St Anthony the Great

St Anthony the Great (d. 356AD) is commemorated in the Church on January 17 each year. Here is a synopsis of what led him on a path of taking Gospel seriously and trying to live the evangelical life:

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“On a certain day sometime toward the end of the 260s, in a town in Middle Egypt, a young man named Anthony was visiting the local church, and, as he entered, the Gospel was being read; it was the story of the rich young man in Matthew 19:16-22 [see also my post “Wealth vs the Love of Wealth”]. Anthony was a devout Christian, and on his way to church he had been reflecting on the life of the Christian community in apostolic times, when, as told in Acts 4:34-35, all the members of the community used to lay their property at the feet of the apostles. 

[It appears that however far back in time you go, Christians always imagine earlier generations more zealously kept the Gospel commands of Christ (there was a Christian “golden age” but it was always in some distant past generation). We look to Anthony and the desert fathers for being zealous in following Christ, but Anthony, the great desert father,  looks to the Apostolic period apparently thinking zeal for the Gospel had waned in his day. There may never have been a ‘golden age’ for keeping the Gospel – some in every generation were diligent in keeping the Gospel, and others were more cultural Christians. Anthony decides to keep more zealously the Gospel seeing Christians around him to be less than diligent or less than vigilant. He strove for perfection in keeping the Gospel. Unfortunately, in our modern age of extreme individualism, we can assume the Christian goal is personal salvation and doing what it takes to attain that, rather than what is more obviously the Gospel command to love one another.]

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Against that background, he understood the challenging words of Matthew 19:21 as aimed directly at him: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Feeling inspired to observe this saying of the Lord as literally as possible, Anthony immediately sold the rather sizable property that he had inherited from his recently deceased parents and gave the price of it to the poor, withholding a small amount for the support of his sister.

Shortly after that he entered the church again, and now he heard the words of Matthew 6:34: “Do not be anxious about tomorrow.” This time he gave to the poor the money that he had set aside for his sister, placed her in a community of virgins, and immediately entered upon a life of asceticism near his house.   (Boniface Ramsey, BEGINNING TO READ THE FATHERS, p 157)

Anthony chose his way of life and becomes a famous monastic and saint of the Church.  He is credited by many with making the monastic life a normative part of early Christianity.  While he got to choose his way in life, sadly, his younger sister, who isn’t even named in many of the hagiographies of Anthony, was not allowed to choose.  Anthony gives away the money set aside to care for her and sends her to a nunnery.  Little seems known about her or what became of her. Anthony is credited with attempting to literally follow the Gospel, but one can wonder if he thought about his sister in terms of St Paul’s words: “If any one does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).  Anthony’s striving for personal perfection may have been done at the expense of his little sister. In the stories of the desert fathers there are others who abandoned wives and children to become monks and were portrayed as heroic for doing so.  But then Jesus did say:  “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37-38).

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo (Annotated) by [Unknown]Following Christ sometimes entails complex moral decisions which affect the lives of others. If one likes to think about such complications for living the Christian life through literature and if you have the patience to read a 100-page poem, you can read the 14th Century English story “Sir Gawain and the Green Night.” Gawain, a knight of Arthur’s round table, is caught between fulfilling his knightly chivalry duties and being a Christian. The story has serious parts, but I think is also intended to provide a little humor at Gawain’s expense.  Chivalry requires him to serve others and to keep his word.  But keeping his promises to others can end up conflicting with Christian morality, and sometimes his various commitments themselves put contradictory demands on him. Gawain struggles but maintains his sexual continence, and ends up failing to be completely honest about agreements he has made (the story sets him up for failure with a series of chivalrous agreements which he makes which prove to have contradictory claims on him and thus he fails to live up to all of them).  He ends up being embarrassed by this failure, even though he avoids committing sexual sin and fulfills most of the agreements he has made.  The entire plot of the long poem is couched in Christian belief and morality.