Why Anthony of the Desert should be this year's patron saint
Tempting as it may be to retreat to a secluded mountain, there’s no running from the world’s troubles.
I’d like to nominate Anthony of the Desert as this year’s patron saint. This third- and fourth-century Egyptian—he lived to be 105—kick-started the famous movement of desert fathers and mothers, which gave birth to monastic life. The philosophy of desert monasticism was simple: Human society in its present form is a disaster. Any sane person would recognize it for the shipwreck it is and swim away to escape being drowned. Like most founders, of course, in the beginning Anthony wasn’t intent on founding any sort of organized movement. He was just trying to save himself.
Anthony took a fascinating route to becoming the most famous monk of all time. He was born south of Memphis to Christian parents who were of the helicopter variety. They kept their son and daughter secluded from outside influences so that, as he approached adulthood, Anthony knew little of the world beyond his parents’ front door. Then came the predictable result of such over-protection. When his parents died before Anthony was 20, he became guardian to his sister and heir to a fortune with little understanding of how society operated.
Seeking guidance for his new responsibilities, Anthony gave his whole attention to what was said in church. Imagine if we all did that! The words of Jesus proclaimed there one Sunday burned in his heart: Go, sell what you have, give it to the poor, and enjoy the wealth of heaven. Anthony promptly got rid of his estate and gave the proceeds to the poor, except what was necessary to care for his sister and himself. Not long after, he viewed even this arrangement as a compromise to the gospel command.
Distributing the last of his resources to the needy, he entrusted his sister to a house of pious women and went off to live as a hermit outside of town.
Fleeing a life of wealth and privilege in favor of an austere life of solitude seemed the only reasonable alternative for a serious Christian in a vain and hedonistic world, as Anthony saw it. Left to himself, he might have vanished into the wilderness to pray and do penance and die beyond the eye of history. But others heard of his peculiar choice. They wandered out of town after him to ask his advice, seek wisdom, and learn from his example. After a dozen years, Anthony found it necessary to move to the top of an even less accessible mountain to avoid the seekers. His solitude there was rarely interrupted for 20 years.
St. Peter’s first major address in the streets of Jerusalem at Pentecost, described in the Acts of the Apostles, seems to echo the revelation Anthony received as a young man: The present age is given over to a terrible darkness. Spirit-infused and on fire with newfound courage, Peter urges the crowds: Save yourselves from a generation surrendered to corruption! Peter heartily acknowledges that the self-glorying Greco-Roman civilization, and even his own religious leadership, is heading down a forsaken path. But Peter didn’t promote the idea of abandoning society to its own ruin and heading off to some island of purity and grace. Instead, he became what Jesus personally asked him to be, that rock upon which a new society would be built. Peter grew into the leader of a community of believers with a dedicated rescue mission: to infiltrate the dying world around them in hopes of saving as many as possible.
Perhaps the example of Peter was among the factors that persuaded Anthony to come down from the mountain in his mid-50s. Responding to the obvious interest of others in his way of life, Anthony assembled the first of his monasteries with an enthusiastic band of volunteers. Was Egyptian life in 305 really so bankrupt and purposeless, we wonder, that so many were prepared to jump ship and leave society behind? Or was it the fiery charisma of Anthony himself that was sufficient to draw them away? The first monasteries weren’t enclosed communities with walls keeping the world at bay. They were colonies of hermits in scattered cells who more or less agreed to share the solitude together. Anthony planted such groups and instructed them but never stayed for long. His own solitude was too vital to the man to jeopardize it.
If the first half of Anthony’s life was lived keeping the world at arm’s length, the second half was a reinvestment of the wisdom he gained with that distance, plowed back into the world. During a time of Christian persecution, Anthony met with politicians to broker peace. When heresy arose, Anthony answered the call of bishops to come to the cities and preach the truth. Anthony was known to work miracles of healing as well as feats of social persuasion.
Even the Emperor Constantine wrote to Anthony asking for his prayers. While Anthony’s celebrity acknowledged in the receipt of this letter impressed other monks, Anthony reacted by directing their attention more properly. Are you impressed that a man has written to us? Anthony asked. Be astounded that God has written to us and even spoken to us in Christ!
It might seem strange to propose an Egyptian hermit who lived 17 centuries ago as a patron saint of our contemporary affairs. Yet many of our fellow citizens have registered a similar disgust for the current state of the nation in the last few seasons. Black Americans have been compelled to remind their country that their lives matter. Native Americans at Standing Rock were forced to declare, once more, that the resources of this planet are precious and can’t be squandered without paying a price none of us can afford. The middle class has a long-standing, slow-burning outrage at its dwindling prospects, with the light at the end of the tunnel well overdue. Ivory tower Americans are aghast that respect for civil discourse has gone out the window along with the basic authority of facts. Neither Republicans nor Democrats make chipper dinner companions these days. The one thing we may all agree on is that the social order, as we know it, has gone off the rails.
I admit I’ve had moments in the last year when I was quite prepared to swim away from the shipwreck and find a spot in the placid wilderness I could call my own. A former mayor from my home state of Pennsylvania made a statement that crystalizes the spiritual crisis of these times. He said, “People are tired of surviving. People want to go on vacation, improve their home, get a better car, invest in their children’s future.”
Is that it? Is that the fulfillment our society really craves? If it is, then survival is not the appropriate word for where this generation is headed. Investing in our children’s future has to mean more than setting them up for monetary success. It has to include a demonstration of values. We can’t swim away from the burdens of the poor, the injustices of the farm worker, the tragedy of failing schools, the plight of immigrants and refugees, the perils of a degraded planet, and the anger of a global economy dangerously out of balance. We can’t get “ours” without an abiding concern for those who don’t get “theirs,” since the two fates are intimately fastened together. What the church calls the common good means justice for all or peace for none. We can run from the troubles of this world, but we sure can’t hide.
This article also appears in the May 2017 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 82, No. 5, pages 47–49).
Image: Via Wikimedia Commons