Unexpected Paths: Examining the Life of Saint Anthony of Padua

St. Anthony, who lived from the years 1195 to 1231, was a Franciscan thaumaturgist famous for his erudition, oratory, works of charity, and miracles. A native of Portugal, for a time he was a cleric with the monastic order of St. Augustine. In his early twenties, hearing of the martyrdoms of followers of Francis of Assisi, and stirred to imitate their sacrifice for Christ, he joined the Friars Minor of St. Francis. Although Anthony lived a short life, he was noteworthy for his willingness to conform to the will of God; for combining the qualities of a scholar and a pastor; for his thought and charity; and for his many miracles.

In February of 2010, Pope Benedict XVI, in a General Audience, discussed at length the life and significance of Saint Anthony. The Pope, himself a superb scholar, recognized the same ability in Saint Anthony. And like Saint Anthony, Pope Benedict found in his life frequently the call of God to shape his course not to his own choosing, but to Another’s will.

Saint Anthony was so stirred by the martyrdom of five Franciscans at the hands of the Saracens that he, too, wished to offer his life to the Lord by martyrdom. But this was not God’s will. As Pope Benedict said, Anthony, having “set out for Morocco,” was stopped by illness, as “divine Providence [had] disposed otherwise.” (Pope Benedict, Feb 10, 2010, General Audience)

Anthony ended up in Italy, where he attended a Franciscan meeting at Assisi. The same sense of humility and obscurity that had convinced him that his life should be a brief testament to Jesus Christ made him retire to a cell to live in isolation and solitude. But “the Lord called him to another mission,” in the words of Pope Benedict. (Pope Benedict, Feb 10, 2010, General Audience)

Asked to preach, his listeners were astonished by his rhetorical skill, his prodigious memory, and his sophisticated comprehension of the lessons of Scripture. Soon after, Francis sent Anthony a brief message: “To Brother Anthony, […] Francis sends his greetings. It is my pleasure that thou teach theology to the brethren, provided, however, that as the Rule prescribes, the spirit of prayer and devotion may not be extinguished.” (1224)

In his teaching, Anthony focused on the love and charity of Christ. He said, as quoted by Pope Benedict: “Charity is the soul of faith, it gives it life; without love, faith dies. […] Christ who is your life is hanging before you, so that you may look at the Cross as in a mirror. There you will be able to know how mortal were your wounds, that no medicine other than the Blood of the Son of God could heal. If you look closely, you will be able to realize how great your human dignity and your value are. […] Nowhere other than looking at himself in the mirror of the Cross can man better understand how much he is worth.” (Pope Benedict, Feb 10, 2010, General Audience)

Anthony’s many miracles are fascinating and controversial. We live in a time of reason, when, according to the laws of nature, we expect and assume that observation will confirm the process of the laws of space and time. But God and His ways are so different, so beyond our comprehension, that it is singularly arrogant to assume that what we know, and only what we know, can exist. As a result, during the past few centuries humans doubt miracles or anything supernatural. (The American Plutarch, May 18, 2015, History and Miracle)

St. Anthony could perform astonishing miracles, such as, according to the 14th century book The Little Flowers of St. Francis, sermonizing to a school of fish, who lined up in orderly rows with open mouths to listen to the lessons of St. Anthony. He taught them: “My brothers the fish, much are ye bounden so far as in ye lies, to give thanks to our Creator, who hath given you so noble an element for your abode; […] God, your kind and bountiful Creator, when He created you, gave you commandment to increase and multiply, and poured on you His blessing.” God blessed fish such that they played an important role in God’s plans for the salvation of Creation; the Son of Man ate fish before and after Crucifixion. (The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi, trans. T. W. Arnold, London: Chatto and Windus, 1908)

St. Anthony’s life teaches us that the path we have chosen will continue as long as we exercise free will according to God’s grace. This sometimes entails a different direction, even a miraculous transformation, from what we have conceived for ourselves. We must be guided, as was St. Anthony, by love and charity for others, including all life, all creation. Saint Anthony taught: “If you preach Jesus, he will melt hardened hearts; if you invoke him he will soften harsh temptations; if you think of him he will enlighten your mind; if you read of him he will satisfy your intellect.” (Pope Benedict, Feb 10, 2010, General Audience)

Author’s Note: For more writing from this author, visit his blog at https://theamericanplutarch.com.

Photo by Beth Macdonald on Unsplash

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Russell M. Lawson is the author of almost two dozen books and many more articles and essays. He has taught at schools in New England, Oklahoma, and Ontario. Dr. Lawson teaches and writes on scientists, explorers, and missionaries; the history of America, Europe, and the world; and the history of ideas, particularly Christian ideas. He has taught at the Pastoral Studies Institute at the Diocese of Oklahoma, and currently volunteers as a social studies teacher for adults seeking the GED at Catholic Charities in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of New Hampshire, and is a Fulbright Scholar. He blogs at https://theamericanplutarch.com.

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