A Word from the Holy Fathers:
Today a short reading in the life of our father among the saints, Antony the Great of Egypt.
When the holy abbot Antony lived in the desert, he was attacked by many sinful thoughts. He said to God, Lord, I want to be saved, but these thoughts do not leave me alone. What shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?
A short while afterward, when he got up to go out, Antony saw a man like himself, sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, and then sitting down, plaiting a rope, and then getting up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct and to reassure him. He heard the angel saying to him, “Do this Antony, and you will be saved.”
At these words, Antony was filled with joy and courage, and he did this, and he was saved.
That is a small text from the life of St. Antony the Great which was written, of course, by another father among the saints, Athanasius of Alexandria. What are we to learn from this small and somewhat remarkable saying?
Firstly, let us see that St. Antony, for all of his spiritual strength and growth was a man who struggled deeply, and let this be a sign to banish from us this expectation that so often rests unspoken in our perception, that somehow saintliness, spiritual life, is the defeat of all temptation. Real spirituality, true spiritual growth, lies in the embrace of temptation, in the making familiar of struggle, not in its abolishment or its abandonment.
St. Antony, for all the holiness that he attained to his life and exemplifies even today to all of us who seek his counsel and intercession, was a man who struggled greatly, and deeply, and persistently. And as he lived in the desert he was attacked by his own sinful thoughts.
The reason that I emphasize this is that so often I speak to people who are disillusioned, deeply discouraged by the persistence of their sinful thoughts. We come to confession over and again downhearted, because the same thoughts that burdened us yesterday, last week, last month, and for the last decade, are still plaguing us, and try as we might, these thoughts still remain. They still come to tempt and to taunt us in our times of prayer, and throughout the day.
And so many people find in this persistence of sinful thoughts a source for real spiritual discouragement, if not, far more seriously, despondency. And yet we see one of the greatest saints of our monastic heritage, one of the greatest saints in the whole of the church, living a life of real asceticism in the desert, attacked, as it says here, by many sinful thoughts.
Let us then take comfort in having a forefather who has experienced and knows precisely what it is to struggle the way we, in our own weakness, do today. So attacked by these sinful thoughts that Antony says to God, “Lord, I want to be saved, but these thoughts do not leave me alone. What am I to do in this affliction? How can I be saved?”
And I wonder if, listening to these broadcasts, there is even one person who has not at some point said to God something almost identical. “Lord, I am trying. I want to be saved, I genuinely do, but I am so tormented by my sin. What am I to do? Is it even possible for me to be saved?”
This is a question which confronts so many people, which confronts each of us at some point in our life, when we truly start to see the magnitude and the persistence of our sinful ways. “O Lord, is it possible for me to be saved? Me? I know you can save others, but can you save me?”
Even Saint Antony asks this question, “How can I be saved?” And as is so often the case in these stories from the Egyptian desert, we see God’s answer come not in the form of a direct response. Antony boldly asks his questions, but God’s answer comes not in words, not in a phrase, but in something God allows him to see through his angelic minister.
Saint Antony, having poured out his heart in this way, goes out, and he sees a man sitting down working. He works, and then he gets up to pray, and when he finishes his prayer he sits down to work, and then he gets up and again prays. And we are told in this story that this man he sees is, in fact, an angel sent to correct him, to reassure him. And then he hears the injunction from the voice of the angel: “Do this, and you will be saved.”
And the hope for the Christian who hears these words comes in that next line: Antony was filled with joy and courage and he did this and he was saved.
What are we to learn of this? Obviously, God desires and has the power to save every person who seeks that salvation. There is no sin, no temptation, there is no ongoing struggle, that has the power to separate man from the love of his redeemer. And though each of us at times laments our sin, because to our enslaved perspective it seems so overwhelming, so undefeatable, so powerful, yet to the perspective of God who has the power to defeat even death by His own will, there is no power, no strength, no force in all of creation, much less my sin, that is strong enough to defeat him.
The question is: What shall we do? Shall we stand day and night before God and say, “I’m trying, but I just can’t do it? There is no way. My sin is too strong.” Shall we lament, over and over again, our pitiful lot? The temptation for this is very strong, and all of us are prone, if we may put not too fine a point on it, to whine. We whine before God. “My life is hard, I have so many temptations.”
And certainly we must never think that our lives are not hard, that we do not face temptation. These things are true, but God turns to us tenderly every time, and says, “Yes, child, and now what shall you do?” The Christian life is precisely that, a life. It is to be lived.
To be a Christian is not to stand in a corner and wait for salvation to come to me. To be a Christian is to live the life of Christ, to live out that which we believe, and we believe that God will overcome our sin. We believe that the devil is defeated. We believe that life, true life, heavenly life, is attainable, for every Christian person.
So now, having this belief in our heart, we must do. And that is what Saint Antony sees when he walks out from his prayer and he beholds the angel in the form of a man. The angel does. He sits and he works. Then he rises and he prays. When his prayer is complete he sits and he works and he goes from that work again to prayer.
And we can only assume from all that we know of the life of Saint Antony, from everything we see in the heritage of the desert, and the whole monastic tradition, that the more this work and this prayer are done with faith and with diligence, the more they mingle and bleed together so that the work is the prayer and the prayer is that joyful, peaceful, heavenly work.
And in this way, the whole of life is lifted up to God. The whole of life is transformed and transfigured by him. And for this reason, leaving an example of this life, the angel turned to St. Antony and said, so calmly, “Do this, and you will be saved.”
And this is what we, also, must hear, when our own heart cries out to God, “I’m trying, I want to be saved, but I don’t know how. Is it even possible?” We must hear Christ, through his angels, through his saints, through his church, through his pastors, speak to our own heart, saying, “Do this, and you will be saved, my child.”
Live a life given to him. Do such work as you are given, as befits your calling. Go from your work to your prayer, and your prayer to your work, until they are mingled together, and everything that you do, you do for God, and everything that is done to you, you see as coming from God, transformable by Him into something which leads you to His glory. “Do this, child, and you will be saved.”
Let us hear this advice and, as Saint Antony described the intention of the angel, let us be corrected and reassured by it, that at one point, someday, by the grace of our loving God, another may look at each of us and say what Saint Athanasius said of Saint Antony. “He was filled with joy and courage, and he did this, and he was saved.”
Through the prayers of our holy father, Antony the Great of Egypt, and of all the saints, have mercy upon us, oh God, and save us. Amen.