In a world filled with distractions and uneasiness with silence, today’s saint has much to say to us.
Often referred to as the father of monasticism, St. Anthony of the Desert is also known as St. Anthony the Great and St. Anthony of Egypt. He was born in Egypt in the year 251 and lived to be 105 years of age, dying in the year 356. His parents died when he was roughly twenty years old, leaving him a considerable estate. However, sometime shortly thereafter he heard God speaking to him personally and directly in the Gospel passage: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor.” He subsequently followed this divine directive and went out into the desert to live a life of solitude and prayer. His life there was one of extreme asceticism in which many accounts detail his diet of merely bread, salt, and water. He fasted regularly and thus at times did not eat daily and is known to have slept on the bare floor.
Around the year 285, he sought further seclusion and lived in solitude for nearly twenty years east of the Nile, living in some ruins on top of a mountain. After twenty years, he came down from the mountain and in the year 305 founded his first monastery, thus he also carries the title of abbot.
One thing to consider is the fact that this St. Anthony lived many centuries before St. Anthony of Padua (13th Century) who is commonly known to the modern mind as the patron saint of lost things. Not to be confused with the more recent Anthony, St. Anthony of the Desert was one of the most influential figures during and after his long life of solitude. So many were the number of people that sought him out that it is said that the devil complained that the St. Anthony was making the desert into a city. Furthermore, St. Athanasius, fearless bishop and confessor of St. Anthony, wrote his biography which for centuries became the classic book of ascetics.
What was the appeal of the life of this saint, then, and what are we to glean from reflecting on his life in our day?
There can be no doubt that holiness is attractive. People were drawn to this mystical figure of the desert and longed to find for themselves some of what he possessed. People who are on fire with love of God give the rest of us hope because they have found the pearl of great price, Jesus Christ, and have discovered that nothing else in this life can fully satisfy the deepest longings of our heart.
In our day, a life committed to Christ can’t realistically mean that we go out into the desert. However, perhaps our “desert” might mean abstaining from social media at every spare moment throughout the day. Perhaps going into the desert for us might mean sitting in silence with our thoughts, seeking God in that moment, instead of looking to the next thing to distract us. St. Anthony knew that the devil likes to keep us distracted and goes to great lengths to do so with all the “noise” of the world.
There is a rich and true saying: “In the silence God speaks.” Silence serves our relationship with God. Why? Because it makes it so that there is no place to run from God.
St. Anthony frequently repeated the importance of the knowledge of ourselves, or self-knowledge, as the necessary and indispensable step by which we can come to knowledge and love of God. But, we cannot come to know ourselves if we are always running from ourselves. Therefore, let us strive not to run from, but to embrace moments of silence, and even solitude. In doing so, we can allow God to show us who were created to be and even to see ourselves through the eyes of God’s infinite love for us. Let us, then, seek to spend time with God in the desert, so to speak, and like St. Anthony, learn to find the God whom we seek and thus find more peace and interior joy in our lives.
St. Anthony of the Desert, pray for us!