It was revealed to Abba Anthony in his desert that there was one who was his equal in the city. He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Sanctus with the angels.
It is easy to become discouraged in the spiritual life. It is easy to think, “I am no St. Anthony. How can I hope for blessedness? How can I even be saved?” Attempting to answer this concern is, in part, the reason for this blog. I love the wisdom of the Christian ascetic tradition, but nearly all of it is written primarily by and for monastics. Is perfection only possible in the desert? Or might there be hope for the city as well?
My own answer, of course, is “yes!” As St. Paul reminds us, God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). Because of this, he recommends that we pray for all people and especially for “kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence” (2:3), i.e. so that they would leave us alone and not kill us, a serious concern for Christians across the world all throughout the centuries.
In any case, it does not appear that at the time of this story the Church had much to fear. St. Anthony did live through the Great Persecution of Diocletian, but the doctor, so far as we know, was able to live out his life and profession in peace.
This raises another point, though. St. Anthony could easily have had a vision of countless martyrs of his time who also were “his equal,” yet who does he see? A doctor in the city. What makes this doctor so special? By what means did he ascend to the heights of heaven? “[W]hatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Sanctus with the angels.” That’s it. He was a simple, generous guy who sang hymns. As I’ve said before, being ordinary is underrated.
In particular, the doctor did two things. Notice that one of those things was not healing the sick, though that was certainly good as well. No, the two things he did anyone, anywhere can do: 1) he embraced simplicity and gave alms to the needy; 2) he habitually sang a hymn.
Simplicity and almsgiving, too, are underrated. Regarding the former, Christ has said, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19-20). There is often (though not automatically) a reciprocal relationship between earthly and heavenly treasure, the latter of which are not simply material stuff of the future, but spiritual goods, such as virtue. As Lactantius says, “No one is poor in the sight of God, but he who is without justice; no one is rich, but he who is full of virtues.”
This brings me to almsgiving. A really easy way to live more simply is to give some of your extra stuff to people who lack those sorts of things. Have an extra microwave? toaster? bed? coat? car? What good does it do you to sit in storage? St. Basil the Great, perhaps, offers one of the most convicting challenges in this regard:
When someone strips a man of his clothes we call him a thief. And one who might clothe the naked and does not—should you not be given the same name? The bread in your board belongs to the hungry; the cloak in your wardrobe belongs to the naked, the shoes you let rot belong to the barefoot; the money in your vaults belongs to the destitute. All these you might help and do not—to all these you are doing wrong.
Lactantius, again, puts it even more severely: “He who is able to succour one on the point of perishing, if he fails to do so, kills him.” Discerning what we have “beyond [our] needs” can be tricky in a developed society, especially with dependent family or friends who live with us. Again, Lactantius offers a helpful standard: “as you are asked for aid, believe that you are tried by God, that it may be seen whether you are worthy of being heard. Examine your own conscience, and, as far as you are able, heal your wounds.” God gave us a conscience in order to direct is in such matters of prudence, that is, if we are not deaf to its voice within us.
Thankfully, spiritual disciplines, such as simplicity and almsgiving, help curb our passions and sensitize us to our consciences. The most important thing is not to fret over mathematical precision regarding what is “beyond [one’s] needs” but simply to give! The more we do it, the more we will be able to discern precisely how much each occasion requires and what degree of simplicity we are spiritually able to embrace.
The second thing the doctor does ought not to be undervalued either: he sings. In particular, “every day he sang the Sanctus with the angels.” The Sanctus (its Latin name) is an ancient hymn sung in Christian liturgies but firstly by the angels before the throne of God as (partially) recorded by the prophet Isaiah:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
The whole earth is full of His glory!
The liturgical hymn is longer:
Holy, holy, holy, Lord of Sabaoth [armies/hosts];
Heaven and earth are filled with thy glory.
Hosanna [salvation] in the highest!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest!
I do not know whether the doctor would likely have sang the shorter version from the Scriptures or if the longer form was already in use (incidentally the extra stuff is also in the Bible, just not in Isaiah).
In any case, this is what is meant when the saying says that “every day he sang the Sanctus with the angels.” The beauty of music, when it successfully reflects true beauty, lifts our souls into the very presence of God. It is (or ought to be) divine. And before the throne of God, who would dare to sin? Alas, it is not far from any of us, yet we sin anyway. The moral: sing more hymns. They’re good for the soul.
To do the work of one’s profession, whatever that may be, and to be satisfied with the basics, to give to those in need, and to sing hymns—none of these things may sound anything like leaving everything to live in the desert on a mountain in constant prayer to God. But so they are. The first good work (simplicity and almsgiving) testifies to a true love of neighbor and the second (singing hymns) to true love of God. And according to Christ himself, “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:40).
Now that is no small matter, indeed. It appears that even the city may have hope for salvation after all.