Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Feast of Saint Anthony of the Desert

This Coptic Christian monastery is the oldest inhabited monastery in Egypt, and is located in the Red Sea Mountains. It was founded in A.D. 356. Saint Anthony is buried somewhere here; at his request, two of his disciples secretly buried him so that his grave would not become an object of reverence. Saint Antony is cosidered to be the founder of monasticism, in its most primitive sense of living as a hermit alone and away from society.

In the Book of Acts we see families living in tightly-knit communities, consecrated virgins in the home, and the Apostles and disciples travelling with each other spreading the Gospel. This community life was the norm for early Christianity, and the hermitic life seems to be an exception, or even an abberation, since serving others is one of God's greatest commandments. But we do find examples of life in the desert, far from civilization, among the Prophets, John the Baptist, and Christ staying forty days in the wilderness. The goal of this separation for us men is to increase purity.

Our word 'monk' comes from the Greek monakhos 'solitary'.

Even living in a Christian community can be distracting, unedifying, and not conducive for holiness, for innumerable reasons, ranging from greed and jealousy to adultery. The civilization itself may be so corrupt as to be an unsurmountable temptation, or there may be official persecution, which may make Christian community life impossible. By the year 270, Christians started moving to the suburbs of the cities, or to small villiages, fleeing the immorality of city life, but still being close enough for meeting the daily needs of work, trade, and markets.

The third century was a time of crisis in the Roman Empire; the great Pax Romana set up by Caesar Augustus started to crumble. After two centuries of relative peace, security, and prosperity, a series of oft-assassinated corrupt rulers weakened the Empire, which soon was to be split between East and West, and Classical Antiquity, with its order and unity, was coming to an end.

One day at church, Anthony heard the Lord's command that to be perfect, one has to sell all he has and give it to the poor; he was moderately wealthy, but this he did, and then looked for spiritual advice. At this time, there were many holy hermits who lived in the villiages, and Saint Anthony would often visit them. Anthony would often keep vigils, ate sparingly and only after dark, and would sleep on the ground with at most a rush mat.

Anthony soon retreated to the tombs. some distance from the villiage, and had a friend who sealed him up in one of them, and who would bring him food. This began Anthony's education in spiritual warfare, which is most remarkable, and here we learn that a pure man can even defeat an army of the enemy. After this trial, Anthony went out into the remote desert alone; he was about 35 years old.

Anthony barracaded himself in an old fortress at Pispir, now Der el Memum, with six month's worth of bread, and never saw another face for twenty years. Friends would replenish his supply of food twice a year, but he would never see them. The war continued in his monastery. Pilgrims would attempt to visit him, and would-be disciples built huts nearby. Eventually in 305 he suddenly came out, looking very healthy, and spent the next five or six years instructing the large numbers of followers, and writing a Rule for their community life.

His preaching stated that we need to fear the Lord, and not the demons, who are cowards.

He moved to what would become Deir Mar Antonios, still living a life as a hermit, but this time freely seeing all who came to visit. He went to Alexandria twice: once to comfort those being martyred or confined to work in the mines, and another time to preach against the Arian heretics.

He lived to the age of 105.

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