St. Anthony of the Egyptian Desert, a contemporary of Gregory the Illuminator, is revered across all Christian traditions as the man who set the paradigm for ascetic spiritual living in all its manifestations. As The Father of Monastics, he looms larger than life; the shadow of his influence reaches across continents and ages.
So great is Anthony that it is easy to lose sight of two things about him that make him truly inspirational not only for monastics but for anyone aspiring to follow Christ’s path: he was willing to start, and once he began he was willing to stand in the fire.
According to Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria who wrote Anthony’s biography, the moment that started Anthony down the road to sainthood came when he was a well-off young Egyptian man of around 20, recently bereaved of both his parents. He was actively looking for guidance in how to fulfill his new responsibilities with regard to the care of his family’s estates and the upbringing of his younger sister.
With these things weighing on his youthful mind, Anthony walked into church one Sunday — somewhat late, one notes — just in time to hear the day’s Gospel being read. The passage was Matt 19, the story of Jesus’ interaction with the rich young man. What Anthony heard? Sell all that you have and give it to the poor, and come, follow me.
He was willing to start
So Anthony did just what the Gospel reading said. He divested himself and his sister of their family real estate and income, selling it all off and donating most of the proceeds to the poor. He kept aside only enough to insure his little sister’s future.
Having accomplished this, Anthony was alert for further guidance; how does one follow a Christ who is, after all, not here on earth anymore? Where is his invisible path, and how does one get on it?
His biographer tells us that sometime later Anthony went back to church, arriving once again in time to hear the Gospel being read. This time too it seemed to speak directly to his heart: Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself [Mt 6:34]
Taking this second divine message to heart, he went home and gave away his sister’s portion of their inheritance too, entrusted her to holy women who would raise her well, and let everything go. His willingness to start was clear.
Willingness to stand in the fire
Kindling the flame: the fire of self-doubt
For fifteen years or more Anthony actively studied what it means to live a virtuous life by apprenticing himself to people who were already doing it locally. His older and more experienced teachers had already stripped down their life to its essentials, lived apart from any family they may have had, and privileged their responsibility to God over their responsibilities to society. From one elder Anthony learned graciousness; others taught him how to be kind and free from anger, and showed him how humility causes tolerance. He watched one man devote himself to study and another to night prayer, and saw the value in both; he adopted the minimalist asceticism of a third and the perseverance of yet another.
Having begun his journey in earnest, Anthony discovered that the path of Christ is not only the excitement of forging a discipline and the exhilarating freedom of expanding one’s soul. Christ’s path is lit by what he later called the fire that came down from heaven.
That fire is no joke. As Anthony said towards the end of his life, it is benevolent, but it is also ragingly hot. God sends it to burn away all the dead wood, grass, weeds and detritus of mind, soul and body, making room for the pure light of the divine to shine in and through a person. Once kindled in Anthony, the fire did not spare even his most cherished delusions, aspirations, assumptions, natural instincts, rightful needs, expectations or uncertainties. It consumed them all.
How could he so callously have given away his precious, already orphaned sister? How could he have abandoned everything his ancestors had worked so hard for? How did he think he was going to manage in the future? What if it had all been a mistake? Was it really worth getting out of bed to do the same boring things over and over again? Why was he spending his priceless youth chasing a mirage of godliness instead of enjoying the God-given vigor of his young body while he could? He was beset by visions of social influence, the good that money and status enable one to do, and the joys of sex and family life. What was he thinking, to give them all up? He had nothing to show for his foolish sacrifice, did he?
Until he was in his early thirties, Anthony stood in that ferocious, questioning fire, watching his identity, his natural desires and his need to manage the future go slowly, painfully up in smoke. Then with the help of a friend, he moved into a tomb, to enjoy a graphic experience of what he should feel like now that he was dead to it all.
The fire of death to fear
The friend closed him in, and Anthony discovered that dying to his natural expectations had not made him truly and blissfully dead. Oh no; he was very much still alive. All his incinerated illusions, delusions and desires were only the kindling, not the real fuel.
There in the absolute darkness of the tomb’s confined space, with no other living soul besides himself, every fear Anthony had ever encountered came roaring up out of the depths of his psyche. Fears of death he never knew he had, fear of suffering, fear of failure, fear of the unknown, fear of violence, fear of the imagined, fear of fear. Fear has no pity, and it showed none to Anthony.
Physically shattered by this encounter with his own unbridled terrors, Anthony was carried out near death only to return to the tomb once again, because he had to know; what is this force that not only outweighs all the natural instincts but overthrows a solid, fifteen-year edifice of aspiration and discipline as if it were a house of cards?
On his second venture into the tomb’s darkness Anthony discovered that fear’s body-shaking, chemical cascade inducing power lies in its unreality. Fear is not rooted in now, and so it cannot be fought with the weapons of reality; fear is anticipation of an imagined result. Fear only has power before something actually happens. The claws of his psyche retracted in the light of this realization and Anthony was at last free to live in the light of the divine fire, beyond the grip of either desire or fear.
That light led him away from his home locality to an abandoned fort on a hill near the Nile, where he spent twenty more years in solitude, perfecting his lifestyle and letting the light shine more. People found him, admired him, wanted to know how he did it. He shared what he had learned — that the virtues he had tried so hard to learn in his youth were actually natural to humans; that knowledge of self and knowledge of God were not separate goals; that asceticism is not a virtue but a means to virtue; that fasting is not deprivation but optimization.
Sharing the fire
In his fifties, Anthony left his fort with its distracting visitors for the deeper desert’s harsh quietude, taking no baggage with him.
He thought he was seeking a more perfect solitude for his own further growth, but he found that he was instead creating a more perfect refuge for people who wanted to do what he was doing. He found an oasis, and people came. He retired to a cave in the pathless hills, and people came. The oasis turned into a community, and there was no escape from having to share the fire. Anthony realized that following the path of Christ, he like Christ had become a teacher.
Whether in person, by letter or in reported word, what Anthony taught was wisdom both simple and profound — clear drops of fire to light the way within.
Having lived alone for years, he knew that Whoever sins against his neighbor sins against himself, and whoever does evil to his neighbor does evil to himself. By the same token, whoever does good to his neighbor does good to himself. Therefore we ought to love one another warmly, for whoever loves his neighbor loves God, and whoever loves God loves his own soul.
Having stood in the fire, he could tell others If anyone hates all earthly possessions and renounces them and all their influence with his whole heart…God will…grant him the invisible fire which burns up all impurity from him and purifies his mind. Lift up your body in which you are clothed and make an altar. Lay upon it all your thoughts…and pray to God to give you the great invisible fire, that it may descend from above and consume both the altar and everything on it.
And to all who over the ages have found inspiration in his words he might well say: Because of the love I have for you, I pray to God for you that you may meditate on your own life, and inherit [the path] that cannot be seen.