The Desert Fathers: Anthony

Let us take a look and reflect a bit on the sayings and stories gathered under the name of Anthony. Since he is considered the “patriarch of Christian monks,” these sayings and stories have a certain added authority and significance. (We will ignore the Life of Anthony by Athanasius as this would complicate our task.) But first let us emphasize a few preliminary points:

a.) No one should feel that they must “like” the Desert Father sayings and stories. They are not everyone’s cup of tea, and there is no sense trying to force oneself to like them. But whether you’re not sure about them or whether you feel very much attracted to them, still a certain of amount of work needs to be done to “decode” their language. And then an enormous treasure-house of spiritual wisdom will open up.

b.) In the previous posting, in a kind of introduction to the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, I suggested that we look at an image of a bunch of concentric circles–as pictured below:


I suggested that this was the most apt visual representation of what is going on in the Desert Father sayings/stories. A mistake is to read them as “pointers,” as directional signals of some kind, pointing you in the way to go spiritually. Read them that way and you will eventually become disconcerted, puzzled, discouraged, even maybe disgusted with a seeming absurd triviality, and so on. However, these stories/sayings are not meant as formulas, as recipes, as directions, as a “cookbook” for the spiritual life, as “how to” manuals. You do not “line up your spiritual sights” along some seeming straight lines that they give you. Rather consider each story as a kind of circle in a large pattern of concentric circles about a common, mysterious center. The sayings/stories more or less “circle around” that center, some closer to the center, perhaps very close; some far from the center, perhaps very far indeed. With a little bit of spiritual wisdom you will begin to sense which stories/sayings are the close ones and which are the far ones. Now what is interesting is that in one’s growth and deepening and truly having an awakening of the heart, one will eventually be surprised at times to discover that what you thought was close and what was distant at the beginning of your spiritual journey, might now seem a bit different. So there is a kind of personal, subjective element there also. What you see in these stories may partly depend on where you are on the spiritual journey. Things can change! There are such surprises, a few.

c.) One implication of the above is that no story/saying should be isolated and read and interpreted in an isolated way. What is most important is the overall pattern of the sayings, and while one can and should focus on certain sayings, as we shortly will be doing, it is important to keep in mind the overall pattern and its Center.


Let us now plunge into that group of stories gathered under the name of Anthony(using Benedicta Ward’s translations). And let us begin by quoting from a letter that Abhishiktananda wrote to his sister just a few weeks before his ultimately fatal heart attack: “The other day in a Hindu ashram, I met a Christian monk who also lives in total poverty and goes from ashram to ashram, happy all the time, whether he has something to eat or not. Naturally he has no job. He doesn’t even have the formal status of sannyasi, but he is the most authentic Christian Indian monk I have met, though no one knows him. It is solitary monks such as this who will one day bring about the true Indian Christian monasticism….” Such was the journey of Anthony though in some ways the externals of his life were so different.


Consider Saying #38, the very last one: “And he said this, ‘If he is able to, a monk ought to tell his elders confidently how many steps he takes and how many drops of water he drinks in his cell, in case he is in error about it.'” Now a saying like this can really turn people off–on the surface it smacks of absurdity and obsession. And if someone just reading this would try to imitate it, soon he/she would become a thorough neurotic very likely! A saying like this should not bother us or concern us except to note that this is language within the context of a deep spiritual father/guru relationship which calls for a thorough uprooting of “self-possession.” It indicates the seriousness of that relationship as it extends over all one does and all one is–in other words we are not just talking about “spiritual direction” as generally practiced in the modern West. Such language makes sense only within the context of the non-dual guru-disciple relationship, and such a relationship can be very precarious and demanding as other stories illustrate also and there are plenty of warnings about “playing” at this or “pretending it.” Apart from that, though, one should not bother much with such a saying unless the Spirit has led one into such a relationship and then one’s guide will appropriately interpret the implied demands in such a life in an appropriate way for oneself.


Another view of this relationship can be found in Saying #27: “Three Fathers used to go and visit blessed Anthony every year and two of them used to discuss their thoughts and the salvation of their souls with him, but the third always remained silent and did not ask him anything. After a long time, Abba Anthony said to him, ‘You often come here to see me, but you never ask me anything,’ and the other replied, ‘It is enough for me to see you, Father.'” Here we begin to feel that we are “swimming in the depths”! The spiritual father/guru can and often does instruct the person coming to him. He can serve all kinds of functions as a matter of fact, depending on the circumstances and the condition of the person coming to him. Again I refer to that beautiful depiction of Fr. Zosima in Brothers Karamazov. A person may be coming just for some advice, but what they receive is a “taste” of what is at that Center. The authentic spiritual father will break through the duality of that master-disciple relationship not through “chuminess” or pretense but through his own realization of that Center. The same Center that is in the heart of the disciple; the same Center that is in the “in-between” them. And no words, no matter how profound, how learned, how pious can ever convey that Reality. Thus: “It is enough for me to see you, Father.”


Let us now consider Saying #1: “When the holy Abba Anthony lived in the desert he was beset by accidie, and attacked by many sinful thoughts. He said to God, ‘Lord, I want to be saved but these thoughts do no leave me alone; what shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?’ A short while afterwards, when he got up to go out, Anthony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and plaiting a rope, then getting up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct and reassure him. He heard the angel saying to him, ‘Do this and you will be saved.’ At these words Anthony was filled with joy and courage. He did this, and he was saved.” The very first thing we need to underline in this story is the word, “saved.” This is one of those very important words that keeps appearing in the Desert Father sayings, but note the peculiar resonance it has here(and in all the other locations it appears). I mean what kind of “salvation” are we talking about here? Evangelical Christians should feel a bit apprehensive because “salvation” here doesn’t seem to rely on “believing in Jesus,” etc. Yes, there is mention of “sinful thoughts,” but the emphasis is on the mere presence of such thoughts…it is the very flow of such thoughts that seems to be the problem. So the concern here is not so much for a “theological salvation” as for something much more existential, something experienced here and now. So what does that mean? Anthony is trying to live a life totally oriented to God, mind and heart attuned to the Ultimate Unnameable Mystery. There is a vector, a direction for that orientation which remains beyond conceptuality–thus it is not easily graspable by the mind or the emotions. And we are afterall body and mind and psyche and all that implies, filled with mostly unruly feelings, emotions, desires, fears, neurotic tendencies, chaotic responses, etc. etc. All this will tend to scatter our focus. And believe me we will not be successful in merely forcing a kind of imaginary attentiveness. Largely this inner chaos is the result of having a kind of “mistaken identity,” of answering the question “Who am I” in everything we do and say and think in an illusory kind of way. This is one of the points of the Awakening of the Heart, and there is a whole pedagogy that goes with that, some very simple, some not so simple. Thus, for example, the devout Muslim(and Sufi) will face Mecca five times daily in prayer. It is not that God is in Mecca and not right there where the Sufi is, but that his body is learning and reinforcing that “inner directionality” and attentiveness that is called for that leads to the Great Awakening which abides in his prayer. So our story here teaches us first of all that we will be “afflicted” by our inner chaos which will then turn us in all kinds of directions and that slip us deeper and deeper into inner chaos where we are at the mercy of whatever feelings rise up; secondly that we will need to learn how to deal with that; and third that it may involve some very simple, practical steps that lead to this “salvation.”


And here is another story about “being saved”–Saying #19: “The brethren came to the Abba Anthony and said to him, ‘Speak a word; how are we to be saved?’ The old man said to them, ‘You have heard the Scriptures. That should teach you how.’ But they said, ‘We want to hear from you too, Father.’ Then the old man said to them, ‘The Gospel says, ‘if anyone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.’ They said, ‘We cannot do that.’ The old man said, ‘If you cannot offer the other cheek, at least allow one cheek to be struck.’ ‘We cannot do that either,’ they said. So he said, ‘If you are not able to do that, do not return evil for evil,’ and they said, ‘We cannot do that either.’ Then the old man said to his disciple, ‘Prepare a little brew of corn for these invalids. If you cannot do this, or that, what can I do for you? What you need is prayers.'” What a remarkable story! A whole book could be written on this story alone! I will touch only a few bases here. So we have a few “beginners” in the spiritual life(meaning “us”!!) and they want to know “how to be saved.” The first thing to note is that they seek instruction and direction from a living person, a book will not do, even a holy book: “Speak a word….” Indeed Anthony does something that Evangelicals would largely approve: he still points them in the direction of the Scriptures. Basically he is saying, you have all you need right there in the Holy Book. They don’t deny that assertion; they merely say: we want to hear from you TOO! The words of the Book have to pass through the lens of a true life in order for us to see what they really mean. There are words, and then there are words! We want to know what “you” made of those words…. (By reference, note again the earlier story where we had the visitor say to Anthony he didn’t even need his words, all he had to do was to see him!—guess which story is closer to that mysterious Center?!!) Now comes a difficult point to make: ideally speaking the spiritual life is best learned from another human being who has made that journey and is well on the way. But for most of us such figures are simply not available. We get along with a little bit of help from our friends, perhaps with a bit of help from someone more experienced than ourselves. Very, very few have an “Anthony figure” in their life. Does that mean that they are cut off from the depths of the spiritual life. Hardly. Let me use a Hasidic story told by Martin Buber to make a point: Long time ago there was a deeply mystical Hasidic Zaddik who, whenever his community was in peril, would go to a certain spot in the woods and pray some kind of mystical prayer and the community was always saved. Long after his death, when that community was again threatened, his disciples would go to the same spot in the woods to pray that prayer but somehow they forgot the exact words but it was enough that they went there and the community was saved. Still many years later, again in a time of danger, the disciples of the disciples decided that they would seek Heavenly help in the same manner. However, they not only forgot the words of the prayer but they also forgot the place in the woods. They stayed home and simply repeated the old story, and the narrative concludes, “And it was enough.” The community was saved. Something similar holds for us. We very likely do not have contact with a living example of “Anthony,” but if we “repeat” his story it will be enough! Such is the importance of these stories and the value of penetrating their meaning. Now the next thing we can note is exactly what Anthony gives them. Truly he does not veer from the Scriptures; he does not speak on his own authority, but note what he chooses from the Gospel. Nothing about belief or faith, but a very concrete existential demand about turning the other cheek–from the Sermon on the Mount. So Anthony is truly evangelical but in a way that many miss. Here it all depends on how you read the Sermon on the Mount. If you read the Sermon as a container of idealized ethical norms or a depiction of some far-off goal of human behavior that might be achieveable with heroic effort, you will miss what Anthony is getting at. If however, the Sermon is a depiction of a humanity that is “God-filled” and totally God-oriented and one with God, then this will be an existential sign of such a humanity. Or what theologians might call i: the Risen Life. Or as Paul put it: I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me. So this is a concrete manifestation of that life.


Now note that the newcomers do not really understand what Anthony is presenting to them, and their reply is on the level of ethical behavior and the quest for sufficient willpower to do something “hard.” They are at least very realistic and honest about their condition. So Anthony takes them by the hand as it were and leads them down this path of “effort” until they fully recognize that on their own they have no resources for such a life. At that point he is ready to start instructing them in that which will bring them into the heart of the Gospel. He says, “Lets eat, and then I will tell you about this reality of prayer.” That last phrase which is a summons to the reality of prayer can be read in a superficial way as a kind of plea/petition for God’s help in living the life, but I think there is something much more profound going on. The prayer that Anthony is pointing to is not just saying words to God but that life and communion with God which ends in being lost in the Mystery of God–and that life which manifests itself in “turning the other cheek.” And there’s so much more to this story but we will proceed on.


Consider now Saying #28: “They said that a certain old man asked God to let him see the Fathers and he saw them all except Abba Anthony. So he asked his guide, ‘Where is Abba Anthony?’ He told him in reply that in the place where God is, there Anthony would be.'” I hesitate even to touch this story, so profound it is. Just a few notes. First of all this story should not be taken as putting Anthony on a pedestal in comparison to the other Fathers of the Desert. It is merely that he is the model, the paradigmatic one, and so really what we indicate through him and his behavior and his words is “the point of it all.” Truly each of us is meant for that “place” where Anthony is, “where God is.” Note now that there is a kind of “invisibility” about all that. If you look for this place by way of names and credentials, you will see nothing. Recall that Scripture tells us that “God is a consuming fire, and none can behold God and live.” This does not refer to the simple biological life of the flesh, but what is consumed by that fire is that selfhood which we think we are, that “I” that we think and pronounce throughout the day. The Awakening to God in the depths of our being brings about a very real apophaticism of identity then, the true self is a no-self, the hidden unnameable Self lost in the Absolute Unnameable Mystery(recall that unknown Christian monk Abhishiktananda mentions in the quote above).


Now consider Saying #15: “The brothers praised a monk before Abba Anthony. When the monk came to see him, Anthony wanted to know how he would bear insults; and seeing that he could not bear them at all, he said to him, ‘You are like a village magnificently decorated on the outside, but destroyed from within by robbers.'” A seemingly very mundane saying. But an astute principle of spiritual discernment and one of amazing universality. I have read very similar observations by Gandhi, by a Tibetan lama, by a Zen master…. They all tend to point to the fact that the most important person in your life may be your so-called “enemy,” the person who gives you the hardest time, the one who really dislikes you, the one who hurts you, etc. It is this person, or rather your real response to this person that actually gauges your spiritual state—certainly more so than any heaped up praises or adulations of friends. And there are numerous other Desert Father stories and sayings that illustrate this same point. And they all basically point to one thing: once you have a handle on that question, Who am I?, once your answer is attuned to the Real, then neither praise nor insult will throw one off balance.


And just one more story for our reflection—Saying #24: “It was revealed to Abba Anthony in his desert that there was one who was his equal in the city. He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Sanctus with the angels.” A truly remarkable saying! I have already mentioned this saying in an earlier posting where I commented on Fr. Tiso’s reflections on monasticism, interreligious dialogue and Panikkar. This story is so good and so important it deserves a fuller visit here, and we will take it word by word, phrase by phrase(and really most of these sayings deserve such attention but I have just barely indicated some passing points and reflections). First of all, “It was revealed to Abba Anthony….” The point the story is going to make is not something that Anthony, as holy and clairvoyant and insightful as he is, can figure out on his own. It is not only not obvious to be sure; but especially it needs “revealing” because it is a reality “of God.” And “the message” coming directly from God renders it even more authoritative as if even having the name of Anthony attached to it was not enough, so important it is.


The next thing to note is Anthony is “in the desert” and there is this doctor “in the city.” A kind of line is drawn, a distinction is made; two different places are indicated. To be sure the difference geographically speaking may have been very small, or it may have been very great. No matter. What matters more is that these two places indicate certain ways of life with certain characteristics. The so-called desert is already the established place of people called monks. Lets remind ourselves that we are not talking about formal religious orders, cloisters, even rules and customs. And the city is the place of “non-monks.” The story presents this distinction, and then deconstructs it. The story says the doctor in the city was “equal” to Anthony in the desert. What an astonishing thing to say in the context of this literature! (There’s a few professional monks living today who could use that kind of illumination!)


Note now that the story does not directly name in what way the two were “equal.” It is a bit more subtle because it is pointing at a profound reality. First of all it tells us that this person is a doctor, meaning he has a profession, a place in that society and economy. People know him as a doctor; he has a social identity. In that regard he is not like Anthony who is out there in the desert, supposedly lost to human view(as the myth would have it). The contrast is implicit and part of the equation. The difference is real and undeniable. The story does NOT say that Anthony should come into the city and be like the doctor; or the doctor leave his practice and go out into the desert. Their unity and their “equality” is at a much deeper level–a much bigger point is being made. Next to note is that this doctor is not acclaimed for his austerity or asceticism. When you look at the whole text of sayings you see that austerity, asceticism, renunciation, etc. play a fairly large role in the identity of these people. It’s almost astonishing how “easy” this guy’s life is! Some of the hardened old guys of the desert would consider this doctor a real slacker and not give him much hope. That’s why a “revelation” was needed to see the true reality! Anyway, all the story says is that this doctor “whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor.” His divestment is very modest indeed; it is not the radical renunciation of a sannyasi. He meets his basic needs, and then he gives the rest to the poor–we hear at this point a resonance of the Gospel with its call concerning the poor. Now we come to the climactic point: “and every day he sang the Sanctus with the angels.” If you think this is merely a liturgical reference you really have missed the point of this story! Rather, these words refer to that which makes these two men “equal.”


Now this is an “every day” matter—these words are not merely “throw-away” words, as in “every day I drink juice,” kind of indicating frequency. No, these words are more like saying “all the time,” as in “continual prayer,” as in abiding in the Presence. The Biblical image of the angels and the Sanctus is limiting only if we are crude literalists or lack any sensitivity to poetic language. Otherwise this language points us in the direction of Abhishiktananda’s advaita, the Further Shore, the Ultimate Mystery. Or rather, as I indicated at the beginning of this blog, the language circles around that Mysterious Center which is the Source of all we are and do.


Now to illustrate further the significance of this story, we will have recourse to another important story outside the Anthony collection: “Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do? Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all fire.'” This story is a classic treatment of the perennial question of “what does it mean to be a monk?” It is an incredible treasure trove of spiritual insights, but the only thing I want to point out here is that it points us in the same direction (or circles around at the same level!) as the Anthony story but with different Biblical symbolism. What makes the Anthony story more remarkable is that it deconstructs that line we draw between “monks” and “non-monks,” that line between those two mythical places, the city and the desert, and it focuses us on the ultimate point of it all, the Absolute Mystery at the Center of our hearts where we sing with the angels, “Holy, Holy, Holy…”

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