January is a month of hopeful beginnings, fresh starts, and strong resolutions (also sometimes known as ‘good intentions’). It is a place from which to look forward to a new year, and also to look back to the preceding twelve months, evaluating successes and failures. As a historian of the church, I find the past instructive; I like to look back to the past, and I (sometimes vigorously) encourage anyone in my path to do the same. The past teaches and enlightens, often providing strength, encouragement, wisdom for living and edification of Christian identity. That is not to say that the Church’s past contains only positives, and the same goes for our own personal pasts. 2018 might have been a year of great triumphs for you in every sense—or 2018 may have been the year that crushed you and obliterated your fine-sounding resolutions of last January. Nevertheless, I still value the backward look, but I am challenged in this by a holy and wise person from the 4th-century Egyptian desert.
Antony “the Great” (which he would never call himself), or Antony of Egypt, was not a historian. He was likely not even literate. On this day that Antony entered into God’s presence in AD 356 at age 105, I find myself challenged and inspired by several “firsts” in his long life with God.
First Surrender to God’s Call
Born in AD 251 into a devout and wealthy Christian family, Antony was something of a homebody and uninterested in school. He was, however, interested in the Lord. His biographer, the great bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, emphasized Antony’s attentiveness to his church education. When he was about 18 years old, his parents died, leaving him and his younger sister alone. One day at church, Antony felt convicted by the Gospel injunction to sell all he had and give it to the poor (Matt 19:21). This word confirmed what he had already been thinking on his way to the service that day regarding the apostolic church, whose members sold their possessions and donated the proceeds to the poor. Accordingly, humbling himself under the preached word of God, he applied this word to himself, simplifying his life by divesting himself of possessions. He gave away 300 acres of prime real estate, sold off much of his parents’ estate and gave most of the funds to the poor, retaining a little as needed for himself and his sister. Upon hearing the gospel for a second time, namely the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:34, “Do not worry about tomorrow,” he surrendered himself fully to a life of spiritual training, after having arranged a living situation in a proto-monastic sisterhood for his younger sister. This total life surrender marked the beginnings of his spiritual progress into virtue.
First Steps into a Spiritual Life
Antony was young but teachable, hungry to learn and humble enough to know he needed a teacher. His first step in spiritual progress was to seek a mentor, someone to be his guide and role model. First, he modeled himself after an elderly man in a neighboring village, who had practiced “the solitary life from youth.” He then studied virtue from those he heard were holy. He sought mentors “like a wise bee,” staying with them “until he had got from (them) what would help him on his way to virtue.” The results of these engagements with personal mentors led to “his first steps” in spiritual progress: a resolution to not return to his kinsmen, nor to regret the disbursement of his great inheritance, but to look only forward to growing spiritually, working manually to support himself and donating any remainder to the poor. He prayed constantly and frequently listened to the reading of the scripture, committing much of it to memory.
First Temptations, First Victory
Athanasius recounted Antony’s numerous ‘run-ins’ with demonic powers in the Egyptian desert. Celebrated artists like Michelangelo and Grunewald and Bosch, even Salvador Dali, help us to visualize these demonic attacks, or at least medieval and modern conceptions of such. We may view these paintings as grotesque and repulsive, with their freakish, monstrous demons clawing with gnarled hands at the placid-faced old man. Indeed, we ourselves may be tempted to brush away the entire enterprise, that is, with its dramatic narrative and vivid descriptions of gargoylish phantasms.
The Torment of Antony by Michelangelo
But as Athanasius described these encounters, he was straightforward and much less fanciful. “The devil, the hater and envier of good, could not bear to see such resolution (to live virtuously) in a young man, but attempted to use against him the means in which he is skilled.” Antony was tempted by reminders of past things to discourage him in his life surrendered to God. These reminders included his former lush property, his wealth, status, family, various luxuries, all of which he had forsaken to take up a life of surrender. He was also discouraged by the possibility of failure. And “so (the devil) raised in [Antony’s] mind a great cloud of arguments to drive him aside from his straight purpose.” Antony was prayerful and resolute however, so he was further pummeled with fleshly temptations: sensual dreams, evil thoughts, lustful feelings. When these proved ineffective, the devil switched tactics and approached with smooth flattery, praising Antony for his fortitude in resisting the spirit of fornication. Antony, sensing the devil’s defeat, rebuked the unclean spirit and put him to flight.
Athanasius wrote, “This was Antony’s first victory over the devil.” He praised Antony’s spiritual conquest, but immediately qualified it, continuing, “or rather, this was the triumph in Antony of the Saviour, ‘who condemned sin in the flesh, that the justice of the law may be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit’” (Rom 8:3-4).
Did Antony savor this victory over Satan, gaining confidence in his spiritual prowess? Did he craft and market a long-term plan for spiritual success, emboldened by his win? Did he set himself up as a guru, writing a New York Times best-selling memoir, How I Defeated the Spirit of Fornication and Ten Ways You Too Can Be a Spiritual Champion? Quite the contrary. Rather than resting on his new-found reputation for trouncing evil powers, Antony doubled down on his ascetic practices, citing Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:27, bringing his flesh into subjection continually, or in his own phrase, “dying daily.” Acknowledging his own weaknesses, he followed Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:10, saying that, “When the enjoyments of the body are weak, then is the power of the soul strong.”
Forgetting the Past—and New Beginnings Daily
Antony developed a principle of discipleship that I find challenging but also inspiring. He held that our progress in virtue is not measured by the length of time spent in its practice. Rather, growth should be measured by “desire and by strong resolve. Accordingly, he himself gave no thought to the bygone time, but each day, as though then beginning his religious life, he made greater effort to advance.” This view effectively puts new believers on level ground with life-long believers. Antony’s way of progressing was to put behind him the virtuous accomplishments or sacrifices of the past so they would not hamper him from future progress. It is difficult to set aside his ‘forgetting of the past’ in this way, especially since he puts forth as exemplars in this the apostle Paul and the holy Elijah!
Antony would call to mind Paul’s words in Philippians 3:13: “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.” Like Antony, Paul had much to boast about, but for both, this kind of boasting was “in the flesh,” and Antony followed the spirit of Paul’s words when he wrote, “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ…for His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil 3:7-8). Further, Antony knew that perfection and a spiritually mature attitude came not through dwelling on past achievements or sacrifices, but through pressing on “toward the goal” and “straining forward to what lies ahead” (Phil 3:12-15). Therefore, he did not allow pride or regret over past achievements to hamper him in his daily pursuit of God.
Antony was further strengthened in this philosophy of discipleship by the example of the great Elijah. He remembered Elijah’s words, “’The Lord liveth, before whose sight I stand this day’ (1 Ki 18:15). For he observed that in saying ‘this day’ he did not count the bygone time; but as though always making a beginning, he was earnest each day to present himself such as one ought to appear before God: clean of heart and ready to obey His will and none other.” Our translation may look a little different than the way Athanasius cited it, but Antony’s point remains the same. The plan he offers for long-term success in the spiritual life is, ironically, found in the short-term. A year—even a lifetime—of spiritual progress is accomplished by beginning anew each day, presenting ourselves in the presence of God ready to do His will for that day, without pride of past achievements or regret of previous failures, presenting ourselves as eager and willing novices, loving God and desiring to obey as fervently as when we first started walking with him.
Athanasius. St. Antony of the Desert by Athanasius. Translated by J.B. McLaughlin, O.S.B. Rockford, IL: TAN Books, 1995.
Stefana Dan Laing joined the faculty of Beeson Divinity School in 2018 as assistant professor of divinity and theological librarian.