The movement to, and guarding of, a radical solitude as found in the Life of St. Antony appears incompatible with the daily circumstances most of us find ourselves in. St. Antony the Great is one of the earliest founders of monasticism as practiced in the deserts of fourth century Egypt. At the call of God, heard through the Scriptures in the context of the liturgy, St. Antony sought the perfection of the Christian life through prayer, simplicity, solitude and silence. Although his lifestyle is far removed from the culture and circumstance of most of us, St. Antony’s monastic wisdom, displayed in his attitudes, teachings, and practices, can be adapted humbly and reasonably to our daily life if we frequently enter deeper into the desert of our interior life.
St. Antony “devoted himself…to the discipline [asceticism]… giving heed to himself and patiently training himself” (Life, 3). For both the ancient monk living in the desert and the contemporary layman living in the world, asceticism and solitude are valuable tools for treading the narrow way of virtue into the Kingdom of God.
As did the other early monastics, St. Antony, “wishing to give attention to his life, disciplined himself in isolation” (Life, 3). Since it is impossible for most of us to withdraw for long periods of time into physical solitude, because of our obligations to our families, jobs, and communities, we must find another way to enter into the arena of the spiritual struggle. In order to achieve a greater freedom for selfless love, many of us would greatly benefit from frequent short retreats into solitude, in the midst of our hectic calendars, to give attention to our interior life and prayer.
St. Antony gave himself perpetual opportunity for mental and spiritual discipline through radical solitude, a continual retreat deeper into the desert. In the desert, in order to give heed to himself, St. Antony “prayed constantly,” took “control of his thoughts,” and encouraged others to “carefully keep watch” (Life, 3, 9, 21). We too can imitate St. Antony by setting aside short amounts of time each day, an hour or two, of silence, reading, reflection, and an accounting of our own inner universe. We may wake up before the sun rises, while the world is still asleep. Or we may do this late in the evening after the children have gone to bed. This daily retreat may prove invaluable for long-term health and stability.
In the midst of the desert, despite radical solitude, St. Antony also encountered many other virtuous monastics. He recognized that though he would live primarily in solitude, he could greatly benefit from the wisdom and experience of others: if St. Antony “heard of some zealous person anywhere, he searched him out like the wise bee” (Life, 3). As life gets busy, learning through reading and thoughtful conversations can become less important than attending to the constant responsibilities right in front of us. But, with attention to our priorities, keeping in mind our eternal purpose, we may find time for fruitful spiritual discourse, not stunting our growth in the spiritual life. Like St. Antony, we can carry an attitude that never ceases to learn from others or to recognize their gifts and virtues. And like a wise and busy bee, we will travel from flower to flower picking up gems of wisdom from our neighbor, from the saints and Church Fathers, and from the liturgical life and Sacred Scriptures of the Church.
St. Antony jealously guarded his solitude. But, because of the needs of the people and his obligation to love his neighbor, St. Antony also tended to the suffering crowds that sought his attention. When he “saw the crowd, he was not annoyed any more than he was elated at being embraced by so many people. He maintained utter equilibrium, like one guided by reason and steadfast in that which accords with nature” (Life, 14). So too, we will often be drawn out of our interior desert, out of ourselves, to tend to the needs of our families, friends, and communities. We may become annoyed at the demands of the “needy” among us, or swell with pride at the flattering words of our admirers. But, watchful over our thoughts, engaged in the spiritual life through prayer, accustomed to a humble disposition, we can imitate the reason-guided equilibrium of St. Antony in response to the needs of our neighbor.
St. Antony attained the perfection of the Christian life, the Kingdom of God, through radical solitude. His way of life was radically different than the way of life reasonably expected from most twenty-first century Christians. Nonetheless, the principles are the same: attend to the interior life and discipline the body in order to enter the Kingdom of God through the narrow way. Many of us, by humbly and appropriately adapting the monastic wisdom of St. Antony, can benefit from and imitate the saint’s attitudes, teachings, and practices.
Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Macellinus. In “The Classics of Western Spirituality”. Translated by Robert C. Gregg. Mahwah, NJ. Paulist Press: 1980.
image: By Cretan School [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons