Thursday, January 16, 2014

Anthony the Great, the Philosopher of the Desert

Saint Anthony, the Father of monks, was born in Egypt in 251 of pious parents who departed this life while he was yet young. He began his ascetic life at a young age, and having learned from the ascetics outside his village, he departed deep into the Egyptian desert, where he lived in extreme fasting, unceasing prayer, and fierce conflicts with the demons. He reposed on January 17 in the year 356, having lived altogether some 105 years, attracting a multitude of imitators who admired him for his virtuous way of life and Christian example.

The following excerpt from The Life of Anthony by St. Athanasius the Great records a few of his encounters with pagan philosophers, by which he won over their admiration, despite his lack of education. He does this by demonstrating the futility of worshiping created things rather than the uncreated Creator, and the power and superiority of faith over reason.

By St. Athanasius the Great

And Anthony also was exceeding prudent, and the wonder was that although he had not learned letters, he was a ready-witted and sagacious man. At all events two Greek philosophers once came, thinking they could try their skill on Anthony; and he was in the outer mountain, and having recognized who they were from their appearance, he came to them and said to them by means of an interpreter:

"Why, philosophers, did you trouble yourselves so much to come to a foolish man?"

And when they said that he was not a foolish man, but exceedingly prudent, he said to them:

"If you came to a foolish man, your labor is superfluous; but if you think me prudent become as I am, for we ought to imitate what is good. And if I had come to you I should have imitated you; but if you to me, become as I am, for I am a Christian."

But they departed with wonder, for they saw that even demons feared Anthony.


And again others such as these met him in the outer mountain and thought to mock him because he had not learned letters. And Anthony said to them:

"What say you? Which is first, mind or letters? And which is the cause of which - mind of letters or letters of mind?"

And when they answered mind is first and the inventor of letters, Anthony said:

"Whoever, therefore, has a sound mind has no need of letters."

This answer amazed both the bystanders and the philosophers, and they departed marveling that they had seen so much understanding in an ignorant man. For his manners were not rough as though he bad been reared in the mountain and there grown old, but graceful and polite, and his speech was seasoned with the divine salt, so that no one was envious, but rather all rejoiced over him who visited him.


After this again certain others came; and these were men who were deemed wise among the Greeks, and they asked him a reason for our faith in Christ. But when they attempted to dispute concerning the preaching of the divine Cross and meant to mock, Anthony stopped for a little, and first pitying their ignorance, said, through an interpreter, who could skilfully interpret his words:

"Which is more beautiful, to confess the Cross or to attribute to those whom you call gods adultery and the seduction of boys? For that which is chosen by us is a sign of courage and a sure token of the contempt of death, while yours are the passions of licentiousness. Next, which is better, to say that the Word of God was not changed, but, being the same, He took a human body for the salvation and well-being of man, that having shared in human birth He might make man partake in the divine and spiritual nature; or to liken the divine to senseless animals and consequently to worship four-footed beasts, creeping things and the likenesses of men? For these things are the objects of reverence of you wise men. But how do you dare to mock us, who say that Christ has appeared as man, seeing that you, bringing the soul from heaven, assert that it has strayed and fallen from the vault of the sky into a body? And would that you had said that it had fallen into a human body alone, and not asserted that it passes and changes into four-footed beasts and creeping things. For our faith declares that the coming of Christ was for the salvation of men. But you err because you speak of the soul as not generated. And we, considering the power and loving-kindness of Providence, think that the coming of Christ in the flesh was not impossible with God. But you, although calling the soul the likeness of Mind, connect it with falls and feign in your myths that it is changeable, and consequently introduce the idea that Mind itself is changeable by reason of the soul. For whatever is the nature of a likeness, such necessarily is the nature of that of which it is a likeness. But whenever you think such a thought concerning Mind, remember that you blaspheme even the Father of Mind Himself.

But concerning the Cross, which would you say to be the better, to bear it when a plot is brought about by wicked men, nor to be in fear of death brought about under any form whatever; or to prate about the wanderings of Osiris and Isis, the plots of Typhon, the flight of Cronos, his eating his children and the slaughter of his father? For this is your wisdom. But how, if you mock the Cross, do you not marvel at the resurrection? For the same men who told us of the latter wrote the former. Or why when you make mention of the Cross are you silent about the dead who were raised, the blind who received their sight, the paralytics who were healed, the lepers who were cleansed, the walking upon the sea, and the rest of the signs and wonders, which show that Christ is no mere man but God? To me you seem to do yourselves much injustice and not to have carefully read our Scriptures. But read and see that the deeds of Christ prove Him to be God come upon earth for the salvation of men.

But do tell us your religious beliefs. What can you say of senseless creatures except senselessness and ferocity? But if, as I hear, you wish to say that these things are spoken of by you as legends, and you allegorize the rape of the maiden Persephone of the earth; the lameness of Hephaestus of fire; and allegorize the air as Hera, the sun as Apollo, the moon as Artemis, and the sea as Poseidon; nonetheless, you do not worship God Himself, but serve the creature rather than God who created all things. For if because creation is beautiful you composed such legends, still it was fitting that you should stop short at admiration and not make gods of the things created, so that you should not give the honor of the Creator to that which is created. Since, if you do, it is time for you to divert the honor of the master builder to the house built by him; and of the general to the soldier. What then can you reply to these things, that we may know whether the Cross hath anything worthy of mockery?"

But when they were at a loss, turning hither and thither, Anthony smiled and said, again through an interpreter:

"Sight itself carries the conviction of these things. But as you prefer to lean upon demonstrative arguments, and as you, having this art, wish us also not to worship God, until after such proof, do you tell first how things in general and specially the recognition of God are accurately known. Is it through demonstrative argument or the working of faith? And which is better, faith which comes through the inworking (of God) or demonstration by arguments?"

And when they answered that faith which comes through the inworking was better and was accurate knowledge, Anthony said:

"You have answered well, for faith arises from disposition of soul, but dialectic from the skill of its inventors. Wherefore to those who have the inworking through faith, demonstrative argument is needless, or even superfluous. For what we know through faith this you attempt to prove through words, and often you are not even able to express what we understand. So the inworking through faith is better and stronger than your professional arguments.

We Christians therefore hold the mystery not in the wisdom of Greek arguments, but in the power of faith richly supplied to us by God through Jesus Christ. And to show that this statement is true, behold now, without having learned letters, we believe in God, knowing through His works His providence over all things. And to show that our faith is effective, so now we are supported by faith in Christ, but you by professional logomachies. The portents of the idols among you are being done away, but our faith is extending everywhere. You by your arguments and quibbles have converted none from Christianity to Paganism. We, teaching the faith in Christ, expose your superstition, since all recognize that Christ is God and the Son of God. You by your eloquence do not hinder the teaching of Christ. But we by the mention of Christ crucified put all demons to flight, whom you fear as if they were gods. Where the sign of the Cross is, magic is weak and witchcraft has no strength.

Tell us therefore where your oracles are now? Where are the charms of the Egyptians? Where the delusions of the magicians? When did all these things cease and grow weak except when the Cross of Christ arose? Is it then a fit subject for mockery, and not rather the things brought to naught by it, and convicted of weakness? For this is a marvelous thing, that your religion was never persecuted, but even was honored by men in every city, while the followers of Christ are persecuted, and still our side flourishes and multiplies over yours. What is yours, though praised and honored, perishes, while the faith and teaching of Christ, though mocked by you and often persecuted by kings, has filled the world. For when has the knowledge of God so shone forth? Or when has self-control and the excellence of virginity appeared as now? Or when has death been so despised except when the Cross of Christ has appeared? And this no one doubts when he sees the martyr despising death for the sake of Christ, when he sees for Christ's sake the virgins of the Church keeping themselves pure and undefiled.

And these signs are sufficient to prove that the faith of Christ alone is the true religion. But see, you still do not believe and are seeking for arguments. We however make our proof 'not in the persuasive words of Greek wisdom' as our teacher has it, but we persuade by the faith which manifestly precedes argumentative proof. Behold there are here some vexed with demons."

Now there were certain ones who had come to him tormented by demons, and bringing them into the midst he said:

"Do you cleanse them either by arguments and by whatever art or magic you choose, calling upon your idols, or if you are unable, put away your strife with us and you shall see the power of the Cross of Christ."

And having said this he called upon Christ, and signed the sufferers two or three times with the sign of the Cross. And immediately the men stood up whole, and in their right mind, and forthwith gave thanks unto the Lord. And the philosophers, as they are called, wondered, and were astonished exceedingly at the understanding of the man and at the sign which had been wrought. But Anthony said:

"Why do you marvel at this? We are not the doers of these things, but it is Christ who works them by means of those who believe on Him. Believe, therefore, also yourselves, and you shall see that with us there is no trick of words, but faith through love which is wrought in us towards Christ; which if you yourselves should obtain you will no longer seek demonstrative arguments, but will consider faith in Christ sufficient."

These are the words of Anthony. And they, marveling at this also, saluted him and departed, confessing the benefit they had received from him.