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THE LESSER-KNOWN ANTHONY – Solitary struggles

Aurelio Porfiri

Many years ago, during one of my first stays in Macau, I was asked to direct a choir for the feast of Saint Anthony in June. I said that I was happy to be able to celebrate St Anthony of Padua with them; then my Portuguese interlocutor said: “You wanted to say Saint Anthony from Lisbon.” We talked about the same saint, but nationalities played an important role.

But of another Anthony, whom the Church celebrates on January 17, little is known, even if it has a certain popularity in popular devotion. Saint Anthony the Abbot (or Saint Anthony the Hermit) was a great figure of Egyptian monasticism. He is known at the popular level as a protector of animals and for the “fire of St Anthony” (herpes zoster), a skin disease that also makes him the protector from all skin diseases.

Living in the fourth century, he chose to follow God in a radical way, the way of the desert and of solitude. A choice that did not spare him from the fight against the devil and from the fight against his own weaknesses and temptations. It is thought that the life of those who choose solitude and prayer must be all peace and love, but in reality it is when there is solitude that the inner voices begin to come out more powerfully. The great art of the hermit is that of self-domination.

In his book Etica generale della sessualità (1992), Cardinal Carlo Caffarra expressed himself on self-mastery: “Those who are intemperate in eating and drinking and feel a strong impulse to the pleasures of the table can ‘stop’ this dynamism through a rational comparison between the good (pleasant) linked to food and drink and the physical well-being of health: and certainly this rational judgment can be the basis for an act of self-mastery. However, since it is a comparison of goods between which there is no infinite distance, the consequent self-mastery (and integration) is always fragile and unstable. If a medicine was invented to avoid those bad consequences on health, self-domination would most likely cease. If, on the contrary, the arrest is accomplished through a rational comparison between the good (pleasant) linked to food and drink and the moral good of temperance, since this goodness is simply such, absolute and unconditional, self-transcendence is perfect and any self-domination is perfect. If it is a believer, he sees the infinite beauty present in the following of the tempering Christ, and the self-transcendence is even more perfect” (my translation). Only he who knows how to transcend himself to ascend to the heights of God can enjoy the vision which consists in the infinite beauty of Christ. But it is not for everyone. And even Anthony, as mentioned, he had to struggle not a little.

A text by Antonio Borrelli on offers us this description: “After a few years of this experience, during the early years, hard trials began for him. Obscene thoughts tormented him, doubts assailed him about the opportunity of such a solitary life, not followed by the mass of men nor by the clergymen. The instinct of the flesh and the attachment to material goods, which he had tried to suppress in those years, returned to being overpowering and uncontrollable. He then asked for help from other ascetics, who told him not to be afraid, but to go forward with confidence, because God was with him. They also advised him to get rid of all ties and material possessions, to retire to a more solitary place. Thus, covered just by a rough cloth, Anthony took refuge in an ancient tomb carved into the rock of a hill, around the village of Coma. A friend occasionally brought him some bread; for the rest, he had to make do with berries and herbs from the fields. In this place, the first temptations took place with terrifying visions and noise. In addition, he went through a period of terrible spiritual darkness: he overcame it by persevering in faith, doing God’s will day by day, as his teachers had taught him. When at last Christ revealed himself to him, the hermit asked: ‘Where were you? Why did you not appear from the beginning to put an end to my suffering?’ He heard him reply: ‘Antonio, I was here with you and I was witnessing your fight …’”  (my translation).

Life is a struggle between good and evil and you can escape far from the world, but never from yourself. This is the good battle of which St Paul spoke to us. A constant effort to live, to try to win yourself and tend towards that perfection that God requires of us. Still St Paul spoke to us of having completed the race, this idea of life as an effort (running makes you tired). But this effort does not see God absent, but struggles with us. In another beautiful text by Cardinal Caffarra (Vangelo della vita e cultura della morte 1992) this beautiful image is given: “The Gospel of life is in the first place an act of God himself: his decision that takes shape in a specific concrete story, the human history of the Son made man. In front of a man who has fallen into a stream of water and is unable to swim and therefore destined to certain death, those on the shore can do three things to save him. Either teach him how to swim, in the hope that he has time to learn it and the strength to do it; or he throws a rope, hoping he can take it and have the strength to hold it tight to the shore; or, finally, he throws himself into the current, embracing him with all his strength and drags him to the shore, hoping that he will not break free. The man, each of us (as we shall see later), finds himself immersed in the current that drags him to sure death, incapable as we are to swim. God has not been content with the shore of his blessed and sure eternity of teaching man, to each of us, how to swim, what is the way of salvation. In his despair, man had neither the time to feel this doctrine, nor the strength to put it into practice. God has not even been content to throw a rescue rope into the water: man, each of us, is too tired to cling. God has thrown himself into the water. He shared our condition of desperate and devoted to death. He left his shore, blissful and firm, and immersed himself in our treacherous and overwhelming waters. He embraced the man (‘with his Incarnation the Son of God himself has joined in a certain way to every man’) and carried him to his shore: on the shore of his eternal bliss. ‘O admirable exchange – exclaims the Christian liturgy – the Creator took a soul and a body and was born of a Virgin, made man without the work of a man gave us his divinity’ (Octave of Christmas, II Vespers, 1a antiphon). The gift of his divinity, the arrival of the ‘firm earth’ of Being and of Life, happens precisely, originally in the fact of his becoming man. He did not teach us to swim; he has freed us from the waters” (my translation).

Despite being in the water, St Anthony never stopped feeling the presence of God, a presence that is felt more strongly in the radicality of an important choice. And this presence is felt especially if one becomes able to rely on God, even when it seems difficult. In the stories of the fathers of the desert, there is this about Anthony: “One day the holy father Anthony, while he was sitting in the desert, was taken by despair and dense darkness of thoughts. And he said to God: ‘O Lord! I want to save myself, but thoughts prevent me. What can I do in my affliction?’ Now, leaning a little, Antonio sees another like him, who is sitting and working, then interrupts the work, stands up and prays, then he sits up again to weave ropes, and then he gets up and prays. He was an angel of the Lord, sent to correct Anthony and give him strength. And he heard the angel saying, ‘Do this and you will be safe.’ On hearing those words, he was filled with great joy and courage: he did so and saved himself (76b, PJ VII, 1). Father Anthony, turning his gaze to the abyss of God’s judgments, asked: ‘O Lord, how come some die young, some very old? Why are some poor, and others rich? Why are the wicked rich and the righteous poor?’ And a voice came to him saying, ‘Anthony, be careful of yourself. These are judgments of God: it does not help you to know them’ (76c, PJ XV, 1)” (my translation). In short, do not cease to pray even if you are in the whirlpools of the current and you feel like sinking. Divo Barsotti said: “Do not let yourself be tempted. Looking at the bottom of our weakness, considering too much our misery is dangerous – the abyss attracts us and draws us down. Look at God” (Amatissimo dal Signore …). This gaze at God made Anthony a saint. And there is no other way than this.

At the moment of dying, as we are told in his life written by his disciple Anastasio, among other things he said: “I, as it is written, I leave by the way of the fathers. I see the Lord calls me. You be vigilant, do not let your long asceticism get lost, but be careful to keep your concern alive as if you were only beginning now. You know the pitfalls of demons, you know how fierce and yet weak they are. Do not fear them, therefore, but always breathe Christ and have faith in him. Live as if you were to die every day, watch over yourselves and remember the exhortations you heard from me” (my translation). He could not have used more beautiful words.


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