Proof of [St. Antony’s] virtue and that his soul was loved by God is found in the fact that he is famous everywhere and is marveled at by everyone, and is dearly missed by people who never saw him. Neither from writings, nor from pagan wisdom, nor from some craft was Antony acclaimed, but on account of religion alone. That this was something given by God no one would deny. For how is it that he was heard of, though concealed and sitting in a mountain, in Spain and Gaul, and in Rome and Africa, unless if it was the God who everywhere makes his men known who also promised this to Antony in the beginning? For even though they themselves act in secret, and may want to be forgotten, nevertheless the Lord shows them like lamps to everyone, so that those who hear may know that the commandments have power for amendment of life, and may gain zeal for the way of virtue.
~ St. Athanasius, Life of Antony, 93
In a time before Facebook, according to St. Athanasius, St. Antony (also “Anthony”) was “famous everywhere and [was] marveled at by everyone,” even “in Spain and Gaul, and in Rome and Africa.” He wasn’t tweeting instagrams of the bread and salt he ate once a day (if that) either. No, people knew about this man who lived “concealed and sitting in a mountain” because “his soul was loved by God” and “on account of religion alone.” St. Athanasius is furthermore convinced that this is a sign of God’s grace, “so that those who hear may know that the commandments have power for amendment of life, and may gain zeal for the way of virtue.”
For important theological reasons, I have always thought that comparing Christ and the Buddha, as some people do, was somewhat off the mark. On the other hand, I think that it would be quite appropriate to think of St. Antony as a Christian Siddhartha. He was born into a wealthy family, but left all of it behind for his spiritual aspirations. In St. Antony’s case, this meant an active struggle for righteousness, through meditation, watchfulness, fasting, prayer, all for the purpose of greater communion with Jesus Christ.
In what would surely be considered an act of insanity today, Antony sold all that he had, gave it to the poor, and decided to live by himself in the Egyptian desert, just struggling there to find out what it took to live out the teachings of the Gospel in thought, word, and deed. Or, to put it another way, St. Antony decided that righteousness was an end worth pursuing in itself.
In the ancient Christian tradition, in agreement with the Platonic tradition, there was this idea that human beings are microcosms. That is, God created the heavens and the earth and all that is within them, and then he created humanity with a little bit of everything—heaven and earth in a single being, and furthermore an image of the ineffable glory of God, as one hymn from the Orthodox memorial service phrases it.
Yet, things are not as they ought to be. The book of Genesis describes the creation of the world with some very peculiar imagery. It speaks of God separating “the waters from the waters” (Genesis 1:6), some above and some below the firmament or the sky. A little later, in the story of Noah’s ark, when human sin had reached a point “that every intent of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5) and “the earth [was] filled with violence” (Genesis 6:13), God infamously decided to destroy the living by a massive flood. In the light of the creation, however, what we see is that when the microcosm, humanity, lived a disordered and corrupted life, the creation itself fell apart—the waters that had been ordered and divided came crashing back together in chaos and destruction. Hardly the fun kids’ story with all the cute animals that it is often portrayed as, it was, in a sense, the reversal of creation.
However, as the story goes, there was one righteous man, Noah, and through him all the world was ultimately saved.
Leaving aside questions of time and scope that usually do not affect the point of such stories in the first place, the point, I think, is that when people live righteously, when they put the distorted, disordered elements of their souls and bodies into right relationship once again, the benefit goes far beyond themselves.
Indeed, this is probably my favorite part about the story of St. Antony. What did he do? Like a crazy person, he lived a life of voluntary homelessness, eating only bread and salt, and that rarely, giving every ounce of strength, every thought, every emotion, over to Jesus Christ, that they might be set right. In so doing, he literally changed the world. His efforts for righteousness (along with one or two others) started a whole movement in the third and fourth centuries. Christian spirituality, which had always been ascetic, now became, in a sense, scientific. People were experimenting, refining their technique in the way of righteousness, refining their fidelity to the Gospel. Better perhaps, what was always a thing of beauty became an art. These men and women preserved the spirit of the first Christians, of the way of the Gospel, for the sake of generations to come; they sold what they had to give to the poor; they cared for the sick; they learned a higher and deeper love, bearing witness that “the commandments have power for amendment of life,” and for that matter, that they have the power to save the world.