Some time ago, an affluent young man heard a Gospel reading which galvanised his life: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven”. He heard this as a call to abandon everything and head into the desert, to battle with demons in striving to live a more holy and Christ-centred life.
The year was around 370, and for the next 80 years Antony lived in isolated cells, fighting intense spiritual battles with the demonic realm. Lonely this may have been – but it so inspired Christians over the next few centuries that, at times, there were thousands of solitary monks doing battle in their desert cells. It is the same struggle for sanctification that led Cuthbert to the windswept Farne Islands, and Irish monks to isolation on the Skelligs, those rocky outposts in the Atlantic.
Early on he had an intense struggle with lust, or as he described it, the ‘spirit of fornication’; later on Antony’s spiritual enemy took on bodily form, and it was as if he had to fight wild beasts. Lest we think that this was just a selfish battle, the ethos of the desert movement was that the personal war for holiness was essential for learning to love one’s neigbour better.
The immensely readable ‘Life of Antony’, written by his near-contemporary Athanasius, highlights what it was that drew people to follow his example. After a period of twenty years, during which he remained confined to his desert cell, seeing almost no-one, a crowd came to visit and forcibly removed the door to his cell.
…When he saw the crowd, he was not annoyed, any more than he was elated at being embraced by so many people. He maintained utter equilibrium, like one guided by reason and steadfast in that which accords with nature. Through him the Lord healed many of those present who suffered from bodily ailments; others he purged of demons, and to Antony he gave grace of speech. Thus he consoled many who mourned, and others hostile to each other he reconciled in friendship, urging everyone in the world to love nothing above the love of Christ. And when he spoke and urged many to keep in mind the future goods and the affection in which we are held by God, who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, he persuaded many to take up the solitary life.
His influence was such that Greek philosophers also came to see him, despite his own lack of education – but they too were confounded. He challenged them as to why they were seeking him: “If you came to a foolish man, your toil is superfluous, but if you consider me wise, become as I am, because we must imitate what is good”.
Other Greek philosophers also sought him. To them he said,
For this too is a wonder: Your religion was never persecuted, and in every city it is honoured among men, and yet our doctrines flourish and increase beyond yours. Your views perish, although acclaimed and celebrated far and wide. But the faith and teaching of Christ, ridiculed by you and persecuted frequently by rulers, has filled the world.
There is so much in Antony’s life that seems alien to a western mindset – but perhaps it is we who are missing out. We have scant idea of what it is to battle with demons – we do well if we even recognise that there is a ‘spirit of fornication’! – yet neither do we know what it is to be persecuted.
In the western church there is an over-emphasis on a ‘bless me!’ spirituality. Thus there are strong Christians who are disappointed with God, because he appears not to be blessing them as they were led to expect. Antony, and the desert fathers who followed him, recognised that a big part of our call as believers is to live more sanctified and holy lives, and would have been baffled by the thought that we should wait around to be blessed. If we grasped this part of their teaching, we would be less disturbed by God not delivering when we expect him to. Perhaps also we would better understand the faith of believers in the persecuted church today, who for the love of the Gospel willingly give up the comfort of their lives knowing full well that their faith may lead to their death.
Antony’s life was lived in a world in which the Christian faith suffered wave after wave of persecution. For us in the west – and me as I write it – this background, and this story, is scary. However, the cost of our comfortable western lives may be that our spirituality is greatly impoverished. We need to hear again that Christ’s call is not just to receive his love, but to live lives of greater holiness.