Father of Monks

“A monk out of his cell is like a fish out of water.”
-St. Antony of Egypt

Today (1/17) is the feast of St. Antony of Egypt, who is the prototype of all Christian hermits. He is known as the Father of Monasticism. He had not yet turned twenty when he followed the example of the Old Testament prophets and wandered into the Egyptian desert seeking solitude and an encounter with God. It is hard to imagine the harshness and desolation of the desert at that time, and the physical powers of endurance needed to survive. This was no metaphysical desert chosen for spiritual reasons. This was the real deal. I have been to two Benedictine monasteries set in the desert, one not far from Los Angeles, and the other not far from Santa Fe, New Mexico. I drove to them in my air conditioned car. I probably stopped for a cold beer along the way. It was a little different for Antony. Yet despite the constant hardships, he loved the austere beauty of the desert landscape, and every night he would drink it in on long walks before sunset.

Antony was born in Comus, Egypt in 251. His parents, who were rich, died when he was about eighteen, and Antony felt obligated to care for his younger sister.

About six months after his parent’s death, Antony heard the Gospel of Matthew being read in church, and the words of chapter 19, verse 21 struck a cord in his heart: “If you wish to be perfect, go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Antony did what the Gospel said to do: he sold his property. Concerned for his sister’s welfare, he kept some of the proceeds of the sale for her, but he gave the rest to the poor. Later when he heard the Gospel reading from Matthew 6:34 where Christ says, “Do not worry about tomorrow,” he felt remorse for prudently holding back some of his money, and so he placed his young sister in the care of a group of consecrated women, gave away the rest of his money and sought a more ascetical life. His reputation for holiness and wisdom spread. Many people began coming to him for spiritual counseling.

Despite the extreme austerity of his life, Antony lived to the age of 105, never ceasing in his effort to deepen his relationship with God. He also grew more comfortable teaching others about God and encouraging their total commitment to the Gospel values as taught by Jesus.

Abba Antony, said to Abba Poemen, “This is the great work of man: always to take blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath.” Centuries later, Thomas Merton said: “We can only become saints by facing ourselves, by assuming full responsibility for our lives just as they are, with all their handicaps and limitations, and submitting ourselves to the purifying and transforming action of the Savior.” [Life and Holiness, page 51]

Every sin we commit is instantly accompanied by the grace of forgiveness. God is not an implacable judge demanding absolute obedience. Nor is God constantly ready to slam us with a guilty verdict for every transgression. God is love, which would make it impossible for God to be primarily concerned with punishment. God, of course, is fully aware of the weakness and illusions that are part of human nature; but, in Christ, God is generously inviting us to transformation. But before any transformation can happen, we need to recognize our weaknesses. This happens in stillness and silence, and in an honest and prayerful spirit of introspection. Little by little, more truth about ourselves is revealed. God knows, we could not take more than a little at a time. But as we learn more about our flawed selves, God is also affirming our basic goodness. The more time we spend with God in prayer, the deeper our relationship becomes. And as a result, we, in time, no longer occupy the center most space within our hearts, but that holy space is slowly turned over to God. True healing and transformation is taking root.

As we grow in our awareness of God’s goodness and mercy, two things happen: we become more thankful and more generous.

“Prayer is then the first and most important step. All through the life of faith one must resort constantly to prayer, because faith is not simply a gift which we receive once for all in our first act of belief. Every new development of faith, every new increment of supernatural light, even though we may earnestly working to acquire it, remains a pure gift of God. Prayer is therefore the very heart of the life of faith.”
– Thomas Merton
Life and Holiness
[New York: Image, 1963 – pg. 81]

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