17 January 2011

St Anthony, Abbot

Lots of hermits in the calendar these days (well, relatively so!). Today we would ordinarily celebrate the Feast of St Anthony of Egypt (251-356 -- no, no typos in that date), one of the best known hermit Saints -- although we mainly remembered Martin Luther King this year. 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.

There is a good story about Anthony which relates to some of the readings which come up this week, most notably Friday's reading from the Letter to the Hebrews (8:6-13). This text reminds us of the new covenant and the shift from an approach to morality that is rooted in observance of the law as a sign of observing the covenant to one where the person embodies the covenant in their very selves with the covenant written on their minds and hearts. Hebrews notes that when the new covenant is established in this way, we will no longer need to teach one another saying, "Know the Lord," because all will know God in the depths of their hearts --- and, implicitly, be able to recognize him in the lives of each of us.

Once upon a time Anthony was visited by some Greek philosophers or wise men. They had heard stories about Anthony and the way he comforted people with his words. They were anticipating some kind of wisdom they could be convinced of and take away with them --- a new possession of sorts. The "container" for these comforting bits of wisdom, they also thought, were words and ideas, arguments they could add to an already notable armament of arguments and human wisdom. It seems that these men wanted to cull from Anthony's life what they considered admirable. The rest, however, the hermit or monastic life, the asceticism, the "foolishness" of following Christ exhaustively in material as well as spiritual poverty and obedience they rejected as the foolishness they considered it to be --- the foolishness Paul himself speaks of when he measures the scandal of a Crucified Christ against the wisdom of the "Greeks".

Anthony asked these men why they came to him, someone dressed in animal skins, and living a subsistence life of faith in the desert as a disciple of the crucified Christ. They reassured him that they thought he was a wise man. Anthony realized what these men wanted from him and refused to play their game. His challenge was clear and cut to the heart of the matter: If you truly believe I am a wise man, then live as I live. Become what I have become in Christ, for I am a Christian. This is open to you, but it is not the way of human wisdom, not even the way of external observance to Divine law. The philosophers left, no new lessons to teach others, no wisdom to add to their armament of human wisdom, no new arguments or consoling words they can pull out of their collection of platitudes and aphorisms. Despite superficial differences, the choice Anthony gave them was the same one Christ gave the rich young man, and the same one Hebrews 8:6-13 presents us with, namely, to leave the old way of living behind, the way of external legal observance, possessions, human wisdom and achievement and become a new creation in Christ from the heart outward. Not all of us are called to be hermits, but we are all called to emulate Anthony in this matter.

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.

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