WALKING FROM the Post Office back home yesterday afternoon, adjusting to new tri-focal glasses, I was wary of the ice on the sidewalk, increasingly irritated at the man approaching, riding his bicycle towards me. Irritated that someone would place my arthritic knees at risk by invading MY space with his bicycle.
As the man got closer I noticed he had the facial features common to a particular type of mental handicap and became more interiorly irritated, this time against myself for being such a sidewalk hog.
In the same instant the man past me, at a clip, while saying, with a great smile on his face: “Hello there! How are you? “
The other day in my mediation I was seeing myself as Zaccheus and rejoicing that Jesus called to me as He passed by — the moment that man called out his greeting I felt as if Jesus Himself was passing by and felt, of myself, like one of those proverbial cartoon characters who sits on a tree branch, merrily sawing away, until too late he discovers he has severed the limb, and thus himself, from the tree.
HE LIVED until he was over a hundred years old. He was born in Egypt of Christian parents but orphaned at an early age, with a younger sister to care for. One day in church his heart was broken open when he heard the words of the Gospel, spoken by Jesus to the rich young man. So moved, he immediately gave away all but what was needed to care for his sister. Yet sometime later, his heart further opened by the Gospel passage not to worry about tomorrow, he gave away what was left, saw to the care of his sister and went deep into the desert.
There he became the greatest of all spiritual warriors and the great Abba of monastic life.
He is ABBA ANTHONY and today is his feast.
Divine Wisdom was fused into his heart in the crucible of decades of solitary life in the desert, battling evil spirits, being emptied of his false-self by the Holy Spirit, who illumined Abba Anthony and, with fire, configured him to Christ, so that, as is recorded:
They said that a certain old man asked God to let him see the Fathers and he saw them all except Abba Anthony. So he asked his guide, ‘Where is Abba Anthony? ‘He told him in reply that in the place where God is, there Anthony would be.[cv-1]
Now THAT is what it means to be a friend of God!
So here, then, wisdom from the ‘desert great ‘, Abba Anthony:
…whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures…… ….This is the great work of a man: always to take the blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath. ….Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven….Without temptations no one can be saved. ….I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, ‘What can get through from such snares?’ Then I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Humility.’….Our life and our death is with our neighbour. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ. ….A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, ‘You are mad, you are not like us. ‘…I no longer fear God, but I love Him. For love casts out fear. [cv-2]
The life of Abba Anthony was preserved from the oral tradition and written down by another giant of the faith, himself a saint, St. Athanasius. Thus by the time another young Egyptian man was struggling, the story of Abba Anthony would influence his conversion and he too would become a saint. That man was Augustine!
The first mention St. Augustine makes of Abba Anthony comes when he speaks of being introduced to the saint by a friend named Ponticianus. During his friend’s visit Augustine spoke about his meditations upon Sacred Scripture and notes:
…..a discussion arose in which he narrated the story of Anthony, an Egyptian monk. His name was famous among Your servants, but up to that very hour it had been unknown to us…..We in turn stood in amazement on hearing such wonderful works of Yours, deeds of such recent memory, done so close to our own times, and most fully testified to, in the true faith and in the Catholic Church. [cw-1]
Abba Anthony had died around 356 A.D., aged about 105. St. Augustine was born just two years before Abba Anthony’s death. St. Augustine was about thirty years old when he was baptized. Thus when Augustine speaks about ‘deeds of such recent memory, done so close to our own times ‘ he is marvelling not only at what Christ has accomplished in the life of Abba Anthony, but he is also revealing something vital about the mystery of the Communion of Saints, namely, while many have lived seemingly distant in time from our own era, others have lived close to our own. What is even more incredible is that many are alive in this moment in our very midst.
The Communion of Saints is part of the living treasury of the Church’s life, the storehouse of wondrous works of grace from which the Church brings forth models of hope and holiness for us, which are ever ancient and ever new.
When, in the powerful account of the pivotal moment of conversion grace where he, St. Augustine, hears the voice of a child, and is able to attune himself to this gift of the Spirit he remembers:
……I had heard how Anthony had been admonished by a reading from the Gospel at which he chanced to be present, as if the words read were addressed to him……and that by such a portent he was immediately converted to You. [cw-2]
Of course, in truth, such moments of grace are never something ‘chanced’ upon.
So-called ‘chance’ and ‘coincidence’ are terms only rightly applied to the dark ignorance of the tea leaf reading mentality.
With God all is opportunity of grace and graced opportunity.
Closer to our own time another saint emerged from that great tradition which has streamed across the millennia, developing into various forms of monastic-desert life, as well as various forms of religious orders of teachers, nurses, etc., and the modern new forms of consecrated community life in the Church today.
One of the more ancient, tracing itself back to Mount Carmel and Elijah, at least within pious memory if not hard fact, is the Carmelite order, from whose religious sisters in nineteenth century France came a woman known popularly as the Little Flower, whom Pope John Paul II made a Doctor of the Church, namely, St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face.
Her autobiography is a record itself of the marvels and wondrous deeds of the Lord close to our own day.
Called “The Story of a Soul “ it was a treasure of my youthful reading, a source of inspiration when I was a monk and moved me to open my heart to Abba Anthony and the wisdom of the desert.
On my journey of return to the faith, before I entered the seminary, it became a source of hope and courage and I renewed my devotion to this holy woman companion.
A few words of wisdom from her:
At the beginning of my spiritual life when I was thirteen or fourteen I used to ask myself what I would have to strive for later on because I believed it was quite impossible for me to understand perfection better. I learned very quickly since then that the more one advances, the more one sees the goal is still far off. And now I am simply resigned to see myself always imperfect and in this I find my joy. [cx-1]
How often in life has the distance of the goal been a source of discouragement, when in fact, as the saint notes, embraced humbly, humbly embracing our weak selves, the journey becomes joy!
How sweet is the way of LOVE…True, one can fall or commit infidelities, but, knowing HOW TO DRAW PROFIT FROM EVERYTHING, love quickly consumes everything that can be displeasing to Jesus; it leaves nothing but a humble and profound peace in the depths of the heart.[cx-2]
This is the most difficult truth about actual conversion for many souls to accept. Hence, as can be seen in certain evangelical/charismatic circles, emphasis is placed upon external manifestations of faith and love, such as sudden cures, falling faint ‘ in the spirit ‘ and more bizarre forms of shaking, laughing, as well as an increased emphasis on financial security, all attended by a type of xenophobia regarding those who are not of like ilk.
To achieve the fullness of illumination, divinization, sobornost with the Trinity, as exemplified in the lives of the Great Desert Father Abba Anthony and in the Great Doctor of the Church the Little Flower, means a lifetime of spiritual warfare. A lifetime which in the case of Abba Anthony lasted more than a century, in the case of the Little Flower, barely a quarter of one.
It is not the length of the journey, but the inward depth of the journey; it is not the quantity of the battles but the willingness to open wide the doors of our being to His transfiguring touch.
Too often, infected as we Christians are with the Zeitgeist egocentric selfishness pervading our culture, we deny the reality of configuration to Christ by the Holy Spirit as meaning cross and death precede tomb and resurrection. That contemporary Zeitgeist flays about in the quicksand error of love as what I experience from another, rather than soaring into the communion of joy which knows and lives love’s truth: love is gift of self to another first in imitation of God who is Love and first loves us, makes Himself First Gift!
In order to live one single act of perfect Love, I OFFER MYSELF AS A VICTIM OF HOLOCAUST TO YOUR MERCIFUL LOVE, asking You to consume me incessantly, allowing the waves of infinite tenderness shut up within You to overflow into my soul, and that thus I may become a martyr of Your love, O my God! [cx-3]
It is her example of love why Pope John Paul II has urgently begged all bishops and priests to introduce the Little Flower to the youth of this era.
It should be clear too, now, why the elderly priest who took me in and fed and clothed me that stormy night so many decades ago, gave me, along with the Bible, a book of the Lives of the Saints.
It is in their lives that we see in concrete terms of human life the marvellous deeds of the Holy Spirit, brought to ultimate fruition in a manner which should encourage our wounded souls and hearts with the joyful acceptance in our own beings that nothing is impossible to God.
Once I was beginning to commune again with the Saints I was enabled to commune with the process of formation that awaited me in the seminary.
An even closer contemporary of this generation, whose importance in the deepening of Gospel life in the lives of ordinary Christians cannot be overly stressed, and herself a pioneer of the new forms of consecrated life in the Church, is the Servant of God Catherine Doherty.
Born in Czarist Russia, forged into adulthood as a nurse in the bloodletting of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, she was led by the Spirit into the desert of external poverty and service of the poor. Through those experiences she also was plunged into the purifying fire of internal poverty.
A modern Desert Mother she remains, after Our Blessed Mother, the most important woman in my life.
She herself is now in heaven, among that great company of the Communion of Saints where Abba Anthony and the Little Flower preceded her.
Often referring to herself as a poor woman, she was incredibly rich in her passionate love of Christ and all human beings, especially the anawim, those bent over by the burden of external or internal impoverishment.
From the mystery of Christ in the desert, through the life of Abba Anthony, the self-offering as victim of the Little Flower, to the treasury of practical spiritual wisdom from her own heart, poured out in service of the poor and filled with illumination from the Holy Spirit in her days spent in contemplation in her hermitage — always called by her according to its Russian name: Poustinia — comes a clear description of what the desert is all about, what conversion is about, and the central issue of freely choosing to open wide the doors of our being to the Most Holy Trinity, or not.
The teaching is stark, frank, admitting the exhaustion which is constitutive of spiritual warfare.
It contains both an echo of Abba Anthony’s admonishment that we shall endure temptations until our last breath and the passionate willingness of the Little Flower revealing the Little Way of complete self-offering as victim of love:
The more I behold this freedom of mine, poised between these two choices, the more tired I get. Everything suddenly becomes very clear, very simple, and that kind of simplicity is intensely tiring to us human beings. For the vision is clear. There is the burning desert, and there is the other side of the desert which appears so restful. I am somewhere in between. I must decide to either go to the right, into the will of the Father, or to the left, into my own will and the desert of satan. Yes, I am tired because the sight is so clear. I see confusion and demonic powers calling me to do my will contrary to the will of God.
Then, suddenly, all these thoughts leave my mind and I simply realize that God has given me the freedom of choice and a free will, and that He has sent His Son to show me how to do His will. That is what His Son came down to do — to do the will of the Father freely, without compulsion, at the request, as it were, of His Father. I was like that too, like Jesus. I had a free will, and I was not being compelled.
Now my mind begins to clear and my meditation becomes simple. Yes, I am the sister of Jesus Christ. Yes, I have come to do the will of my Father. Yes, that is what I am going to do. I have made the decision. I know that my fiat will have to be repeated again and again, but I am ready, with the grace of God, to do so. [cy]