Of all the various modes in which Christian life is manifested, the life of the solitary ascetic strikes our contemporary culture as the most eccentric. In a culture that underscores self-fulfillment and the gratification of virtually every appetite, it is incomprehensible to most people why anyone would choose a life involving isolation from social life and rigorous self-denial. Among Christians, the life of the solitary is rightly viewed as heroic. It has, however, become a commonplace—especially in Protestant historical consciousness—to see the ascetical life of the solitary as a substitute for martyrdom. The basic notion is this: during periods of state persecution in the early Christian centuries, martyrdom was the highest spiritual ideal to which the Christian could aspire. With the legalization of Christianity under Constantine, this way of perfection suddenly disappeared. The more fervent Christians needed a new outlet for their zeal, and the solitary life of radical asceticism provided such an outlet. The example of St. Antony of Egypt shatters this illusion, since he was born around 251 A.D. and undertook the life of the desert well before Christianity was legalized and even before the most savage wave of persecution under Emperor Diocletian (284-305). In addition to dispelling this misconception, Antony’s life has much to teach Catholics about spiritual warfare in the twenty-first century.
The Life of Antony, written by St. Athanasius of Alexandria, became the prototype of the many saints’ lives that would follow in the Christian tradition and is the principal source of our knowledge about his life and teaching.
To Antony, spiritual warfare essentially consists in three things: renunciation of the world, self-mastery through asceticism, and confrontation with the demonic. His renunciation of the world was total. After the death of his wealthy parents, Antony heard the call of Christ in the Gospel: “If thou wilt be perfect, go, sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” He went and sold his property, keeping only small portion for the support of his younger sister. Soon even this he gave away and entrusted his sister to a convent. His renunciation of his sister’s upkeep may strike us today as an unconscionable shirking of a prior moral obligation. Note, however, that he did not abandon her: he entrusted her to those who shared his faith in Christ. For Antony, there was no other way. The only way for him to follow Christ was completely to forsake all, including his personal anxiety about his sister. He had to let her go too, entrusting her to the solicitude of others, so that he could follow Christ. Total renunciation, not only of material security but also of familial ties, was the condition for Antony to fulfill his vocation.
After Antony had completely renounced even the good things of the world, he devoted himself to the ascetical life, “watching over himself strictly and patiently training himself.” The initial locus of his ascetical life was a secluded spot not too far from town. It was not long before Antony’s asceticism bore fruit. He observed the various examples of discipline in other solitaries more advanced than he, closely observing “the zeal and self-denial which each had acquired.” Athanasius writes:
He noticed the courtesy of one, the constancy of another in prayer; he observed one’s meekness, another’s kindness; he attentively watched one as he kept vigil and another in his love of study; he admired one for his patience, another for his fasting and sleeping on the ground; he watched closely the gentleness of one and the forbearance of another; while in all he noted their devotion to Christ and their love for one another. Having thus gathered his fill, he returned to his own place of solitude, reflecting thereafter on the special virtues of each one and striving eagerly to exemplify all of them in himself.
We notice among these virtues those practices that would later define monastic communal life: keeping vigil, study, devotion to Christ, and mutual love. The early solitaries sought to embody these in themselves as individuals. In his renunciation of the world and his commitment to the life of a solitary ascetic, Antony came to exemplify all of them.
Antony’s ascetical prowess soon provoked the ancient Enemy. Athanasius tells us that the devil attacked Antony incessantly with temptation and torment. In response, Antony redoubled his ascetical activities.
He kept such long vigils that often he passed the whole night without sleep, and this not once, it was noted with wonder, but frequently. He used to eat once a day, after sunset; sometimes, however, after two days, and, frequently even after four. His food was bread and salt; his drink, water only… A rush mat served him for sleep, but most of the time he lay on the bare ground…. The state of the soul, he said, is vigorous when the pleasures of the body are weakened.
Antony’s real provocation of the Enemy occurred, however, when he left his first hermitage and relocated to the tombs. Athanasius tells us that “the Enemy could not endure this.” In the ancient world, two terrestrial regions were generally considered to be the abode of demons: the desert and the tombs. We find support for his notion, of course, in the gospels. Thus Antony brought the fight to the Enemy’s turf. The Enemy responded with intense physical and sensory attacks. He “came one night with a throng of demons and cut him so with lashes that he lay on the ground speechless from the intense pain.” When these proved to no avail, Satan and his minions took the form of serpents and wild beasts, generating an atmosphere of such noise and terror “that the whole place seemed to be shaken to its foundations.” Antony remained intrepid, and rebuked the demons. Athanasius tells us that “he lay there unshaken, more vigilant in spirit than before. He groaned because of the pain of his body, but his mind was clear.” Antony’s asceticism had not only made him steadfast against the onslaughts of the Enemy, but had so disciplined his body that the clarity of his mind was in no way affected by their attacks. Antony spent twenty years in such self-discipline. As a result, he not only achieved a reputation for holiness but also a personal character reflecting our original pre-lapsarian state: “he was perfectly calm, as befits a man who is guided by reason and who has remained in his natural state.” Moreover, Antony’s ethos was such that he could edify others:
The Lord also gave Anthony grace in speech, so that he comforted many who were in sorrow and reconciled those who were at variance, urging all to prefer the love of Christ to anything in the world.
In short, Antony’s renunciation of the world, ascetical discipline, and triumph over the demonic restored within him what was lost in human nature due to sin, but on the personal and relational levels.
Christians in the twenty-first century have much to learn from Antony, despite the fact that most of us will not be called to the life of a solitary. While total renunciation of social life is extra-ordinary, we are called to renounce worldliness. We must renounce those values, attitudes, and priorities that ultimately set themselves in opposition to Christ and his Church. Such a renunciation may, from time to time, involve a severance of some societal bonds to which we have become accustomed. We must, in many levels, cultivate self-discipline, which necessarily entails some type of ascetical practice. I suspect that such asceticism is most needed in Christian intellectual life; Antony’s example demonstrates that asceticism instills that clarity of mind so necessary to the effective instruction of others. This asceticism also fortifies us in the face of the demonic attacks that have always beset the followers of Christ and which may be occurring with increasing frequency in our current culture. We must all follow, in a manner peculiar to each one’s station in life, this threefold example of Antony. The fruit of such perseverance for us, as in the case of Antony, could very well be a recovery of genuine, interpersonal communio in the midst of the disintegration and dehumanization of the culture of death. Such communio is achievable, but only with the renunciation of worldliness, the practice of self-discipline, and an intrepid confrontation with the Enemy.