January 18, 2008

Bloodless Martyrs

Yesterday's calendar date was the Feast of St Ant(h)ony: Anthony the Great, Anthony of Egypt, Hermit, Abbot, and the "father of monks". He died in 356 on January 17th, at the age of 105.

I'm reading Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries. I love using the calendar day stories to bring greater depth of living to my days, making ordinary days into the extra-ordinary. It was interesting that I was reading about the desert fathers around the days associated with some of the calendar's Desert Fathers.

Anthony is one of the earlier Desert Fathers and we know his story because his friend Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria (the one instrumental in Augustine's conversion) wrote his biography. It became popular and influential well into the Middle Ages and is still in print today.

Anthony heard the Gospel words, "Go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor ... and then follow me" and felt they were meant for him. Much of his story is like Jesus' temptation in the desert, because Athanasius wrote, the devil "who despises and envies good, could not bear seeing such purpose in a youth," and thus set to work to destroy him.

The Desert Saints were called "bloodless martyrs". Christianity was born in the hostile world of the Roman Empire, and for 300 years Christians periodically suffered persecution and deaths. Constantine in 313 granted Christianity legal status in the empire and it became popular and fashionable. So now, rather than an evil empire, those wanting to seek serious Christian discipleship were facing a worldly church.

Solitude did not remain solitude, when thousands of other Desert Saints followed. People became fascinated by stories about Anthony and admirers found him. Though begging them to leave him alone, he became an adviser to hundreds, exhorting them to die daily and take up the cross.
(Years ago I read the desert disciple sayings in The Wisdom of the Desert. I also read From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians in the Middle East, where the author took earlier writings and journeyed, visiting many old sites. And then in the news, maybe last year, was the fear of the Muslims destroying some of these sites, including the monastery built around Anthony's place in the Egyptian desert.)

Anthony longed for martyrdom, hoping to identify with Christ, by exposing himself to danger, like ministering to those in prison and sometimes leaving the desert to combat Arianism. But he realized a person can die daily by serving Christ in ordinary ways with great love. Because he had given away all he had (and taken care of his sister), he wove mats to support his needs.

These Desert Saints call us to seek some solitude, which might separate us just enough from modern culture to allow us to recognize, expose and combat our vulnerability to seductive powers; to ruling appetites that seem to dominate our life.

"All good athletes train hard; they do it to attain a perishable award, but we're after an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly. I'm giving it everything I've got. I'm staying alert and in top condition, so that after telling others about it I don't miss out on it myself" I COR 9:25-27.

Anthony once said, "The man who abides in solitude and is quiet, is delivered from fighting three battles - to those of hearing, speech and sight. Then he will have but one battle to fight - the battle of the heart."
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