January 17, 2014

Saint Anthony the Great as a Model for our Lives

St. Anthony the Great (Feast Day - January 17)

By Protopresbyter Fr. George Papavarnavas

Saint Anthony, the professor of the desert, is one of the few who has received the epithet "Great". Truly he was a great athlete of spiritual athletics and triumphant in his struggles against delusion, sin, the devil and the many-formed passions. His life, which was authored by another with the epithet "Great", his contemporary Saint Athanasius, the Archbishop of Alexandria, is beyond wondrous and enviable. The study of it should be food for all those who crave to experience the grandeur of life in Christ.

Anthony the Great, with his asceticism and unceasing prayer, reached the pinnacle of spiritual life and acquired true wisdom. He calls himself "idiot" and was uneducated, but he had as a teacher the wisdom from above by the Spirit. From this wisdom, enlightened and inspired, he gave the most wise responses to various Christians who sought to benefit their souls, as seen in many parts of the book called Gerontikon. Apart from these he also left the "One Hundred and Seventy Chapters", which are included in the Philokalia and offer great benefit to those that read them.

Asceticism is the effort a person makes to apply the will of God in their life. It is an effort to transform their passions, to be purified of their passions, that they may love "with all their soul and heart" both God and mankind. For it is impossible to love anyone truly while dominated by the passions and especially by selfishness, which oppresses man and makes life difficult. Self-love is the irrational love for ourselves and from this, as from a mother, is born all the passions, such as pride, vanity, sensuality, avarice, etc.

In our days, we often talk about love, peace and friendship between people and nations, and other things like this. All this is good, but the question is how can we love others and be at peace with them while we are enslaved to the passions and cannot attain peace even with ourselves? Love, according to Saint Maximus the Confessor, is the grandchild of dispassion. It is born and nurtured within a heart which has been purified, or at least is struggling persistently and laboriously to be purified from the passions. Then love is selfless and resilient in adversity and difficulties. It does not have an expiration date, but lasts beyond the grave, it is "coeval with the ages". In contrast, passionate love is false and lasts as long as it is able to serve and feed or be fed from the passions. And how is it possible to have strength and durability, as conditions of life change, interests change and the human body wears out and is altered?

The biggest problem of transition societies are human passions. Passionate people cause huge problems in the family and social environment, but also wars and messiness around the world when it comes to people who hold office and power. As emphasized by His Eminence our Metropolitan Hierotheos: "Sin has social implications. Sick people make social institutions sick and then social institutions make people more sick." Therefore, the change of human societies for the better, or rather their humanization, requires the spiritual regeneration of their citizens, which can happen through asceticism, prayer, the sacramental life and general obedience to the Church and ecclesiastical institutions.

Saint Anthony, by his spiritual struggles against the spirits of wickedness and pride, acquired lofty humility. However, God revealed that there was a shoemaker in Alexandria who surpassed him in the spiritual life, which was sent to teach him his spiritual way of life. And as Elder Sophrony Sakharov notes: "He learned from this to think inwardly: 'Everyone can be saved, but I alone am separated'." These words can only be endured by those who have conquered the extreme height of humility.

Humility is the mother of love and all the other virtues. The Venerable One loved everyone sacrificially and prayed for the entire inhabited world. Characteristic is the way he communicated with people, and especially with the afflicted people. With his princely love he truly comforted and supported them.

Once a theologian/writer visited him, named Didymus, who was blind, but as it appears the eyes of his soul were opened and, among other things, Anthony said: "Do not be upset or troubled, Didymus, by the fact that you are missing your physical eyes, because you lack such eyes with which flies and mosquitoes can be seen. You have such eyes that are possessed by the angels, which God has determined and His Light occupies." This incident shows the pastoral way of the Saints. They do not disappoint people nor drive them to despair, but rather they increase their love for life, and the life in Christ, and repel from the soul the mist, increase their joy, strengthen their faith and increase hope.

I would like to conclude this article with the advice/exhortation of Saint Anthony: "It is needed that we run to be healed of the passions of the soul, because in the future we will be judged before the face of God, so that we do not find ourselves (there) losers and embarrassed."

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "ΟΣΙΟΣ ΑΝΤΩΝΙΟΣ Ο ΜΕΓΑΣ", January 2003. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.