17 January 2010

Feast of St Anthony (or Antony) of Egypt

Lots (relatively!) of hermits in the calendar these days. Today would ordinarily be the Feast of St Anthony of Egypt (251-356 -- no, no typos in that date), one of the best known hermit Saints. It is also the feastday of the Motherhouse of the women's congregation of Benedictine Camaldolese located in Rome --- the house where, some may recall, Nazarena, an American recluse and anchoress lived out her life. It follows just two days after the feast of St Paul the Hermit, recognized as the first hermit in the Catholic Church. The following brief biography of Anthony is taken from "Saint of the Day" by St Anthony's Messenger.

The life of Anthony will remind many people of St. Francis of Assisi. At 20, Anthony was so moved by the Gospel message, “Go, sell what you have, and give to [the] poor” (Mark 10:21b), that he actually did just that with his large inheritance. He is different from Francis in that most of Anthony’s life was spent in solitude. He saw the world completely covered with snares, and gave the Church and the world the witness of solitary asceticism, great personal mortification and prayer. But no saint is antisocial, and Anthony drew many people to himself for spiritual healing and guidance.

At 54, he responded to many requests and founded a sort of monastery [Laura or Hermitage] of scattered cells. Again like Francis, he had great fear of “stately buildings and well-laden tables.”

At 60, he hoped to be a martyr in the renewed Roman persecution of 311, fearlessly exposing himself to danger while giving moral and material support to those in prison. At 88, he was fighting the Arian heresy, that massive trauma from which it took the Church centuries to recover. “The mule kicking over the altar” denied the divinity of Christ.

Anthony is associated in art with a T-shaped cross, a pig and a book. The pig and the cross are symbols of his valiant warfare with the devil—the cross his constant means of power over evil spirits, the pig a symbol of the devil himself. The book recalls his preference for “the book of nature” over the printed word. Anthony died in solitude at 105.

Those interested in knowing more about Anthony of Egypt should check out his rather "stylized" (it is typically hagiographical) biography by Saint Athanasius, The Life of Anthony. It is available in a number of editions and online as well. A book which is not about Anthony only, but which is fascinating in light of his (and others') well-known battles with demons, and which might interest some readers, is David Brakke's, Demons and the Making of the Monk, Spiritual Combat in Early Christianity. Chapter 2, however focuses on St Anthony (via St Athanasius', Life of Anthony) and references to him occur throughout. As an aside here because of recent questions and posts --- Brakke notes that the tension between solitude and community, desert and city, informs the entirety of Anthony's demonology, and less so Athanasius' work on Anthony, but it is not absent from his Life. Finally, not least for Nazarena's link to St Anthony's of Egypt (Camaldolese) monastery, readers should definitely check out Fr Thomas Matus' (OSB Cam) biography of Nazarena's life in reclusion, Nazarena, An American Anchoress.

Meanwhile, all good wishes to Camaldolese women everywhere, nuns, hermits, oblates! Prayers especially for the community at St Anthony's of Egypt in Rome.