“A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God’” (Isaiah 40:3, RSV-CE). This prophecy was written concerning St. John the Baptist (Mark 1:3), who lived in the desert and called the Israelite people to repentance through baptism (Mark 1:4-8). St. John was preparing the way of the Lord, calling people to turn away from their lives of sin. Throughout salvation history, there have been many saints who go into the desert, or some form of wilderness, to live ascetically for the purposes of growing in deeper holiness and inspiring others to abandon their lives of sin.
One of these saints is St. Anthony of Egypt, also called St. Anthony of the Desert, whose life of deep asceticism and prayer became a great catalyst for St. Augustine of Hippo’s conversion. In this article, we will explore the life of St. Anthony through the eyes of St. Augustine, concluding with some practically suggestions of living ascetically in everyday life.
St. Anthony of Egypt was born to wealthy parents, and, being orphaned at the age of 20, he inherited all their possessions. When he heard the words, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions” (Matthew 19:21), he immediately sold all that he had so that he could pursue holiness through a life of asceticism. At the time, ascetics lived their vocation to austerity and chastity within the community, and this is how St. Anthony began his life. During this time, he lived in a cave, and experienced temptations and attacks from demons, as famously described in St. Athanasius’s Life of St. Anthony. Eventually, however, he decided to pursue a deeper life of holiness, and he crossed into Egypt, living alone without seeing another human soul for 20 years. Soon, others began to join him in huts, and after much persuasion, he acquiesced to their requests that he instruct them in the spiritual life. St. Anthony is honored as the father of both monasticism and religious life in general, due to his extreme austerity and devotion to growing in holiness.
In his Confessions, St. Augustine writes poetically of his conversion story, describing how he lived a life of sin and decadence but, through a long and arduous search for the truth, was given the grace to give himself entirely to the Lord. As he nears his final conversion, his tolle et lege moment, he writes of how he was introduced to St. Anthony through Ponticianus, who had heard his story through two friends who had discovered St. Athanasius’s work on St. Anthony. When they read this work, one of the companions, who was an imperial inspector, cried out, “Tell me, please, what is the goal of our ambition in all these labours of ours? What are we aiming at? What is our motive in being in the public service? Have we any higher hope at court than to be friends of the Emperor…But if I should choose to be a friend of God, I can become one now” (VII.VI.15). This individual, hearing about the ascetic life of St. Anthony, realized that his life, which was focused on worldly power and prestige, was nothing in comparison to a life as a friend of God. The two who read this story were instantly converted and dedicated themselves wholly to God.
St. Augustine, hearing this story from Ponticianus, began to reflect on his own life and think about how he was living for worldly gain. Augustine was in anguish upon hearing this story, for he could not look at himself, “twisted and unclean and spotted and ulcerous” (VII.VI.16). He knew that he was living in sin, but he could not turn to God. As he writes, he was 19 years old when he first read Cicero’s Hortensius and
here was I still postponing the giving up of this world’s happiness to devote myself to the search for that of which not the finding only but the mere seeking is better than to find all the treasures and kingdoms of men, better than all the body’s pleasures though they were to be had merely for a nod (VII.VI.17).
We then read Augustine’s famous prayer, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet” (Ibid). Augustine wanted to live entirely for God, but he was not willing to reject his old ways of sin. Unlike St. Anthony, Augustine was not ready to sacrifice everything for a life of holiness.
This story forced Augustine to realize that “all its [his soul’s] arguments had already been used and refuted” (VII.VI.18). He continues, “There remained only trembling silence: for it feared as very death the cessation of that habit of which in truth it was dying” (Ibid). Augustine knew that God was calling him away from his life of power, lust, and prestige; he was calling him to live virtuously for the Kingdom. Nevertheless, Augustine resisted, even though now, after hearing the story of St. Anthony, he had no more excuses. Indeed, in the very next chapter we read of his conversion moment in the garden, when he reads from St. Paul, “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in contention and envy, but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscences” (VIII.XII.29; Romans 13:13-14). The story of St. Anthony’s life allowed Augustine to be more open to listening to the voice of God, and was, in a way, a catalyst for his conversion. Augustine would take up a similar life to St. Anthony, for he would put away his old life of sin and live chastely for the Lord.
It may be tempting to think that such severe asceticism is only for those who live in the desert or choose to live monastically. Yet, the Second Vatican Council document Lumen Gentium explains that all are called to holiness—not just priests or religious. Indeed, this follows in the tradition of many of the great saints, including St. John of the Cross and St. Francis de Sales, whose writings explain that all members of the Body of Christ are called to pursue radical holiness. Thus, while some have vocations to live alone in the desert, all of us, regardless of our states in life—whether we are priests, religious, or members of a family—can pursue desert asceticism. Our pursuit will follow our states in life—if someone is a wife with children, she cannot simply leave them to live in the desert alone. Rather, we can attempt to do small things in our daily lives that lead to a more ascetic lifestyle.
We can sacrifice screen time on Sundays to be with our family or spend an extra hour in prayer. We can go without coffee for a week or a few days, offering up the sacrifice for a loved one in need or for the Holy Father. We can decide to pray for a short time every morning before beginning our day. We could pick a saint to study and pray to throughout the month. Or, we could choose one of these five excellent New Year’s Resolutions for Catholics. These small ways are pleasing to the Lord, and we can grow in holiness by making them into habits, just as the desert saints habitually lived in the presence of God. Let us, therefore, ask for the intercession of both St. Anthony of Egypt and St. Augustine, who surrendered everything to the Lord and chose to live more ascetically for the sake of the Kingdom. Let us ask for the grace to do the same in our own vocations.