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January 17, 2018

The Seven Great Letters of Saint Anthony the Great (Letter 1)

"Anthony the monk, whose life Athanasius bishop of Alexandria wrote a long work upon, sent seven letters in Coptic to various monasteries, letters truly apostolic in idea and language, and which have been translated into Greek. The chief of these is To the Arsenoites. He flourished during the reign of Constantinus and his sons." (St. Jerome, On Illustrious Men, 88)

Letter I : A Letter of Anthony the Solitary and Chief of Solitaries 
to the brethren dwelling in every place

First of all – peace to your love in the Lord!

I think, brethren, that the souls which draw near to the love of God are of three sorts, be they male or female. There are those who are called by the law of love which is in their nature, and which original good implanted in them at their first creation. The word of God came to them, and they doubted not at all but followed it readily, like Abraham the Patriarch: for when God saw that it was not from the teaching of men that he had learnt to love God, but from the law implanted in the nature of his first compacting, God appeared to him and said, ‘Get thee out from thy country and from thy kindred and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee.’ (Gen. 12:1) And he went nothing doubting, but was ready for his calling. He is the pattern of this approach, which still persists in those who follow in his footsteps. Toiling and seeking the fear of God in patience and quiet, they achieve the true manner of life, because their souls are ready to follow the love of God. This is the first kind of calling.

The second calling is this. There are men who hear the written Law testifying of pains and torments prepared for the wicked, and of the promises prepared for those who walk worthily in the fear of God; and by the testimony of the written Law their thoughts are roused up to seek to enter into the calling, as David testifies when he says: ‘The law of the Lord is undefiled, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, and giveth wisdom unto the simple.’ (Ps. 19:7) And in another place he says, ‘The opening of thy words giveth light and understanding unto the simple’ (Ps. 119:130); and much else, all of which we cannot mention now.

The third calling is this. There are souls which at first were hard of heart and persisted in the works of sin; and somehow the good God in his mercy sends upon such souls the chastisement of affliction, till they grow weary, and come to their senses, and are converted, and draw near, and enter into knowledge, and repent with all their heart, and they also attain the true manner of life, like those others of whom we have already spoken.

These are the three approaches by which souls come to repentance, till they attain to the grace and calling of the Son of God.

Now, as regards those who have entered with all their heart, and have made themselves despise all afflictions of the flesh, valiantly resisting all the warfare that rises against them, until they conquer – I think that first of all, the Spirit calls them, and makes the warfare light for them, and sweetens for them the works of repentance, showing them how they ought to repent in body and soul, until He has taught them how to be converted to God who created them. And he delivers to them works whereby they may constrain their soul and their body, that both may be purified and enter together into their inheritance.

First the body is purified by much fasting, by many vigils and prayers, and by the service which makes a man to be straitened in body, cutting off from himself all the lusts of the flesh. And the Spirit of Repentance is made his guide in these things, and tests him by means of them, lest the enemy should turn him back again.

Then the Spirit that is his guide begins to open the eyes of his soul, to give to it also repentance, that it may be purified. The mind also starts to discriminate between the body and the soul, as it begins to learn from the Spirit how to purify both by repentance. And, taught by the Spirit, the mind becomes our guide to the labours of body and soul, as it begins to learn from the Spirit how to purify both by repentance. And, taught by the Spirit, the mind becomes our guide to the labours of body and soul, showing us how to purify them. And it separates us from all the fruits of the flesh which have been mingled with all the members of the body since the first transgression, and brings back each of the members of the body to its original condition, having nothing in it from the spirit of satan. And the body is brought under the authority of the mind, being taught by the Spirit, as St. Paul says: ‘I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection’. (1 Cor. 9:17) For the mind purifies it from food and from drink and from sleep, and in a word from all its motions, until through its own purity it frees the body even from the natural emission of seed.

And, as I think, there are three types of motion of the body. There is that which is implanted in the body by nature, compacted with it in its first creation; but this is not operative if the soul does not will it, save only that it signifies its presence through a passionless movement in the body. And there is another motion, when a man stuffs his body with food and drink, and the heat of the blood from the abundance of nourishment rouses up warfare in the body, because of our greed. For this cause the Apostle said, ‘Be not drunk with wine, where is excess.’ (Eph. 5:18) And again the Lord enjoined His disciples, ‘Take heed lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting and drunkenness’ (Luke 21:34 ) or pleasure. Especially those who seek the measure of purity ought to be saying, ‘I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection.’ (1 Cor. 9:27) And there is a third motion, from the evil spirits which tempt us out of envy, and seek to defile those who are setting out on the way of purity.

And now, my beloved children, in these three types of motion, if the soul exerts itself and perseveres in the testimony which the Spirit bears within the mind, both soul and body are purified from this kind of sickness. But if in regard to these three motions the mind spurns the testimony which the Spirit bears within it, evil spirits take authority over it, and sow in the body all the passions, and stir up and quicken strong war against it; till the soul grows weary and sick, and cries out and seeks from whence help may come to it, and repents, and obeys the commandments of the Spirit, and is healed. Then it is persuaded to make its rest in God, and that He is its peace.

These things I have said to you, beloved, that you may know how it is required of a man to repent in body and soul, and to purify them both. And if the mind conquers in this contest, then it prays in the Spirit, and beings to expel from the body the passions of the soul which come to it from its own will. Then the Spirit has a loving partnership with the mind, because the mind keeps the commandments which the Spirit has delivered to it. And the Spirit teaches the mind how to heal all the wounds of the soul, and to rid itself of every one, those which are mingled in the members of the body, and other passions which are altogether outside the body, being mingled in the will. And for the eyes it sets a rule, that they may see rightly and purely, and that in them there may be no guile. After that it sets a rule also for the ears, how they may hear in peace, and no more thirst or desire to hear ill speaking, nor about the falls and humiliations of men; but how they may rejoice to hear about good things, and about the way every man stands firm and about the mercy shown to the whole creation, which in these members once was sick.

Then again the Spirit teaches the tongue its own purity, since the tongue was sick with a great sickness; for the sickness which afflicted the souls was expressed in speech through the tongue, which the soul used as its organ, and in this way a great sickness and wound was inflicted upon it, and especially through this member – the tongue – was the soul stricken. The Apostle James testifies to us and says, ‘If any man thinketh himself to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain.’ (Jas. 1:26) And in another place he says, ‘The tongue is a little member, and defileth the whole body’ (Jas. 3:5) – and much besides, which I cannot all quote now. But if the mind is strengthened with the strength that it receives from the Spirit, first it is purified and sanctified, and learns discrimination in the words that it delivers to the tongue, that they may be without partiality and without self-will, and so the saying of Solomon is fulfilled, ‘My words are spoken from God, there is nothing forward nor perverse in them.’ (Cf. Prov. 8:8) And in another place he says, ‘The tongue of the wise is healing’ (Prov. 12:18 ); and much besides.

After this again the Spirit heals the motions of the hands, which once were moved in a disorderly way, following the will of the mind. But now the Spirit instructs the mind in their purification, that it may labour with them in almsgiving and in prayer; and the word is fulfilled concerning them which says, ‘Let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice’ (Ps. 141:2); and in another place, ‘The hands of the diligent make rich.’ (Prov. 10:4)

After this again the Spirit purifies the belly in its eating and drinking; for, so long as the desires of the soul were active within it, it was never satisfied in its greedy longing for food and drink, and in this way demons made their onslaught on the soul. About this the Spirit speaks by David, ‘With him that hath a high look and a proud heart I would not eat.’ (Cf. Ps. 101:5) And to those who seek purity in this, the Spirit assigns rules of purification, to eat in moderation sufficient for the strength of the body, but in so doing not to have the taste of concupiscence; and in this way the saying of Paul is fulfilled, ‘Whether ye eat or drink, or whatever ye do, do all to the glory of God.’ (1 Cor. 10:31)

Then in regard to the sexual thoughts which are moved from below the belly, again the mind is taught by the Spirit, and makes discrimination between the tree types of motion of which we spoke above, and perseveres in their purification, as the Spirit helps and strengthens it; and all the motions are quenched by the power of the Spirit, which makes peace in the whole body, and cuts off from it all passions. This is what St. Paul says: ‘Mortify your members which are upon the earth, fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil concupiscence’, and so on. (Col. 3:5)

After all this, it gives to the feet also their purification. At one time they were not making their steps aright according to God; but now the mind, being unified under the authority of the Spirit, effects their purification, that they should walk according to its will, going and ministering in good works, so that the whole body may be changed and renewed and be under the authority of the Spirit. And I think that when the whole body is purified, and has received the fullness of the Spirit, it has received some portion of that spiritual body which it is to assume in the resurrection of the just.

This I have said concerning the sicknesses of the soul which are mingled with the members of the bodily nature in which the soul moves and works; and so the soul becomes guide to the evil spirits which by it have been working in the limbs of the body. But I have said that the soul has also other passions apart from the body; and this we will now demonstrate. Pride is a sickness of the soul apart from the body; so also are boastfulness, envy, hatred, impatience, sloth and the rest. But if the soul gives itself to God wholeheartedly, God has mercy upon it and gives it the Spirit of Repentance, which testifies to it about each sin, that it may not again draw near to them; and show it those who rise up against it and seek to prevent it separating itself from them, contending with it greatly that it may not abide in repentance. But if it endures and obeys the Spirit which counsels it to repentance, suddenly the Creator has mercy on the weariness of its repentance, and seeing its bodily toils, in much prayer and fasting and supplication and learning of the words of God, in renunciation of the world, in humility and tears and perseverance in contrition, then the merciful God, seeing its toil and submission, has pity upon it and delivers it.

The end of the letter which the holy Anthony sent to the brethren.