THE DESERT FATHERS: Saint Anthony and the Beginnings of Monasticism. By Peter Gorg (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA 2011) 131 pp. PB$16.95 plus shipping. Available through: www.ignatius.com; 1-800-652-1531.
This is a concise biography of Saint Anthony, and a short history of monasticism, in both the Eastern and Western churches. This excellent work on the Egyptian desert saint—“the personification of Christian asceticism and the father of monks and hermits”— examines the life of a man, “Beloved of God,” who lived during the fourth century persecutions of Christians under Diocletian, and in the background of the Arian heresy. The book captures the special genius of this simple but wise, humble yet great, saint whose holy life as an obscure hermit spread the Gospel. Without intending to found a religious order, Anthony’s profound faith and deep love of God, shaped monasticism and led to the many religious orders that have enriched the culture of Western civilization. This book shows how one holy life can change the world.
Explaining Anthony’s ascetical life as a universal desire for “an interior spiritual life and moral perfection,” Prof. Borg clarifies the rationale that inspired Anthony to live a solitary life on a mountain. First, the counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience “bestow a freedom that has enabled saints in all ages to accomplish outstanding works.” The ascetical life overcomes the enslavement to the body. Because demons in the form of temptation especially afflict human beings in their passion for wealth, sexual pleasure, and worldly honors, Anthony wrestled with them with the conviction that “it is impurity that is capable of killing a human being spiritually.” The ascetical life of self-denial, simplicity, and moderation tames the demons of the seven deadly sins that reduce men to animals.
Second, the ascetical life disciplines the will, and makes man the master of his urges and instincts. Modeling himself upon Elijah, “pure of heart and ready to obey the will of God alone,” Anthony sought the ascetical ideal because “the soul attains its greatest vigor only when the bodily cravings are powerless.” His ascetical habits were extraordinary: he slept on a mat or on the ground; he ate one meal a day consisting of bread, salt, and water; he lived among the tombs, spending twenty years in solitude; and he wore a hair shirt. While these practices seem extreme, Anthony never appeared in that light to those who called him, “the Great One,” because they recognized his holiness when they witnessed his miracles, and marveled at his prophetic powers. By his prayers, he cured a paralyzed girl who also suffered from poor eyesight, a healing he performed before the girl’s parents even approached him to make their petitions.
Third, the ascetical life cultivates keen spiritual sensibilities. Never deceived by the subtlety of the Tempter, he discerned the difference “between true possession, illnesses, and the moods of a person.” He taught God’s wisdom with authority, and offered his visitors spiritual counsels—like a daily examination of conscience, St. Paul’s advice (“Do not let the sun go down upon your anger”), and the habit of writing down secret, sinful thoughts: “Be assured that if we are thoroughly ashamed to have others know these things, we will stop sinning, and even stop thinking altogether about doing evil. What sinner wants to be seen?”
Fourth, Anthony’s ascetical life infused him with a Biblical wisdom that surpassed the schooling of the pagan philosophers. When the educated ridiculed Anthony for his ignorance of rhetoric, he famously replied, “Is the mind the source of letters, or are letters the source of the mind … The person whose mind is sound, therefore, has no need for letters.” This keen mind, though unlettered, was never confused about the simple truth. He answered the philosophers with the common sense of irrefutable evidence: “You people, with all your syllogisms and sophistries, are not persuading us to convert from Christianity to paganism; we, on the other hand, teaching faith in Christ, are stripping you of your superstitions.”
While St. Anthony’s model of sanctity appears alien to the modern sensibility, the first principles of ascetical life remain eternally valid as the fruits of Anthony’s life testify. To know God ,and to grow in sanctity, the soul must govern the body, and a person must detach himself from the world. Will must serve reason rather than reason pandering to the will. Without the purity of mind, heart, and body, man cannot know God who is the Holy of Holies.
Anthony’s atypical life deserves to be judged by its fruits. Despite his life of solitude and mortification, Anthony radiated joy, serenity, and graciousness. His eyes “radiated a gladness and peace that conveyed an external impression of the purity and integrity of the soul.” St. Athanasius writes that he was “not wild like someone who had grown old there in the mountains; instead he had considerable grace, like someone from the city, and his speech was seasoned with divine salt.” He lived 105 years. His countenance manifested “that cheerful serenity that was characteristic of him throughout his lifetime.” Athanasius marvels that Anthony’s fame had spread to Spain, Gaul, Rome, and Africa “while he sat hidden on a mountain.” Prof. Borg’s substantive biography lets the goodness, holiness, and wisdom of God’s saint shine out, and not be hidden under a bushel.
Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D.
Thomas More College of Liberal Arts