THE YOUNG EGYPTIAN was on his way to church. He came from a fairly wealthy family and was brought up in a godly way. By the time he was 20, his parents had died, leaving him to care for the estate and his only sister. It was now six months after his parents’ death, and on his way to church his thoughts turned to how the apostle Paul had given up everything to follow Jesus and how the early Christians had sold all their possessions to share with the needy.
It was in this reflective frame of mind that he entered the church. The Gospel reading for that day included Christ’s words to a young man: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. en come, follow me” (Mt. 19:21). The words spoke directly to him, as if the Lord Himself was speaking to him, and young Antony (for that was his name) was astounded.
It was such a profound experience for him that he immediately left and began to give his inherited land to the needy among his fellow-villagers. He sold the rest of his possessions and gave the proceeds to the poor after keeping some of it for his sister. When Antony went to church again, he heard further words of Jesus being read: “Do not worry about tomorrow” (Mt. 6:34). Again the words had direct power over him and he left church and gave away even the small amount he had kept for his sister, entrusted her to a convent, and began to live as a hermit outside his village, solely dependent on God and pursuing Him with all his heart through ascetic disciplines.
Eventually the desert and lonely mountains became his home and sanctuary, and Antony pioneered the monastic tradition. He lived a long life of faithful prayer and died at the age of 110. During this time, many sought him for his godly wisdom, for he became well-known as a living saint. Whenever he felt his solitude aﬀected by the line of visitors, he would retreat to a more remote part of the desert to protect his solitary life with God. is did not mean that he shunned people who genuinely needed his counsel, but whatever ministry he did was deeply rooted in a solitary life of prayer and spiritual struggle in the presence of God.
One of those who visited him was Athanasius, the illustrious bishop of Alexandria, who was so deeply moved by the example of Antony that he wrote a book on him, which became well-known in the ancient world and caused the rise of monasticism in the Christian world. Reading this book ( e Life of Antony) is itself a deeply life-changing experience. We can take note of some of the lessons that can be learned from it.
• CHRISTIAN DISCIPLESHIP is a deadly serious matter that demands our wholehearted and total response. Christ’s call is a radical one and involves going to the roots of our lives’ sources and movements. Failure to take the Christian life seriously will result in self-deception and destruction.
• PAYING ATTENTION TO THE SOUL is of utmost importance. The world is a big distraction, and it is good for the soul to be regularly detoxified from the ways of the world. Failure to do this will result in poisoned and imprisoned souls. Many Christians followed Antony and his monastic followers because they found diﬃculty living in a heavily worldly (and illusive) environment and in churches into which this deadly environment had seeped.
• THE DEVIL AND HIS DEMONS are a strong reality and they have a bag of eﬀective tricks that they regularly use to trip and trap Christians. Antony had extensive and disturbing struggles with the demonic, from which we can learn much concerning what we are up against, and how this makes our minds, hearts and souls to be a spiritual battlefield.
• THE REALITY OF SIN and its stubborn resilience in the depths of our hearts, often disguising itself as piety, must be noted and responded to if we are to grow spiritually. As we journey with Jesus, the Spirit will pull out many sins, roots and all, from our hearts. is comes as we obey Jesus without reservations, practise discernment, and understand spiritual realities.
• THE RESULT OF DAILY DISCIPLINE, struggle, and prayer is Christlikeness. is will be seen in the virtuous life of humility and love, compassion and righteousness.
The above are but some of the important lessons we can learn from Antony. Are there modern followers of Antony today? Yes, most of them live in monastic communities, while a rare few live as hermit monks (like Antony did). One such monk, a Coptic monk named Father Lazarus, lives near Antony’s original cave; he observes the liturgy in that cave on Saturdays and lives nearby in another cave. Originally an Australian academic and atheist, this man began some real soul-searching after his mother died. His journey brought him to Egypt and to life as a Christian hermit.
Do we need to go to the desert or live in caves to experience God deeply, for deserts and caves have an important place in biblical spirituality? Living in highly urban and crowded environments, it is diﬃcult to find a desert, but we can make it an inner experience. is means that we must find regular times when we can practise solitude and silence in God’s presence, where we can detoxify ourselves from the deadly influences and stimuli from the world – by fasting from loose speech, stifling company, and meaningless action. Then we can deal with the sin in our soul and in our world and do battle with the spiritual forces that act in collusion with these and operate against our souls.
The desert has a way of stripping us of the many props in life and superficial masks and trophies of life, and bringing us to the core questions. It shows us who God is and who we are, forces us to face our self-deceptions, illusions and addictions. It is good for the soul.
Lent is desert time. May God do His healing and redemptive work in us, as we struggle with sin and darkness, and find God’s grace, saving presence and life.