SAINT ANTHONY THE GREAT
A many-faceted personality of the Orthodox Church
who reached spiritual heights and was honoured by Her‚
as a Father “of Angelic life”‚
as a martyr “out of his own choice”‚
as a teacher and proclaimer of
the word of the truth.
APOSTLE AND MARTYR
The years thus rolled by. The time of the now mature ascetic was divided between his ascetic exercise, prayer and love for his neighbour. Anthony received Grace and blessing from heaven with his struggles and then in turn he gave solid spiritual food to the whole Church. And that was a difficult time, a very difficult time for him…
It is now circa 310 A.D. when the Church was again hit by the persecution which the emperor Maximian proclaimed against it. The persecutors at the time arrested a large number of faithful Christians, imprisoned them and later transferred them to Alexandria to kill them publicly. The persecutors believed that by doing so the other Christians would change faith in their fear and betray their religion.
One winter it was not even daybreak when the villager, who used to bring secluded Anthony some dry bread and water, arrived pale and terrified at his cave.
– Reverend Father, it is all over for us, he shouted before even reaching the fort. The persecution of the Christians has started again in Alexandria. Before long it will come to our area. It is all over, our Church is in danger!…
– What do you mean by this? These are only words my friend. It is probably just rumours, disseminations. Calm down my blessed man, the ascetic answered him calmly.
– This is not a figment of my imagination, Reverend Father. I have seen it with my own eyes, Christians being dragged to prison, the villager went on gasping for breath.
The soldiers gathered young and old men even small children and pushed them with their whips forcefully towards the prison. God help the poor Christians. Run, Reverend Father, speak to them, do what you can.
The villager said many things and could not stop talking for fear. His words were mixed up and his voice was choked in his throat. The idea that the horror of the arena was starting again with the wild beasts and instruments of torture, brought back to his memory images of previous frightful torments.
But the inspired ascetic did not remain exempt from these feelings nor was he indifferent to the news. With fatherly words, taken out the Holy Scriptures and his heart, he supported and strengthened this discouraged man. Then he locked himself up again for hours in his seclusion and he descended into and intense and fervent prayer.
* * *
The sun had risen long since and was on its way to set in the west, when Anthony took the path to Alexandria. Once more the ascetic was walking with his sole companion and luggage his apostolic stick. It should not seem odd to anyone that the ascetic wanted to get involved in the trouble and problems of the Christians in the city. For, even though an ascetic lives far from the world, he is, however, boundlessly* united with everybody and his position is in the heart of the Church.
Till then, Anthony had performed all the selected virtues. He lived an ascetic life. He was an apostle every time he lifted up the barrier of his seclusion and preached to all those who came near him. And now, he was given the opportunity of becoming a Martyr amongst all those other Martyrs of the Alexandrian Church, if this was God’s will.
Anthony had longed for this contest since he was a young boy. However, he did not want to deliver himself to the unfaithful without cause and this was the reason why he chose the exercise ground of the desert.
When Anthony arrived in Alexandria, his first task was to visit the prisons. Then he ran to offer his support to the Christians of the Church.
As long as his presence was required in town, he divided his time between prayer and keeping the Martyrs company. He lived close to them, he offered them advice and the necessary service for each individual case. He was attending their needs and supporting them during his time of their trial. He gave whatever he could, to relieve their pain and their wounds. And when the time of the final contest with the beasts of the arena arrived, he would stand by them, fortifying them with words of love and support, with holy words from the Gospel, with real counsels of faith and eternal hope. Like a real father and brother he remained by them to the end, up to the moment they exchanged their last embrace, until the time that they would finally part to meet again on the eternal day* of His Kingdom.
However, Anthony had not escaped the judge’s notice. The idolatrous judge had observed closely the boldness of his faith. For this reason he proclaimed a strict decree which forbade the presence of monks in such public places. Indeed it is true that many of them were afraid and hid themselves wherever they could.
Anthony, however, changed nothing. He did not abandon any of his customs or his activities. On the contrary, he devoted himself to the service of the Martyrs with increased eagerness and persistence.
– I should give them whatever I can today. Perhaps my own time is drawing upon me, he would say to himself, when his tired and wretched body did not want to obey the motivations of his soul.
It was in fact this thought which made him on the day following the issue of this strict decree to put on his clean and freshly-washed tunic. He hurried, as always, to see his Martyrs, in order to bolster them with his advice and his presence, anticipating his own ultimate moment of Martyrdom.
And this is what made the crowds all round, admire him, receive his life-giving messages, be inspired by his brave and extraordinary actions. Everybody admired him, but he disregarded everything ephemeral and pursued unremittingly the way to heaven.
– This monk is endowed with God’s Grace! Look how he disregards the king’s decree, how he surpasses everything earthly! This is what they said when they saw Anthony looking after and comforting the Martyrs.
Everybody admired him…But he was waiting for that great and unique moment!..
However, his Martyrdom never came. The Lord of his life and death had chosen a different kind of martyrdom, for his faithful child. For this reason he protected him from the temptations and the martyrdom of blood, knowing like an Omniscient and affectionate Father, that His other children had to be taught their faith. With Anthony’s help many more should have been led to His holy will. Many more, from within the Evangelical ascetic life, from the monastic battleground, should be raised to heaven. Many others should enter His kingdom of Heaven through the doorway of love, obedience and prayer.
The All-Knowing knew that it was enough for anyone simply to watch Anthony and his saintly life, to decide to imitate his example and follow Christ.
He knew, the One to Whom all hearts are open and protected Anthony, the Martyr of conscience (II Cor. 1. 12), so as to place him onto another candlestick whence he would give light and lead the children of the desert to the “Promised Land”.
Boundlessly united: Every Monk and every Christian is united with the entire world through prayer. The Monk in particular, while he lives far from the world -separated from the world- in reality however, he is not, as he continuously enfolds the entire universe with his prayers.
Eternal day: The Kingdon of God is called “eternal day” and is without beginning or end. this eternal day will be enlightened not by the sun which rises and sets daily, but the Sun of righteousness, Christ.