By David L.
Today is the feast of St. Antony the Great, who is venerated in the Eastern and Western traditions, partially because he lived before the Schism, partially because he's awesome.
Some background: St. Antony lived in Egypt in the third century. According to a biography written by St. Athanasius, Antony was brought up in the faith and went to church regularly. At church, he heard Jesus speaking in the Gospels, telling the rich man to give up all his possessions, give them to the poor, and follow Him. Overcome by Grace, Antony believed the message was meant specifically for him. He gave everything he had to the poor, including a sizable inheritance, and went out to the desert to live as a hermit in contemplation. He spent the rest of his life in prayer. Ironically, he became famous, and his story was circulated throughout the Christian world. People made pilgrimages to hear words of wisdom from the monk. He is considered the father of monasticism. (I should note that I'm not even vaguely doing his story justice, and that it's worth reading Athanasius' Life of Antony.)
St. Antony's story, like Christ's, should bother us. Why would anyone put themselves through such an ordeal? Why give up everything that should make us happy, including normal relationships with other people? Taking away all things of the world, what is left to keep a person sane, let alone happy? What kept this guy going? If God truly called Antony to this life, then why? Why waste such a willing servant in the desert when there are people suffering whom he could help? How is withdrawing from society the Christian thing to do?
St. Athanasius seems to speak to this theme in his Life of Antony: "[Antony] subjected himself in
sincerity to the good men whom he visited, and learned thoroughly where each surpassed him
in zeal and discipline. He observed the graciousness of one; the unceasing prayer of
another; he took knowledge of another's freedom from anger and another's loving-kindness;
he gave heed to one as he watched, to another as he studied; one he admired for his
endurance, another for his fasting and sleeping on the ground; the meekness of one and the
long-suffering of another he watched with care, while he took note of the piety towards
Christ and the mutual love which animated all." This last quality which all the men had is the answer to the contradictions, I think: what Athanasius calls "piety towards Christ" and "mutual love," and we might simply call love. All these men had ways they could show their love for God. Similarly, different people have different vocations; while some are called to serve the poor in a visible, physical way, like Bl. Mother Theresa, some others are called to contemplative life, like St. Antony. However, they both have, at their core, love of God and neighbor.
Antony gave up everything and went into the desert because he loved God. Love always leads us to vulnerability. The vulnerability any lover takes on is shown dramatically in the story of this hermit, who went out to face the devil in a barren, hostile environment, putting his life and soul on the line because he trusted in God. In a culture that yearns for authentic love, we can look to this simple hermit.