Mike Aquilina

Tomb with a View

Wednesday January 17th 2007, 3:04 am

“I am going the way of the Fathers … for I see myself being summoned by the Lord.”

I found those among the last words of the saint whose feast we celebrate today, Anthony of Egypt. They would, I think, make a good motto for this blog. (I have elsewhere taken the old guy as a sort of patron.)

The Church reveres Anthony as a model monk and hermit and a great master of the spiritual life. Anthony managed — in spite of his best efforts to live in remote seclusion — to achieve worldwide celebrity. Crowds of people sought him out, for counsel, for exorcism, for intercession and healing. Wherever he was — whether walled up in an abandoned mountain fortress or shut up in a fetid tomb — Anthony was himself a destination for pilgrims. He began his pursuit of the solitary life when he was around twenty years old, and he persevered until his death at 105 in the year 356. He emerged from his cells only when the Church required his service: once he traveled to Alexandria to fortify those who were about to die as martyrs; another time he arrived to deliver a public condemnation of the Arian heresy.

Shortly after Anthony’s death, St. Athanasius wrote a biography, The Life of Anthony, which soon became a runaway bestseller. Within a generation, the book had become one of the most quoted and most influential texts in the Christian world. Anthony’s acts affected the lives and preaching of such men as Jerome, Ephrem, Augustine, Rufinus, Gregory Nazianzen, Paulinus, Palladius, and Chrysostom. If you want to join their ranks, you can check out The Life online, and even read a detailed rundown of how the ancient world received the text. A more readable translation, though, is here, and it’s quite affordable. Anthony’s aphorisms appear also in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (a must-read).

This morning I’ll be discussing Anthony on KVSS Radio. You can listen online via live feed, or you can wait for Bruce and Kris to post an audio file. Eventually, Junior will move the file onto this site as well.

If you want to turn your listening pleasure into a multimedia experience, you can surf to the many artistic representations of Anthony’s temptations. The demons really gave it to the guy, and great artists have found the subject irresistible. The most famous rendering is by Hieronymus Bosch. My favorite, though, is this one.

The first piece I wrote for the religious press was a profile of St. Anthony. It appeared in a little magazine edited by a Mennonite gentleman and sold in his bookshop. It was 1985; and I was twenty-two years old. I dug it out of the archives this morning with the thought of posting it here, but I’m holding back. Maybe the two decades that have passed since then have made me timid. I hope not. But I don’t think I would write the piece the same way today. In illo tempore, I put the emphasis on facing temptations squarely and overcoming them with grace and grit-your-teeth effort. Now I’d qualify the statement and say that there are times to face temptation, but there are also times when it’s best to flee — to avoid the near occasion of sin, as we say in the Act of Contrition. We should know that our strength is God’s strength. But we should know, too, that our weakness is our own. I hope that’s closer to Anthony’s spirit. (I’m reassured by the knowledge that Anthony’s life underwent some drastic changes between ages twenty-two and forty-three.)

Men and women still take to the deserts of Egypt to live in Anthony’s caves and other habitats. Treat yourself to a firsthand account of this life in Father Mark Gruber’s Journey Back to Eden: My Life and Times Among the Desert Fathers. It’ll blow your mind.