result of a context which was a very particular one indeed. When the persecutions started waning, so also waned the ‘spirit’ and zeal of the persecuted Church. When the Roman Empire accepted the Church, the latter started to lose it zealous fervour for Christ. Gone were the days of martyrdom and, thus, the things of God and the things of Caesar fused together. Society became so mundane – and solitude, austerity and sacrifice in the desert were the only alternative to martyrdom of the blood.

After Constantine’s conversion for the Christian faith, the clergy commenced to enjoy special legal rights, financial advantages, as well as social dignity. The clerical state became a career that was worth pursuing. Unfortunately such comfort gave birth to a lukewarm spirituality. The remedy for such a decline was monasticism. After the year 280, lay people withdrew from public life and retired into solitary placed, most of all into the deserts of Egypt and the Near East.

These hermits were the desert fathers (and desert mothers!), who were ordinary Christians who sought the solitude of the deserts of Egypt, Palestine and Syria. These great men and women of faith had the courage to renounce the world, so as to purposely and personally follow God’s call of holiness. They led a silent yet heroic life of celibacy, work, fasting, prayer and poverty. They were strongly convinced that if they rejected material goods and practised stoic self-discipline they could actually be united with the divine. Their way of life formed the spiritual basis of later Western monasticism and widely influenced both Western and Eastern Christianity. The characteristics of their writings, which go back to the third century, include spiritual counsel, parables and anecdotes which highlight the primacy of love together with the purity of the heart which are foundational to the spiritual life and genuine communion with God.

Henri Nouwen writes of these Egyptian hermits of the fourth and fifth centuries: “They were men and women who withdrew themselves from the compulsions and manipulations of their power hungry society in order to fight the demons and to encounter the God of love in the desert. They were people who had become keenly aware that after the period of persecutions and acceptance of Christianity as a ‘normal’ part of society, the radical call of Christ to leave father, mother, brother, and sister, to take up the cross and follow him, had been watered down to an acceptable and comfortable religiosity and had lost its converting power. The Abbas and Ammas of the Egyptian desert had left this world of compromise, adaptation, and a lukewarm spirituality and had chosen solitude, silence, and prayer as the new way to be living witnesses of the crucified and risen Lord. Thus they became the new ‘martyrs,’ witnessing not with their blood, but with their single minded dedication to a humble life of manual work, fasting, and prayer.

Anthony of Egypt (251-356), the famous holy abbot of the 3rd century, did likewise. Often called “the father of monks” and universally acknowledged as the founder of Christian monasticism, Anthony was radically motivated by a passage from the Matthean Gospel wherein Jesus said to the rich young man: If you want to be perfect, go and sell everything you have and give the money to the poorDeep down in his heart Anthony felt that such words were personally addressed to him by Christ. He took them so seriously that he swiftly did as Jesus instructed him to do from the Gospel. After selling his property and giving the money to the poor he went into the desert at the age of eighteen so as to live a holy life in solitude. For Anthony, the Christian’s vocation is simply and magnificently the following: loving Christ with all his heart, mind, strength and soul through resisting the devil and yielding to Christ’s will.

St Athanasius, sometime Patriarch of Constantinople, a Doctor of the Church, as well as the official biographer of St Anthony’s life, said that Emperor Constantine himself wrote to the Abbot to seek his advice regarding the administration of the empire which now was legally Christian. Upon receiving his request St Anthony said to his fellow monks: “Do not be astonished if an emperor writes to us, for he is a man. But rather: wonder that God wrote the Law for men, and has spoken to us through his own Son.” In his reply to Emperor Constantine, Anthony counselled him “not to think much of the present, but rather to remember the judgment that is coming, and to know that Christ alone was the true and Eternal King.”

Some sayings or apophthegmata of Abba Anthony are really helpful for us to live our Christian vocation fruitfully and with our utmost commitment. Hence, someone asked Abba Anthony, ‘What must one do in order to please God?’ The old man replied, ‘Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to 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, ‘Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.’ He even added, ‘Without temptations no-one can be saved.’ Finally, a brother said to Abba Anthony, ‘Pray for me.’ The old man said to him, ‘I will have no mercy upon you, nor will God have any, if you yourself do not make an effort and if you do not pray to God.’

The bible, the desert, and the commitment to live the Gospel through the reading of God’s Word, unceasing prayer and charity to one’s neighbour, even if assailed by the harshest of temptations, are the essence of a true desert spirituality. After all, a desert spirituality always takes us back to our baptismal promises to renounce Satan with his vain promises, and embrace Jesus Christ as Our only Lord and Saviour. Our spiritual progress of inner peace, self-control, detachment from the world and ourselves, patience, humility and hospitality, are all virtues that we aspire for to closely conformed to Christ. In the process prayer, self-renunciation, fasting, the Word of God and a strong sacramental life make our pursuit for holiness more reachable and concrete. Just keep struggling till our very last breath to let Christ transform us unto Himself is the best way of making the spirituality of the Desert, and also keeping the message of Anthony of Egypt alive and well in our time.

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Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap was born in San Gwann on August 26 1972. After being educated in governmental primary and secondary schools as well as at the Naxxar Trade School he felt the call to enter the Franciscan Capuchin Order. After obtaining the university requirements he entered the Capuchin friary at Kalkara on October 12 1993. A year after he was ordained a priest, precisely on 4 September 2004, his superiors sent him to work with patients as a chaplain first at St. Luke's Hospital and later at Mater Dei. In 2007 Fr Mario obtained a Master's Degree in Hospital Chaplaincy from Sydney College of Divinity, University of Sydney, Australia. From November 2007 till March 2020 Fr Mario was one of the six chaplains who worked at Mater Dei Hospital., Malta's national hospital. Presently he is a chaplain at Sir Anthony Mamo Oncology Centre. Furthermore, he is a regular contributor in the MUMN magazine IL-MUSBIEĦ, as well as doing radio programmes on Radio Mario about the spiritual care of the sick.