This Tuesday, the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. Anthony the Great, the great desert abbot of the mid-third century. In his day, Anthony was revered as the holiest person alive and countless numbers of people traveled to him, seeking his presence, wisdom and guidance.
Innumerable people through the ages, including our own, still desire the direction and spiritual solidarity of the saint.
Years ago as a young adult I sought out the saint, traveling hours through the Sahara by van to the monastery of St. Anthony. It was not an enviable ride: drinking excessive amounts of water to stay hydrated but only having endless desert as a bathroom.
Nevertheless, I made the journey and upon arrival, I was surprised and comforted to find a monastic community there that continues Anthony’s legacy of asceticism, prayer, and welcome.
Why is it that people – even in the twenty-first century – seek out this saint? What are people looking for in this holy one?
Anthony lived a life of faith, which gave him purpose and led him into a deep desire and appreciation of transcendence and the spiritual life. These aspects of his life make him counter-cultural to many in the contemporary era and yet these very aspirations made him into the type of person that is so attractive to so many other people in our world today.
In pursuing his life of faith, St. Anthony blended his bodily and spiritual desires in such a way so as to live a way of integrity. The saint’s integrity was expressed by a sincere self-knowledge and a transparent expression of weakness, as well as a need for help beyond himself.
The desert father desired solitude while also nurturing community life. He understood the need for a person to have a healthy self-possession but also a robust self-donation. If solitude is absolutized, a person becomes absorbed in her own life and spirituality is quickly lost to some type of narcissism.
If community life, however, is radicalized then the person’s unique identity is lost and she becomes a mere piece of machinery. Faith helped Anthony to live a balance between these two and receive the best of both.
The early saint understood the need for integration within himself. He knew of his own fallenness and the requirement of discipline. He readily engaged in penitential practices, some of which might strike us as extreme, so as to order his passions and bring harmony within himself.
Contrary to the opinion of some, Anthony and the other desert fathers and mothers were not gnostics who hated the body, but were people who most understood the dignity of the body and sought integration between their bodies and souls so that both might flourish.
Faith helped the desert saints understand this bodily goodness and persevere in their mission for tranquility and holiness.
Anthony knew the transforming power of prayer. He would spend hours in meditation every day and merge his spiritual exercises into his ascetical practices. The esteemed abbot sought a life of contemplation and found his life’s deepest meaning in his time of prayer.
And yet, the saintly leader called the monks to work and saw the monastery as an oasis of civilization: a place of welcome, fellowship, trade, exchange, and rest. Once again, faith permitted St. Anthony to see this needed equilibrium within a person and a community.
In all his actions and in his leadership of the souls of others, Anthony reflected a life of integrity by his innovative sense of balance and good will.
As people in the contemporary world indicate an interest in the spiritual life, they want witnesses who can show them how the spiritual life can help. They want to see credible signs of how a spiritual life can make a positive contribution to their lives and how a way of transcendence can make their lives better.
St. Anthony stands out. He remains a model to all those who seek a witness and guide in all things spiritual. In the testimony of his life, anyone of good will can see the edifying and stabilizing results of a life of faith and spirituality. They can see balance, goodness, and peace.
This is the enduring legacy of the great saint. It’s why people still turn to him. It’s why a younger version of myself drove through the desert to seek him.