Today is the feast of St. Antony of Egypt (c. 251–356), the patriarch of monasticism whose life of 105 years — 80 of those spent in the Egyptian desert — revolutionized the whole Christian world. His biography, written by his contemporary St. Athanasius of Alexandria, stands as one of the all time classics of Christian and spiritual literature. It’s filled with Antony’s endless and wild struggles with his own sins, with the demons, with maintaining ceaseless prayer and with the demands of Christian virtue. In the midst of his battles, as Antony would turn to prayer, God would simply affirm: “I am with you.”
What more could we want?
We also have a collection of Antony’s “sayings” that are very rich and have afforded me many hours of challenging reflection. Let me share one that I have found most profitable, one that has at least eased my sense of surprise when life gets tough:
Abba Anthony said to Abbe Poemen, “This is the Great Work of a man: always to take the blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath. Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Without temptation, no one can be saved.”
Temptation offers us the opportunity to practice heroism, great and small — to resist, to choose the good, to forge character and, most important of all, to turn to God in humility and cry out from the depths of our weakness for his assistance.
I think here of a priest, seasoned with experience, who said to a newly ordained priest who often fretted to him over his challenging new parish assignment: “You’re so lucky! A tough parish right off the bat…a free pass to sanctity! Me? My God, I got a saintly pastor and a pious parish. No such luck; I was not so fortunate.”
Best part, he meant every word of it.
Reminds me also of my former spiritual director, whom I often quote in this blog, who would say to me any time I would kvetch over my life’s hardships: “What’d you expect?”
I’d say back, “Do you really want to know?”
He never did.
St. Antony, come to our aid in time of temptation and beg for us the grace to make of every hardship a path to holiness. Amen.