Saint Anthony and the Desert Fathers for 2019

Though today’s practicing Catholic is separated from St. Anthony, in particular, and the Desert Fathers in general, historically, culturally, geographically, and vocationally, their voices continue to speak to us and help lead us back to the heart of Christ. Called Anthony the Great and “The Father of Monks,” he was born in central Egypt in A.D. 251 and had a radical conversion to Christ about eighteen years later when he heard the Gospel read in church: “Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor and come follow me…”

Because radical conversions are often characterized by “zeal without wisdom,” we used to joke in evangelical-charismatic circles that it might be best to lock such converts up for a few years before they are released on an unsuspecting world. For his part, Anthony went and devoted himself to a life of asceticism for several years under the guidance of a recluse near his village before going off to live alone in the desert in complete solitude in A.D. 285.

His luminous life attracted followers who came out to live near him. Early in the fourth century he came out of his hermitage in order to act as their spiritual father.

His words and the words of his monastic children are collected in the excellent book by Benedicta Ward, SLG, called The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. They have an unmistakable relevance for our lives today.

Just look at what Abba Poemen (“the Shepherd”) has to say about sensuality:

“You must flee from sensual things. Indeed, every time a man comes near to a struggle with sensuality, he is like a man standing on the edge of a very deep lake and the enemy easily throws him in whenever he likes. But if he lives far away from sensual things, he is like a man standing at a distance from the lake, so that even if the enemy draws him in order to throw him to the bottom, God sends him help at the very moment he is drawing him away and doing violence.”

This saying has relevance for so many issues today’s practicing Catholic (and Christian) faces. How much time should couples spend alone who are romantically involved but not married? Should you cancel your subscription to this or that streaming service or cable TV because of the prevalence of nudity on some of the shows?

Because seventy percent of 18-24 year-old males visit porn sites monthly, would it be wise to subscribe to a service like Covenant Eyes or Net Nanny to filter out the bad stuff and hold you accountable to a trusted friend for your viewing habits? Abba Poemen’s words about not standing “near the edge of a very deep lake” have aged well and are just as timely as when they were spoken several centuries ago.

Anthony’s life and sayings are their own fount of wisdom: “Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven…without temptation no one can be saved.” Meditation on this saying yields many layers of meaning:

For one, the great Desert Father, Macarius, is on-target in asserting that, if God would have insulated us from battle with the world, the flesh, and the devil, we would become conceited and fall just as Satan fell. A series of unbroken successes often leads to a downfall rooted in pride.

It’s also interesting to note that during the time of the Book of Judges, God himself allowed certain enemies of the Israelites to remain in the land so that Israel would learn warfare (Judg. 3:1-4). If we’re not battle-tested, we become like many “trust fund babies” who have had everything handed to them their entire lives and wilt in their first encounter with the affliction of this Vale of Tears.

The late Andre Louf was wise to point out that, as God abases us and puts us in the crucible of diverse trials, we often feel overwhelmed with temptations, but, in our repeated calling out to God for grace in a time of need, humility is born. This humility is the key in overcoming in our hour of future testing, because God gives grace to the humble and opposes the proud.

In fact, in reading the many sayings of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers), one could make a strong case that the sayings are like pearls of wisdom that are all placed on the single string of humility. Saint Anthony came out of his hermitage in the Egyptian desert and looked out and saw the many snares of the devil spread out over the entire world.

He cried out to heaven: “My God! How can anyone be saved?” A voice responded from heaven: “Humility.

Abba Poemen said, “As breath comes from the nostrils, so does a person need humility and the fear of God.” Abba Or said, “The crown of the monk is humility.”

In humility we learn how weak we are and that “…apart from me [Christ], you can do nothing” (John 15:5). We learn that the spirit is willing and the flesh is weak and hence heed Christ’s command to “watch and pray” amidst the vicissitudes of life.

In humility we learn that shouldn’t depend on our own wisdom or follow the dictates of our own unreliable heart. We should look to the Magisterium as it articulates what Scripture and Tradition teach.

In humility we return to the heart of Christ. Think about what Christ said to St. Faustina on Day 6 of the Divine Mercy: the souls of the meek, the humble, and small children most closely resemble my heart.

An important aspect of this humility is detachment. St. Anthony and other Desert Fathers would sometimes test new monks with insults to see how detached they were.

True humility means that when you are praised, you don’t get puffed up and when you are insulted, you don’t get offended. That’s because your treasure is in heaven and the only thing that matters is Christ’s opinion of you, not the fickle and transitory assessments of men.

All of existence can be divided into two categories: (1) the Created and ;(2) the Uncreated (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). We’re supposed to be detached from (1) and profoundly attached to (2) and the realities of heaven (The Queen of Heaven, angels, saints, the Beatific Vision).

Unrighteous anger and certain forms of depression can be flashing red lights in revealing unhealthy attachments. You’re depressed or angry because your team lost in the Super Bowl, you got passed over for the promotion at work, someone guessed your age and their guess wasn’t complimentary, or you can’t afford that dream house without putting severe strain on your finances.

As the Church works through issues in this time of scandal and crisis, detachment is needed. Yes, righteous anger and godly sorrow are normal responses to wickedness being revealed among priests and prelates, but we must also remember that the joy of the Lord is our strength (Neh. 8:10). We can’t let ourselves get too high or low in looking at today’s headlines.

One of the fruits of detachment is eradicating the superfluous from our lives. Benedicta Ward writes about the Fathers: “…it was a radically simple life: a stone hut with a roof of branches, a reed mat for a bed, a sheep-skin, a lamp, a vessel for water or oil.”

Food and sleep were reduced to a minimum. It calls to mind the quote from Marcus Aurelius: “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself in your way of thinking.”

For many contemporary American Catholics, roughing it means “room service closes at 11.” Though 99.9% of us are not called to literally imitate the Fathers, there are helpful principles for today’s practicing Catholic.

Though Lent does not begin until March 6, it is still an excellent time to eradicate the superfluous. You don’t need to upgrade to a new home when the one you have satisfies all your needs or pursue the promotion at work when you know that higher pay and more prestige will have the deleterious trade-off of substantially less time for marriage and family.

Sometimes we have extraneous activities that need to be streamlined. Many mothers and fathers become “Taxi Mom” and “Taxi Dad” in running their kids to multitudinous extracurricular activities, some of which are not necessary. Some practicing Catholics overlook the fact that you can be over-committed to church activities to the point of negatively affecting important relationships.

The Fathers were also dedicated to eliminating superfluous words in their relationships. Abba Agathon lived for three years with a stone in his mouth with the goal of learning to keep silence.

St. John of the Cross believed that silence was God’s first language and the Holy Writ is replete with such citations as Proverbs 10:19: “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.”

Who hasn’t had conversations that went on too long and deflated the human spirit or holy moments that were diminished by the tsunami of noise and chatter? Cardinal Robert Sarah has written wisely about such issues in his recent book The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise.

Some souls have undoubtedly had their lives shipwrecked because their decks were overloaded with unnecessary cargo. May the Holy Spirit use St. Anthony and the Desert Fathers to help us discern the difference between the necessary and the superfluous.

image: AM113 /


Jonathan B. Coe is a graduate of Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska, and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He is a frequent contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of Letters from Fawn Creek, a volume of spiritual direction. He lives in the Pacific Northwest. A self-confessed “mediocre fishermen,” he is known to wet a line now and then in the creeks, rivers, and lakes of northeast Washington.

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