The East and West unite, to-day, in honouring St.Antony, the Father of Cenobites. The Monastic Life existed before his time, as we know from in-disputable testimony; but he was the first Abbot,because he was the first to bring Monks under the permanent government of one Superior or Father.
Antony began with seeking solely his own sanctification; he was known only as the wonderful Solitary, against whom the wicked spirits waged an almost continued battle: but, in course of time, men were attracted to him by his miracles and by the desire of their own perfection ; this gave him Disciples; he permitted them to cluster round his cell; and Monasteries thus began to be built in the desert. The age of the Martyrs “was near its close; the persecution under Dioclesian, which was to be the last, was over
as Antony entered on the second half of his course: and God chose this time for organising a new force in the Church. The Monastic Life was brought to bear upon the Christian world; the Ascetics, as they were called, not even such of them as were consecrated — were not a sufficient element of power. Monasteries were built in every direction, in solitudes and in the very cities; and the Faithful had but to look at these communities living in the fervent and literal fulfillment of the Counsels of Christ, and they felt themselves encouraged to obey the Precepts. The apostolic traditions of continual prayer and penance were perpetuated by the Monastic system; it secured the study of the Sacred Scriptures and Theology ; and the Church herself would soon receive from these arsenals of intellect and piety her bravest defenders, her holiest Prelates, and her most zealous Apostles. Yes, the Monastic Life was to be and give all this to the Christian world, for the example of St. Antony had given her a bias to usefulness. If there ever were a Monk to whom the charms of solitude and the sweetness of contemplation were dear, it was our Saint; and yet, they could not keep him in his desert, when he could save souls by a few days spent in a noisy city. Thus, we find him in the streets of Alexandria, when the pagan persecution was at its height; he came to encourage the Christians in their martyrdom. Later on, when that still fiercer foe of Arianism was seducing the Faith of the people, we again meet the great Abbot in the same capital, this time, preaching to its inhabitants, that the Word is consubstantial to the Father, proclaiming the Nicene faith, and keeping up the Catholics in orthodoxy and resolution. There is another incident in the life of St. Antony, which tells in the same direction, inasmuch as it shows how an intense interest in the Church must ever be where
the Monastic Spirit is. We are alluding to our Saint’s affection for the great St. Athanasius, who, on his part, reverenced the Patriarch of the Desert, visited him, promoted the Monastic Life to the utmost of his power, used to say that he considered the great hope of the Church to be in the good discipline of Monasticism, and wrote the Life of his dear St. Antony.
But, to whom is due the glory of the Monastic Institute, with which the destinies of the Church were, from that time forward, to be so closely connected, as that the period of her glory and power was to be when the monastic element flourished, and the days of her affliction were to be those of its decay? Who was it that put into the heart of Antony and his disciples the love of that poor and unknown, yet ever productive, life? It is Jesus, the humble Babe of Bethlehem. To him, then, wrapt in his swaddling-clothes, and yet the omnipotent God, be all the glory! It is time to hear the account of some of the virtues and actions of the great St. Antony, given by the Church in her Office of his Feast.
Antony was born in Egypt, of noble and christian parents, who left him an orphan at an early age. Having, one day, entered a Church, he heard these words of the Gospel being read: If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell all thou hast, and give to the poor. He took them as addressed to himself, and thought it his duty to obey these words of Christ his Lord. Selling therefore his possessions, he distributed all the money among the poor. Being freed from these obstacles, he resolved on leading on earth a heavenly life. But at his entrance on the perils of such a combat, he felt, that besides the shield of faith, wherewith he was armed, he must needs fortify himself with the other virtues; and so ardent was his desire to possess them, that whomsoever he saw excelling in any virtue, him did he study to imitate.
Nothing, therefore, could exceed his continency and vigilance. He surpassed all in
patience, meekness, mercy, humility, manual labour, and the study of the Sacred Scriptures. So great was his aversion for the company of, or conversation with, heretics, especially the Arians, that he used to say, that we ought not even to go near them. He lay on the ground, when necessity obliged him to sleep. As to fasting, he practiced it with so much fervour, that his only nourishment was bread seasoned with salt, and he quenched his thirst with water; neither did he take this his food and drink until sun-set, and frequently abstained from it altogether, for two successive days. He very frequently spent the whole night in prayer. Antony became so valiant a soldier of God, that the enemy of mankind, ill-brooking such extraordinary virtue, attacked him with manifold temptations; but the Saint overcame them all by fasting and prayer. Neither did his victories over Satan make him heedless, for he knew how innumerable are the devil’s artifices for injuring souls.
Knowing this, he betook himself into one of the largest deserts of Egypt, where such was his progress in Christian perfection, that the wicked spirits, whose attacks grew more furious as Antony’s resistance grew more resolute, became the object of his contempt, so much so, indeed, that he would sometimes taunt them for their weakness. When encouraging his disciples to fight against the devil, and teaching them the arms wherewith they would vanquish him. He used often to say to them: “Believe me, Brethren, Satan dreads the waterings of holy men, and their prayers, and fasts, and voluntary poverty, and works of mercy, and humility, and, above all, their ardent love for Christ our Lord, at the mere sign of whose most holy Cross, he is disabled and put to flight.” So formidable was he to the devils, that many persons, in Egypt, who were possessed by them, were delivered by invoking Antony’s name. So great, too, was his reputation for sanctity, that Constantine the Great and his Sons wrote to him, commending themselves to his prayers. At length, having reached the hundred and fifth year of his age, and having received a countless number into his institute, he called his Monks together; and having instructed them how to regulate their lives according to christian perfection, he, venerated both for the miracles he had wrought, and for the holiness of his life, departed from this world to heaven, on the sixteenth of the Kalends of February (January 17).
The Churches of the West, during the Middle-Ages, have left us several Sequences in honour of St. Antony. They are to be found in the ancient Missals. As they are not, by any means, remarkable as liturgical pieces, we shall content ourselves with inserting only one, omitting the three which begin: Alone Confessor; — In hac die lætabunda; — Antonius humilis.
Let us piously proclaim the praises of Antony, and celebrate his name in sacred
Let us honour God’s Saint; and God, the author of all, be honoured in his Saints!
Antony despised, in obedience to the Gospel, the beauty, and riches, and honours of the world.
He fled into the desert, that he might not run at an uncertainty, in the race of this life.
Wonderful was his life. He was the celebrated hermit. But, soon does the crafty enemy
Wage war against him. The combat is fierce and oft renewed; but he is not vanquished by the devil’s attacks.
The demons scourge him with many blows, and his flesh is cruelly torn by the angry enemy.
But, a light shone down from heaven; and the sweet voice of God was heard speaking from above:
“Because thou hast bravely fought in the combat, thy name shall be published in every country.
The whole earth shall proclaim thy glory. Thou shalt be invoked against the disease of the Fire.“
This, O Antony! we see fulfilled, and the world resounds with thy name.
The devout servants of God call on thy name, and fervently pray to thee for help and protection.
Sometimes, again, it is in the appearance of a beautiful woman, and sometimes under the form of a piece of gold,
That the devil lays snares for the holy man: but, after all thy daring, O crafty tempter! thou art defeated in the fight.
Yea, vain are his thousand frauds and tricks; and all hell falls back bemoaning that one single-handed man has repelled them.
Roaring with rage, the enemy trembles before this venerable soldier, whose hand so roughly deals its blows.
The brave combatant resists these mighty enemies, and yet he wears no breast-plate such as soldiers use.
His drink is water, his bed the ground; these were his arms, and by these he conquered.
Herbs were his food; the palm-leaf gave him raiment; and his companions were the wild beasts of the wilderness.
He restrained lust by assiduous prayer, frequent manual labour, and short sleep.
He confutes the Arians and the profane Philosophers; he visits Paul the Hermit, nor was the journey fruitless or vain;
For he found him alive, and then saw his holy soul mounting up to heaven, and buried his body.
O Antony! thou art now in glory, with the Blessed, in the kingdom of light; show thy affectionate pity on us, who are here weighed down by the burden of the flesh.
Stretch out thy hand, lest the death of terrible hell seize upon us. Defend us from the burning distemper, and assist us to gain heaven when our life is spent.
The Greek Church is enthusiastic in her praises of St. Antony. We extract the following stanzas from her Menæa.
DIE XVII JANUARII
When, O Father! thou didst shut thyself in a sepulchre, with joy, for the love of Christ, thou didst most bravely endure the attacks of the demons, putting to flight, by prayer and charity, their smoke-like temptations; and the choirs of Angels applauding, cried out: Glory, O Antony! be to Him that strengthens thee.
Thou wast as another Elias, surrounded by thy glorious disciples, the new Eliseuses; to whom thou, their wise father, taken up as it were to heaven in a chariot, didst leave thy twofold grace; now, that they are thy ornament above, thou art mindful of all us who lovingly celebrate thy venerable feast, Antony!
Let us honour Antony, who was an Angel on earth, the man of God in heaven, the ornament of the world, the flower of good men and of virtues, the glory of Ascetics; for
being planted in the house of the Lord, he bloomed in perfect justice, and, as a cedar in the desert, he multiplied the flocks of Christ’s spiritual sheep, in holiness and justice.
O Antony! illumined by the rays of the Spirit ! when divine love consumed thee, and made thy soul take her flight to the summit thou didst long for of charity — then didst thou despise flesh and blood, and become a stranger to this world, in deep spirituality and peace united to Him, with whom thou wast filled. Then didst thou seek after true goods, and shine as a star reflecting light on our souls.
Thou that didst, by the love of the Holy Spirit, break the arrows and darts of the demons, laying open their malice and their snares to all men; thou that didst shine with the divine teachings, thou wast made, O Antony! the brightest luminary of Monks, the grandest glory of the desert, the ablest physician of the sick, the Archetype of virtue.
Professing on earth the life of an Ascetic, O Antony! thou didst deaden in the torrent of thy tears all the blows of thy passions. Thou art the holy and venerable ladder, that raises men to heaven; and thou healest of the infirmities of their passions them that cry to thee with faith: Rejoice, most richly gilded Star of the East, the lamp-bearer and shepherd of Monks! Rejoice, illustrious Saint, child of the desert, unshaken pillar of the Church! Rejoice, most glorious Chieftain! Rejoice, thou our glory, and brightest ornament of the whole earth!
God made thee a bright pillar solid in virtue, and a shade-giving cloud, to lead the way to such as, in the journey from earth to heaven, contemplate God. By the rod of the Cross, thou didst break up the sea of the passions; and changing the spiritual and difficult way to heaven into one that is easy, thou didst obtain, most blessed Antony! the incorruptible inheritance. Pray to that Christ, at whose throne thou assistest with the Angelic spirits, that he bestow his great mercy on our souls.
Leaving the distractions of this life, and carrying thy cross on thy shoulders, thou didst commit thy whole self to the Lord; and estranging thyself, Father! from the flesh and the world, thou wast admitted into intimate communication with the Holy Spirit; and therefore didst thou rouse up the people to fervour, emptying the cities of their inhabitants, and changing the desert into a City. O Antony, that bearest God within thee! beseech Christ our God, that he give remission of sin to all us who lovingly celebrate thy holy commemoration.
We unite, great Saint! with the Universal Church, in offering thee the homage of our affectionate veneration, and in praising our Emmanuel for the gifts he bestowed upon thee. How sublime a life was thine, and how rich in fruit were thy works ! Verily, thou art the Father of a great people, and one of the most powerful auxiliaries of the Church of God. We beseech thee, therefore, pray for the Monastic Order, that it may re-appear in all its ancient fervour; and pray for each member of the great Family. Fevers of the body have been often allayed by thy intercession, and we beg for a continuance of this thy compassionate aid — but the fevers of our soul are more dangerous, and we beg thy pity and prayers that we may be delivered from them. Watch over us, in the temptations, which the enemy is unceasingly putting in our way; pray for us, that we may be vigilant in the combat, prudent in avoiding dangerous occasions, courageous in the trial, and humble in our victory. The angel of darkness appeared to thee in a visible shape; but he hides himself, and his plots from us; here again, we beg thy prayers, that we be not deceived by his craft. May the fear of God’s judgments, and the thought of eternity, penetrate into the depth of our souls. May Prayer be our refuge in every necessity, and Penance our safe-guard against sin. But above all, pray that we may have that, which
thou didst counsel above all — the Love of Jesus — of that Jesus, who, for love of us, deigned to be born into this world, that so he might merit for us the graces wherewith we might triumph — of that Jesus, who humbled himself even so far as to suffer temptation, that so he might show as how we were to resist and fight.
This text is taken from The Liturgical Year, authored by Dom Prosper Gueranger (1841-1875)