SERMON: Saint Anthony the Great

SERMON: Saint Anthony the Great

A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Hilary Pearson on 17th January 2024

You will see from your service sheet that both the collect and the post communion prayer for today refer to someone called Anthony.  Who is this?  A well-known Saint Anthony is the one who is asked to find lost items – but that is Anthony of Padua, a 13th century Franciscan friar whose feast day is 13th June.  Today we are celebrating someone often referred to as Saint Anthony the Great.  He is also known as Anthony of Egypt, Anthony the Abbot, Anthony of the Desert, Anthony the Anchorite, Anthony the Hermit, and Anthony of Thebes.

Those names give hints to the story of this Saint Anthony.  We have details of this story from a work written in about 360 AD by Bishop Athanasius – the person the Athanasian creed is named after.  Anthony was an Egyptian, a lay member of the Coptic church, born about 250 AD.  His parents were well-off peasants, who died while he was about 20, leaving him a large farm and a younger unmarried sister to look after.

Athanasius tells us that, one day, walking to church, Anthony was thinking about how the early Christians had brought all their wealth to the apostles, to be distributed to those in need.  In church, the Gospel reading for that day was from Matthew 19, Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man, who asked what he had to do to be saved.  Jesus’ replied that the young man should sell all he had, give to the poor, and then come and follow him.  Anthony heard this as directly spoken to him.  Unlike the rich young man, he immediately arranged to provide for his sister and gave away all his possessions to the poor.  He then apprenticed himself to an elderly hermit from a nearby village to learn about the solitary life.  The practice at the time for those seeking the solitary life was to live just outside their village.

From his master, Anthony learned to live a disciplined and ascetic life.  During the day he did manual labour to support himself; during the night he prayed and slept on a simple mat or the bare ground.  His diet was bread, salt and water, eating only once a day and sometimes fasting for two or three days.  He examined and kept a watch on his thoughts, and prayed unceasingly.  He meditated on Scripture.  He learned to struggle with temptations.

After this apprenticeship, he moved further away from human habitation to a cemetery.  Egypt is a strip of green, the Nile valley, between barren mountains and rocky desert.  The ancient Egyptians buried their dead in stone tombs or caves in the desert at the fringes of the fertile valley.  This meant that Anthony was now living at the edge of civilisation.  Athanasius recounts Anthony having violent struggles with demons in these tombs.  Then, at the age of 35, Anthony moved out into the desert itself, barricading himself into an abandoned military fortress.  He originally took six month’s supplies with him, but he ended up spending 20 years there, with bread supplied by friends.  Again, he had violent struggles with demons.  When he did finally emerge, those watching were amazed that he emerged in good physical shape as well as having a visible internal tranquillity.  He now attracted many others to monastic life in the desert.  As a result, monasteries were founded in different parts of the Egyptian desert, some of which are still in operation today.  According to Athanasius, Anthony died in 356 AD, aged 105, and was buried by his disciples in an unknown place – this could be a deliberate echo of Moses, whose grave is unknown.

Athanasius tells more stories, including Anthony going to Alexandria to try to intervene in a persecution and of miracles he performed: including getting a party of monks over a crocodile-infested waterway by praying and, as a result, the crocodiles meekly lined up and allowed the monks to cross walking on their backs!  We do not necessarily have to believe all the stories.  Scholars who have studied the writings of Athanasius show that he was well educated in classical philosophy and literature, and that his life of Anthony has echoes of classical biographies of philosophers, one of whom was said to have tamed a crocodile.

Some of Anthony’s teachings are recorded in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which we have in a modern translation by the late Sister Benedicta Ward of Fairacres Convent.  Many of these sayings seem harsh, reflecting Anthony’s own life.  When a young monk said to the elderly Anthony ‘Pray for me’, he replied ‘I will have no mercy upon you, neither will God have any, if you yourself do not make an effort and if you do not pray to God.’  To a monk who had been praised by other monks but who could not bear insults when tested by Anthony, he said ‘You are like a village magnificently decorated on the outside, but destroyed from within by robbers.’  These show Anthony’s insistence on the need for prayer and humility to advance in the Christian life.  In another story, it was revealed to Anthony in the desert that there was someone who was his equal in the city.  This was a doctor, who gave whatever he had beyond his needs to the poor and praised God every day.  This showed that it was not necessary to live in the desert and practice extreme asceticism to be pleasing to God.

But Anthony was also a wise student of human nature.  One story describes how a hunter came across Anthony and some of his monks in the desert enjoying themselves and was shocked at the sight.  Anthony asked him to draw his bow and shoot an arrow.  Immediately he had done so Anthony asked him to do this again, and again, and again.  Eventually, the hunter objected that this repeated use with no chance for the bow to recover would end up with it breaking.  Anthony replied that it was the same for doing the work of God.  If his monks were stretched beyond measure, they would soon break, they also needed some rest and refreshment.

An important story for us in Britain (I will explain why later) is about Anthony learning of a hermit who had lived in the desert even longer than Anthony had, and going to visit him.  This hermit was called Paul, usually referred to as Paul of Thebes to distinguish him from the Apostle Paul.  The story of his life was written by St Jerome.  According to Jerome, this visit took place when Anthony was 90, having learned about this other hermit in a dream.  After an arduous journey, which included encountering a hippocentaur and a satyr, he eventually found the cave where Paul lived.  He found a very old and frail man, dressed in palm leaves.  As they talked together, a crow flew down and deposited a whole loaf of bread.  Paul told Anthony that all the 60 years he had been in the desert a crow had brought him half a loaf every day; this whole loaf showed that God was providing for both of them.  After passing the night in prayer, the next morning Paul asked Anthony to go back to his hermitage to get the cloak that Bishop Athanasius had given him, and bring it to Paul so he could be buried in it, because he knew he was about to die.  Anthony did so, but while he was on the way back he saw Paul’s soul ascending to heaven, and when he got to the cave he found Paul’s dead body in the posture of prayer.  Anthony was wondering how he could dig a grave in the hard ground to bury Paul, as he himself was very old.  Even as he was pondering this, two lions came running fast out of the desert, and immediately started digging a hole a suitable size for the body, then came to Anthony with bowed heads; so he blessed them.  They left, and Anthony then carried the body, laid it in the grave wrapped in the cloak, and covered the grave with earth.  When I was in Cairo last March, in the Coptic Museum I found a charming icon of Paul and Anthony, with the crow with the loaf of bread and the two lions.

Why is this story important for us in Britain?  Because several of the medieval Irish Celtic carved stone crosses include a depiction of Anthony’s visit to Paul, with the crow delivering the bread and the two saints eating together.  While some scholars see this as a eucharistic image, there are plenty of other images in Western Christian art relating to the eucharist which could have been used.  Why this Eastern Orthodox image in Ireland?

Archaeological evidence shows that early Irish monasteries were a collection of hermits living in separate huts and occasionally joining together for worship.  This is closer to the Eastern tradition, founded by Anthony, than to the Western tradition where the monks lived together, founded by Benedict.  There is also evidence of early trade links between Ireland and the eastern Mediterranean.  This suggests that the first Irish monks may well have learned of the Eastern monastic traditions and heard some of the stories of Anthony and the other Desert Fathers.  We also know that many Irish monks sought remote and hostile environments to live in.  Perhaps the best known example is Skellig Michael, a barren rocky island off the south-west corner of Ireland.  The early medieval monastery is about 600 feet above sea level and reached by precipitous stone stairs.  The monks lived in round, beehive shaped huts built of stones.  There is also a separate hermitage on the other side of the mountain near the top of a peak.  This, and similar islands, were the Irish equivalent of the Egyptian desert, and the life there would have been just as hard.

What can we learn from Anthony?  Very few people are called to live a solitary ascetic life in the desert or on a rocky island.  What we can learn is the vital importance of prayer and humility in coming closer to God – and to each other.  The Anglican Franciscan Principles define humility as the recognition of our own insufficiency and dependence on God, and as the primary requirement for a community living together happily.  Let us with prayer and humility build up our life together in this church and local community.  Amen.