Reading the ‘Life of St Antony’

I have blogged about St Antony and his Life published (if not composed) by St Athanasius before, as visible on the Desert Fathers page of this site. When we come in front a text such as the Life of St Antony, the questions that tend to confront us — especially if philosophical materialists (matter is all there is) — are manifold.

How much of this is even true? We have Antony visible wrestling with invisible opponents. The sick are cured. Demons are cast out. People hear the disembodied voices of the demons as they tempt Antony. He lives for twenty years alone on a sparse diet but is as hale and hearty as ever when he comes out of seclusion. He has visions both of demons and of Christ.

People who want to determine whether an account is true or not tend to dissect things on their likelihood as well as how well attested they are. The likelihood of any miracle is, by definition, scanty. And our evidence for Antony’s miracles primarily comes from this text written probably by an Alexandrian and certainly serving the polemical purposes of Athanasius vs. the ‘Arians’ — if the Nicenes can produce such a saint, how could they be wrong?

Of course, one could easily point to the vast wealth of material that gives us miracle stories, exorcisms, and visions in the acts of the martyrs and lives of later saints. Perhaps these could be used as a bar — people in similar circumstances do similar things. May these miracles be not so unlikely after all?

However, immediately it will be pointed out that the earlier stories are unreliable because they were often written after the fact and clearly embellished to promote the Christian message. And the later stories are clearly modelling themselves on the Life of St Antony. Therefore, the argument that holiness manifests itself in similar ways throughout history will not convince our imagined materialist.

In fact, short of witnessing such a miracle oneself, I don’t think that a confirmed materialist could ever be convinced that the Life of Antony is 100% true. Furthermore, the apparatus of historical investigation cannot either prove or disprove the events recounted in this story. ‘Likelihood’ cannot be used as a criterion if the miraculous is in play, short of discounting all miracles (as the materialist will).

What use, then, is the Life of Antony? We cannot prove it true. We cannot prove it false. What do we do with it?

We must ask ourselves why the text was written in the first place and for whom it was written. It claims to have been written by Athanasius to provide the ideal monastic lifestyle for the reading pleasure and edification of his fellow clergy. The point of the Life of Antony is not historical information but edifying example.

Therefore, what this text shows us is what this particular Egyptian community — Alexandrians who admired the Desert Fathers, perhaps the Desert Fathers themselves a bit — values and strives towards. These people value commitment to Christ above all. They value what Franciscans will later call ‘evangelical poverty.’ They value constant prayer. They believe in demons but also in the greater power of Christ at work in the Christian to overcome the demons. These things and more are what we can take away from this text.

At this point, when we look to it as reflective of a particular historical community rather than a straight historical narrative, the Life of St Antony takes on a different force and becomes disturbing in a new way. Rather than challenging the philosophical materialist (matter is all there is), it aims for the heart of the practical materialist (matter is all that matters).

This is the value, historical and philosophical, of documents such as the Life of St Antony. These are the questions we should ask them — questions that will provoke the text to question us as well.

Fighting the Demons 1: St. Antony

In Frank Peretti’s bestselling thriller This Present Darkness there is a scene wherein one of the characters engages in physical combat with demons in his living room. No joke. This sort of presentation of demonology, while it certainly entertained me as a teenager, draws attention away from the real fight with the demons, a fight that usually has as its great champion Christ.

Even if you don’t believe in demons, I think the lessons we have to learn from the ancient demon stories are applicable. So please, keep reading.

A very good description of the real fight with demons, a fight that takes place at the level of temptation, not at the level of wrestling matches, is John Cassian’s in The Institutes when he deals with the Eight Thoughts (precursors to Seven Deadly Sins). However, hagiography does give us some interesting demon stories, so I’m going to give you three posts and three stories battle with demons: St. Antony (below), St. Savvas (here), and St. Columba (here).

Other saints who have similar stories are St. Daniel the Stylite (saint of the week here), one of John of Ephesus’ saints whose name escapes me, and some other tales from the Desert Fathers. This is probably literary borrowing, not historical truth, but I believe it has a lesson inside.

What can we learn from patristic and mediaeval hagiography? I mean, we’re not likely to wrestle with demons Peretti-style, nor are we likely to be tempted Antony-style. So what on earth can these ancient demon stories say to (post)moderns in the 21st century?

Case One: The Life of St. Antony by St. Athanasius

This is the locus classicus of monastic hagiography as well as the battle with demons. Evagrius and Cassian may give us the more nuanced, psychological vision of how we combat the tempters, but here Athanasius gives us a very vivid picture of St. Antony’s temptations from demons and the fight against them. I’ve posted on this before here.

This time, rather than focussing on the strange menagerie comprised by the denizens of Hell, let us focus on what actually happens to St. Antony.

If you read this encounter of St. Antony with the demonic, which we can find at 8.7-10.9 of the Life which is pp. 14-16 of White’s translation in Early Christian Lives and available through the CCEL here. In some ways, this account is Frank Peretti-esque, especially with the Devil and his minions beating St. Antony up.

Despite being beaten, however, we see that Antony continues to inhabit the tombs and prays continually. He also recites verses from the Psalms against the temptations that assail him. Ultimately, regardless of everything the adversary throws at him, he prevails in the combat.

At the end of it all, he is granted a vision of Christ.

St. Antony immediately asks why Christ didn’t help him. Apparently Christ was testing him, but then goes on to assure him that he will be present with Antony through the rest of the saint’s testing with demonic powers.

What can we learn, then? I mean, we aren’t likely to be beaten. And those of us who even believe in demons don’t tend to dwell on them and often live as though they don’t exist. Is there any edification for today’s reader, then?

I think so. (No surprise there.)

First, as I mentioned when I first posted about the Temptations of St. Antony, our saint does battle with prayer as his chief weapon. We should never forget this piece of our arsenal when we are beset by temptations or evil in any of its forms, be it within ourselves or in the unjust world we see around us. Prayer is a walkie-talkie for the battlefield of Christian life (I think J Piper said that).

Second, St. Antony quotes Scripture at the demons. We need to hold the Scriptures in our minds. We need to read, mark, and inwardly digest the Bible. We need to memorise it, pray it, study it, read it, recite it. If you want to have a biblical mindset, you need the Bible in your mind (this is part of the advice Abba Chaeremon gives Cassian in one of the Conferences).

Third, Christ was there all along. He is our champion. This role becomes very important in other monastic encounters with demons, from Palestine to Ireland. Hagiography is essentially Christocentric; Jesus is the reason the saints can do the great things that they do. We need to remember this, as well as the Old Testament name YHWH Nissi — YHWH is our banner. He fights our battles.

What good is Patristics?

The Temptations of St. Antony by Hieronymous Bosch

I first got into the world of the “Church Fathers” in the third year of my undergrad (2004). My entrypoint was not, as for many, Augustine’s Confessions or the dogmatic writings of the Cappadocians. No, indeed. My point of entry was the world of the Desert Fathers as reflected in their sayings (Sr. Benedicta Ward’s translation for Penguin Classics) and in St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony (Carolinne M. White’s translation for Penguin Classics’ Early Christian Lives).

Since then, I have tasted the dogmatic theology of Sts. Augustine and Athanasius, Sts. Basil and Gregory Nazianzen, and the sermons of St. John Chrysostom. Among these, St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, St. Basil’s On the Holy Spirit, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus’ Five Theological Orations have been shining stars. And my dear friend Pope St. Leo the Great. Of course.

These shining stars have helped me think more clearly about who Jesus is, what He has done for us, and how the All-holy Trinity is to be properly discussed. In turn, this thought has, for me at least, raised my worship to new heights as I worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth. That alone is worth the effort of reading Patristic theology.

For me, though, it is the return time and again to the devotional literature of the monasteries that has been most potent. There, in John Cassian’s Conferences and Palladius’ Lausiac History, or in Cyril of Scythopolis’ Lives of the Monks of Palestine and Evagrius Ponticus’ Chapters on Prayer — in these and more, I have found the exhortations to holiness that motivate me.

For example, Cassian’s first Conference is all about purity of heart. Purity of heart is the goal of the ascetic (Christian?) life. The end of purity of heart — its purpose — is the vision of God, of Christ. If we are not pursuing purity of heart, we are not pursuing the truest goal of human existence.

This call is one I need to hear constantly, not because I don’t think rest, relaxation, and entertainment are worth my time but because I think I waste a lot of time anyway.

This wasting of time is acute when you read saints’ lives. These men, be they John of Ephesus’ Monophysites or Cyril of Scythopolis, are very concerned about rendering a sacrifice of their lives to God that is acceptable. They are concerned about whether they have prayed often enough. They are concerned about whether they are giving enough to the poor or just wasting their time in idle pursuits.

Thankfully, their exhortations to holiness are accompanied by practical considerations about reading, studying, and meditating on the Bible, about praying, about resisting temptations, about what holiness actually looks like. These exhortations are what kept the monks from despair.

I may not fear for my salvation as they did (being a good Protestant), but I think living a holy life is important. May their exhortations have an experience on me for all my days as I seek to love the Crucified God Who saved me.

The Impact of the Desert Fathers

The Desert Fathers and Mothers have a powerful impact, stretching far beyond the deserts of Egypt.  While I was engaged in my research into John Cassian’s demonology, I wanted to organise my comparative demonologies into “Desert” and “Not-Desert”.  I was advised that, while this was a useful exercise for organisation, the boundaries of the Desert are not so easily defined.

For example, one of my “Not-Desert” sources was St. Augustine of Hippo.  As a source for demonology in relation to John Cassian, he shows us that, if Cassian did not draw ideas directly from the Bishop of Hippo Regius, their western locale informed both men’s writings.  However, to say, “St. Augustine of Hippo is not a Desert influence,” is to ignore the fact that St. Augustine had desert influences upon him, both in his Rule and from St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony.  St. Augustine, in fact, cites the Life of St. Antony as being instrumental in his road to conversion.  The Desert has impacted St. Augustine.

Another man impacted by the Desert whose ideas on spirits resonated with John Cassian’s is St. Gregory of Nyssa.  St. Gregory did not himself spend time in Egypt.  However, his elder brother Basil, who confirmed his ordination to the episcopate in 372, did.  Furthermore, when we think of the interconnectedness of the Eastern Church, we realise as well that both St. Gregory and Evagrius Ponticus were present at the Council of Constantinople in 381, and that Evagrius maintained contact with people outside of Egypt after he retired to the monastery at Nitria (Kellia? I forget).  Who knows what words of Evagrius may have made their way to Nyssa?

By the late 300s, anybody who was anybody had some contact with the Desert Fathers, including St. Jerome who had his own monastery in Bethlehem, where some of the Desert ascetics lived as well, and Rufinus who spent time living amongst the Fathers, and Egeria of the bestselling travelogue.

In the West, Athanasius’ biography of St. Antony was translated by the mid-fourth century and circulated widely (thus St. Augustine’s acquaintance with it).  As well, a collection the Apophthegmata Patrum, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, were made available in Latin by the 500s.  They had a wide circulation, not only with the Life of St. Antony but also with the Lausiac History and Rufinus’ translation of the Historia Monachorum in Aegypto — all gathered together, these are called the Vitae Patrum.  Monks all over Western Europe would continue to read these works down to the Renaissance, seeking wisdom for how to live.

In wide circulation as well were John Cassian’s Institutes and Conferences.  These two works had a lasting impact on western spirituality in mediating the Desert tradition as well as much of Evagrius Ponticus’ spiritual wisdom.  For more on the legacy and impact of John Cassian, read my post on the topic.

St. Benedict felt the impact of the Desert as he organised his monastery and Rule.  He recommended that his monks read John Cassian.  Thus did John Cassian’s mediation of the Desert pass into the round of monastic reading alongside the Vitae Patrum.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Desert Fathers would make their impact visible in the Franciscans, in the Augustinians, even amongst the Brethren of the Common Life, being cited by Thomas a Kempis as worthy reading.

In the East, the monasticism of Egypt has continued in unbroken ascetic labour to this day.  Its sister monastic movements, inspired and sprung from the soil of Egyptian toil, exist to this day, living by the same desire for detachment and prayer in Mt. Athos and in the monasteries of Cyprus, Russia, Greece, the Middle East, Ukraine, the Americas.

They were enshrined to be required spiritual reading for all eternity in the Philokalia.

In the contemporary world, the Desert Fathers have impacted Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Benedicta Ward, Richard J. Foster, Christopher A. Hall, and me.

Will they impact you?

Saint of the Week: Saint Antony the Great

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St. Antony and St. Paul

St. Antony the Great (251-356) is traditionally considered the “founder” of Christian monasticism, although this is a difficult thing to be sure of.  One of the stories about him, in fact, tells of his pride about how he was the first-ever monk, and then an angel told him about this guy Abba Paul who’d been a hermit way longer than he had, so he went off to visit St. Paul the Hermit on St. Paul’s deathbed.

Whether or not he was the first or not, he was part of a movement to the desert that was beginning at the time.  There had already been the occasional Egyptian person or village that would disappear into the desert whenever socio-economic times got hard.  At the time went St. Antony started out for the tombs and the mountains of the Egyptian wilderness, people were first getting the idea of this retreat (anachoresis) as an act of Christian piety and part of the path self-renunciation as a replacement of martyrdom.

St. Antony’s anachoresis was inspired by the command of Jesus to the Rich Young Ruler to sell all he had and give to the poor, then to follow Jesus.  St. Antony figured this was a good principle for all serious Christians, so he sold off his inheritance, leaving behind enough for his sister to live on.  Then he went visiting Christian ascetics in the town where he lived and learning from them about how to live.

Soon, he heard the verse about not worrying about tomorrow, so then he got rid of the stuff that was supporting his sister and put her in a house of virgins (inchoate nunneries).  Then he went off into the desert to live alone.  Of course, living alone is hard to achieve for spiritual masters, because somehow word always get round that you’re out living in a cave or a tomb or an abandoned temple somewhere, so you start to get a bit of a following.  Over the years, Antony lived in tombs, on a mountain, and on a second mountain, each time moving farther and farther from society and receiving fewer and fewer guests — or at least hoping to receive fewer and fewer guests.

In these days of incipient monasticism, the concept of the hermit as a man who was complete and utterly cut off from the rest of the world was an ideal but never achieved (I’m not sure any hermit ever achieved it).  We see that St. Antony had disciples, such as his successor Ammonas, as well as those to whom he gives his discourse in The Life of St. Antony by St. Athanasius.

In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Apopthegmata Patrum), Antony is frequently quoted as providing a pithy saying or two, demonstrating that he was part of the new monastic movement wherein a newer monk would approach a more experienced monk and say, “Abba, give me a word.”  The more experienced monk, the Abba, would then give a brief saying or discourse to the less experienced.  Antony is also quoted in John Cassian’s Conferences concerning discretion, saying that discretion is the most important tool of the monk.

St. Antony did more than give advice to his disciples, however.  As we saw in my last post, he was engaged in the battle with demons.  In this battle, according to St. Athanasius, he received literal blows from demons and found himself almost physically defeated, but he continued on nonetheless.  The idea is that the desert is the property of the demons, their last retreat and lair.  By going there, St. Antony and the other monks are encroaching on their turf; turf wars ensued, with the monks victorious through many battles.  Eventually, St. Antony was left alone by the Devil and his minions.

Although called “unlettered” in St. Athanasius’ biography, this does not mean St. Antony was illiterate.  It likely means he was not literate in Greek or Latin, that he was not schooled in the classics of the Hellenistic world.  Modern philology has determined that seven Coptic letters attributed to St. Antony are most likely by this monk himself.  Whether he wrote them with his own hand or dictated them is impossible to say.  In these letters, we get a picture of a man who was concerned for the care of souls, deeply orthodox in theology, but not uninfluenced by Valentinian Gnosticism in aspects of his spirituality.

This does not, however, mean that Egyptian monasticism was Gnostic by any means.  There are similarities between Celtic Christianity and Buddhism, for example; yet there are also similarities between the Celts and St. Maximus the Confessor.  The Coptic monks tended to be orthodox in their theology, as evidenced by their harbouring of St. Athanasius when he was on the run.  They ran into theological difficulties with Anthropomorphism (imagining God to have a body like a man) and Origenism (the antithesis, all-too-often accompanied by Origen’s heterodox teachings on Christology and souls). However, St. Antony shows no influence of the heterodox aspects of Origenism or Gnosticism in these letters.

Here is some wisdom of St. Antony:

Advice given to those troubled by demons: Have faith in Jesus; keep your mind pure from wicked thoughts and your body free from all sordidness.  In accordance with the divine sayings, do not be seduced by the fullness of the stomach.  Detest pride, pray frequently, recite the psalms in the evening and in the morning and at noon, and meditate on the commands of the Scriptures.  Remember the deeds done by each of the saints so that the memory of their example will inspire your virtue and restrain it from vices. (Life of Antony 55, trans. White)

Wherever you go, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, have [before you] the testimony of the holy Scriptures. (The Sayings, Latin systematic collection [I think], trans. Ward)

I beseech you, beloved, by the name of Jesus Christ, do not neglect your own salvation, but let each one of you rend his heart and not his garment (Joel 2:13), for fear lest we should be wearing this monastic habit in vain, and preparing for ourselves judgment. (Letter 2, trans. Chitty)

Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. . . .  Without temptations no-one can be saved.  (The Sayings, Greek alphabetical collection [#5], trans. Ward)

I no longer fear God but love him, for love casts out fear. (The Sayings, Greek alphabetical collection [#32], trans. Ward)

If you are interested in learning more about St. Antony, I recommend the translation of St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony in Carolinne White, Early Christian Lives, published by Penguin Classics.

I read Derwas J. Chitty’s translation of the Letters of St. Antony, published by SLG Press.

Sister Benedicta Ward, SLG, has a Penguin Classics translation of the Latin systematic Sayings called The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks as well as of the Greek alphabetical (by author) sayings called The Sayings of the Desert Fathers published by Cistercian.

Ancient Demonology: The Temptations of St. Antony

Temptations of St. AntonyMy first introduction to ancient demonology was the painting to the left, The Temptations of St. Antony, presumed to be by the Dutch painter Hieronymus (Jerome) Bosch (1450-1516).  As you can see, all sorts of the denizens of Hades are surrounding St. Antony, the hunched hermit by the shrub in the middle.  There is a naked woman in a pond, a variety of bizarre monstrosities on the roof of his abode as well as those scaling its walls with ladders.  The bottom left contains an example of the mediaeval imagination it is hard to explain, whereas in the right, above the egg, is a demon clearly designed to frighten.

However, front and centre, is Funnel Butt.  A person with his tunic pulled up over his head, his left foot in a jar, and a funnel coming out of his butt.  Flying from this funnel are birds.  And to the right we see a guy shooting arrows into the funnel from his perch in an egg.  Here’s a closer view of Funnel Butt:

Funnel Butt

This demonological wonder can be seen in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, where Emily first showed me it.  The picture here is scanned from my postcard of the same.

In this late mediaeval painting, we have an example of the primary role demons play in human life: Temptation.

Wait.  Temptation?  What exactly is Funnel Butt tempting St. Antony to do?  What are any of these things tempting him to do?  I mean, the naked woman in the pond seems fairly obvious, but all these others?  What is going on?

To answer those questions, answer these:  What is the role of the monk?  What is the role, indeed, of every Christian?  What does the Devil fear most of all?

Bosch’s painting is inspired by the Life of St. Antony by St. Athanasius, one of the most popular books of the Middle Ages.  In this book, we read:

… there was a sudden noise which caused the place the shake violently: holes appeared in the walls and a horde of different kinds of demons poured out.  They took on the shapes of wild animals and snakes and instantly filled the whole place with spectres in the form of lions, bulls, wolves, vipers, serpents, scorpions and even leopards and bears, too.  They all made noises according to their individual nature:  the lion roared, eager for the kill; the bull bellowed and made menacing movements with his horns; the serpent hissed; the wolves leaped forward to attack; the spotted leopard demonstrated all the different wiles of the one who controlled him.  The face of each of them bore a savage expression and the sound of their fierce voices was terrifying.  Antony, beaten and mauled, experienced even more atrocious pains in his body but he remained unafraid, his mind alert.  And though the wounds of his flesh made him groan, he maintained the same attitude and spoke as if mocking his enemies.  ‘If you had any power, one of you would be enough for the fight; but since the Lord has robbed you of your strength, you are broken and so you attempt to use large numbers to terrify me, although the fact that you have taken on the shapes of unreasoning beasts is itself proof of your weakness.’  And he went on confidently, ‘If you have any influence, if the Lord has granted you power of me, look, here I am: devour me.  But if you cannot, why do you expend so much useless effort?  For the sign of the cross and faith in the Lord is for us a wall that no assault of yours can break down.’  They made numerous threats against the holy Antony but gnashed their teeth because none of their attempts were successful — on the contrary they made fools of themselves rather than of him. (Ch. 9, Carolinne White, trans. in Early Christian Lives, pub. by Penguin; another translation is online here.)

Demonology comes up throughout the Life of St. Antony; it is one of the foundational texts for much Christian demonological thought.  The demons are here attempting to draw St. Antony out of his cell, to drive him back into society, to stop him from praying.  David Brakke (Demons and the Making of the Monk) has said that it is more appropriately considered the trials of St. Antony than the temptations (both are the same in Latin).

The lesson for the Christian demon-fighter?  They will try to distract you from prayer.  They probably won’t make it seem as though your house is full of holes; they probably won’t appear like a horde of wild animals pretending to prepare to devour you; they probably won’t physically harm you in any way; unlike here or in Frank Peretti, they probably won’t make your presence known.

But prayer is one of the weapons we have in the fight.  So they will do their best to distract us, to tempt us to do anything else, to draw us into other things, even things that seem noble.  Many of the stories about the Desert Fathers tell of men who were drawn away from prayer and into excessive works of charity to the peril of their souls.  We need prayer to satisfy our souls, keep connected with God, and wage war on the front lines of the battle.  Let us remember the power of Christ within us, the power of His cross, to keep us safe and enable us to fight the fight and pray the prayers.