2nd Wednesday in Ordinary Time
Feast of St. Anthony
1Sam 17:32-33, 37, 40-51; Mk 3:1-6
Today we celebrate the feast of the father of Christian monasticism, St. Anthony of Egypt. He was born in the year 250 and died in 356 at the ripe old age of 105. Within a year of his death St. Athanasius, the Patriarch of Alexandria who had been his friend, wrote a biography of him that became very popular. It is still considered required reading in most programs of Christian monastic formation.
In the first part of the biography Anthony is shown doing battle with more than his fair share of demons. This could be somewhat of a turn-off to modern-day readers. It was written in a genre that was much more popular sixteen-hundred and fifty years ago than it is now. But I think these passages can still be relevant to persons of our own day. Who of us does not struggle with our own so-called “demons” – our areas of weakness, our issues, our character flaws, our times of temptation? Even though Anthony’s experiences sound a little bizarre, we can always view them symbolically in order to relate them to our own struggle with the dark side of ourselves. The liturgy seems to have this in mind, for in the prayer that Fr. Aelred will read at the end of Mass today we will hear, “Lord, you helped St. Anthony conquer the powers of darkness. May your sacrament strengthen us in our struggles with evil.”
The following story is from The Life of Anthony by St. Athanasius. It gives us a sampling of Anthony’s struggles with the forces of darkness.
When it was nighttime they made such a crashing noise that that whole place seemed to be shaken by a quake. The demons, as if breaking through the building’s four walls, and seeming to enter through them, were changed into the forms of beasts and reptiles. The place immediately was filled with the appearances of lions, bears, leopards, bulls, and serpents, asps, scorpions and wolves, and each of these moved in accordance with its form. The lion roared, wanting to spring at him; the bull seemed intent on goring; the creeping snake did not quite reach him; the onrushing wolf made straight for him-and altogether the sounds of all the creatures that appeared were terrible, and their ragings were fierce. Struck and wounded by them, Anthony’s body was subject to yet more pain. But unmoved and even more watchful in his soul he lay there, and he groaned because of the pain felt in his body, but being in control of his thoughts and as if mocking them, he said: “If there were some power among you, it would have been enough for only one of you to come. But since the Lord has broken your strength, you attempt to terrify me by any means with the mob; it is a mark of your weakness that you mimic the shapes of irrational beasts.” And again with boldness he said, “If you are able, and you did receive authority over me, don’t hold back, but attack. But if you are unable, why, when it is vain, do you disturb me? For faith in our Lord is for us a seal and a wall of protection.” So after trying many strategies, they gnashed their teeth because of him, for they made fools not of him, but of themselves.
In this circumstance also the Lord did not forget the wrestling of Anthony, but came to his aid. For when he looked up he saw the roof being opened, as it seemed, and a certain beam of light descending toward him. Suddenly the demons vanished from view, the pain of his body ceased instantly, and the building was once more intact. Aware of the assistance and both breathing more easily and relieved from the sufferings, Anthony entreated the vision that appeared, saying, “Where were you? Why didn’t you appear in the beginning, so that you could stop my distresses?” And a voice came to him: “I was here, Anthony, but I waited to watch your struggle. And now, since you persevered and were not defeated, I will be your helper forever, and I will make you famous everywhere.
For us too, the Lord is always at our side in the midst of our struggles, even though he may seem so far away. At times like those we may feel dirty and ugly and unlovable, but that’s when he’s the closest.