The earlier essays in this series have featured autobiographies. In this essay we turn to one of the very first Christian biographies ever written, and the writer himself is a saint: Life of Antony by Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria in Egypt (c.295–373). As before, our focus will be on how one might approach this book.
THE STRUCTURE OF THE BOOK AND THE WRITER’S PURPOSES
As we saw with Augustine’s Confessions, appreciating the structure of a work is likely to prove helpful. His prayerful autobiography takes us on a journey that first moves outward and downward as a way to depict his moral decline and his emotional turmoil. But as the result of God’s grace, he learns to go inward and upward, to discover within himself the vestiges of God and a path to union.
By comparison, Antony’s trajectory is more simple and straightforward. He had a solid Christian upbringing in his youth. At about age twenty he embarked on an ascetical life and became a hermit. Many as the challenges are that come from the very nature of that way of life – especially his solitary jousts with the devil – Athanasius portrays him as facing steadily in the same direction his entire life. Whatever his personal strengths at the outset, he quickly becomes exhausted by his struggles with the demons. Turning to God in his need, he finds new energy and new strategies for the battles he must face. The rest of his long life involves increasing identification with Christ, who will be his strength at every turn.
When one is learning Augustine’s life story in the Confessions, the reader is likely to encounter certain difficulties upon reaching book ten. The first nine books present a picture of someone trying to find happiness on his own terms and willing to put God off. Only in his misery does he come to realize that nothing other that God can truly satisfy. In many ways the first two-thirds of the volume is modeled on the story of the Prodigal Son. Despite the fact that ten years have passed from the time of his conversion until the writing of the Confessions, Augustine tells us little more about his life story in the final four books. Instead we find philosophical reflections on memory and on time, followed by an intricate exegesis of the opening chapters of Genesis. We cannot help but wonder why Augustine includes such things in his work.
To appreciate the final third of the Confessions the reader needs to bear in mind the theological perspectives of the autobiographer. It is by the use of memory, Augustine observes, that we can make better sense of the earlier portions of our life than we could manage when actually going through them. By reflection on the mystery of time as something created by God, we can better understand the providential care that God shows throughout the lifetime of each individual as well as throughout the history of the cosmos as a whole. The reason for having a commentary on Genesis as the final two books of the autobiography comes into focus as we consider the sacramental dimensions of Augustine’s conversion. He has experienced the regeneration that occurs in baptism. It makes each of us a new creation, restored to God’s original design for creation by the reception of the grace of Christ in the sacrament.
One might have written Antony’s story without these sections, or perhaps have recounted them in much briefer compass. They are crucial, however, to the biographer’s purposes. For Athanasius, Antony is not only an anchorite, withdrawn from the world, but also the founder of monasticism, and so he includes a meditation on this unique sort of vocation by showing Antony as the model for monks and hermits. The biographer also has his reasons for the way he develops the sections on Arianism and Neoplatonism. The first one concerns the life-long struggle to preserve Christian orthodoxy as defined by the Council of Nicaea that marked Athanasius’s tempestuous tenure as bishop of Alexandria. He is eager to show that the faith-filled response to Arianism and Neoplatonism made by this Christ-centered hermit is of the same cloth as his own.
THE STORY AND THE MESSAGE
Clearly Athanasius knew Antony personally. He seems to have spent part of his youth with him (presumably in 318 before being ordained a deacon). As the text explains, Antony visited Athanasius in Alexandria, and Athanasius seems to have spent a certain amount of time with Antony in the desert during one of his periods of exile. The prologue is addressed to monks of some distant (but unnamed) land who had asked Athanasius for an account of Antony’s life. These may have been individuals that he met during one of his other exiles, whether the period spent at Trier in 336-337 or the time in Rome after the Eusebian party at Alexandria forced him into exile a second time in March 340. The account that he composed for them make some use of the literary form known as an encomium for reporting Antony’s origins and good qualities. But where an encomium usually turns to recording a person’s achievements in public life, Athanasius dedicates the bulk of his book to showing Antony as the ideal monk and to provide a model for others about how to seek perfection in this way of life.
Near the beginning of the text we find the story of Antony’s calling. It occurred about six months after his parents died, leaving him to care for his younger sister. In church one day he was deeply struck by the radical nature of what the Lord recommended to the rich young man (Mt 19:21). Applying this advice to himself, Antony distributed the farm lands that he had received as his inheritance, put aside enough to care for his sister, and gave the rest to the poor. Shortly afterward he again felt that something that he heard in church applied to himself: “Be not solicitous for the morrow…” (Mt 6:34). He quickly moved to a deserted place outside his village, the better to imitate a wise old man who had lived there as a hermit since his youth. Interestingly, Augustine tells us that hearing Ponticianus’s story about the conversion of some friends after reading this story from Athanasius’s biography was one of the decisive influences in his own conversion (Confessions 8.6.14).
In these early days of devoting himself entirely to the Lord, Antony’s ascetical practices focused on prayer, fasting, and manual labor. Later he moved further away from his village so as to live as a true anchorite among some tombs. He persuaded a friend to lock him inside an empty one and to bring him some bread from time to time. There Antony lived in solitude until he was about thirty-five. Athanasius presents this period as a time of slow progress with intense battles. When Antony won a round, the devil would soon come back, ready to wage an even tougher fight.
The early phases of this spiritual combat soon exhausted Antony and made him to seek a strength from Christ far beyond his own. Throughout the book Athanasius makes a point of showing that what brought Antony victory was not merely that his own efforts were like those of Christ (the Arian interpretation), but those of Christ within him, strengthening him: Verily, the Lord worked within this man – He who for our sakes took on flesh and gave to his body victory over the Devil. Thus all who fight in earnest can say: ‘Not I, but the
grace of God within me’ [1 Cor. 15:10]. (§5)
Afterwards he moved to the eastern side of the Nile, to what he called the “Outer Mountain,” and lived there in solitude for twenty years. When some friends who wanted to talk with him about imitating his life broke down the door of his enclosure, he came forth from his solitude fresh and unchanged, preaching the love of Christ and performing miracles.
At this point in his life his life takes a kind of monastic turn. He begins to serve as a father for those who wanted to devote themselves to an ascetical life. Through his ever growing
dependence on Christ in his years of solitude he had received the power to repel the assaults of the devil. Now he received further graces for guiding others and for working certain cures and miracles on their behalf, just as Christ had done for him. Pleased with Antony’s constancy, the Lord promised him in a vision that He wold never desert him in time of trial.
In a long address (§16-§43) that Antony is shown delivering to his fellow monks, Athanasius
puts on the lips of Antony many acute observations about spiritual warfare and shows the power of spiritual discernment with which God blessed him (especially §39-§43; see also §88). One sees here too one of Athanasius’s favorite themes: the pagan gods and idols were really demons working hard to terrify believers because the Christian faith was destroying more and more of what had been their great dominance in the world.
This portion of the book also recounts a story about Antony leading a group of monks to
Alexandria during the persecution of Maximin Daja in 311. He is prepared to offer himself for martyrdom. Perhaps mindful of the tradition of the encomium as a literary form, Athanasius presents Antony as doing great deeds in the public sphere – not the great deeds of statesmen or generals, but the great deeds of ministering to those being persecuted for their faith by caring for the imprisoned and those made to work in the mines (§46). When the persecution ended, he returned to the daily martyrdom of his cell.
Athanasius makes a point of explaining that one of Antony’s few departures from seclusion came about when the Arians had claimed that Antony held the same views that they did. In reply to an appeal from the bishops and the faithful of Alexandria, Antony came to the city in person and denounced their heresy in no uncertain terms (§69). The report of the episode exhibitsAthanasius’s delight to find in this holy man of the desert someone completely at one with him in opposing the Arian heresy of thinking Jesus to be a creature like the rest of us and only called the Son of God by reason of his virtuous deeds.
What Athanasius labored to counter by elaborate theological arguments, Antony refuted by his experiential knowledge. He testifies that he had been protected from the wiles of the devil by the strength of Christ alone and that only God can save us (see also §89 and §91). The hermit and the bishop were thus at one resisting the conclusion that the Arians wanted to draw from the utter oneness of God, namely, that the Word of God must be somehow a creature who came to be in time.
The section that recounts his dealings with certain Neoplatonic philosophers who had devised allegorical meanings for the stories of Greek mythology (§72-§80) may also owe its format to the encomium as the literary structure that guides Athanasius’s work. When using the encomium to honor the lives of philosophers, ancient biographers generally replaced the standard device of telling the great deeds that typified statesmen with an account of the occult knowledge possessed by the sage. Athanasius transforms the model here just as he had done in the section on the refutation of the Arians. When the Greek sages come to the hermit on the mountain, he defends the Christian faith not by occult lore but by simple and inspiring comparisons like these:
Which is better – to confess the Cross or to attribute adulteries and pederasties to your socalled gods? For to maintain what we maintain is a sign of manly spirit and betokens
disregard for death, whereas your claims bespeak but wanton passions. Again, which is
better – to say that the Word of God was not changed, but remaining the same took on a
human body for the salvation and well-being of mankind, so that by sharing human birth,
He might make men partakes of the divine and spiritual nature; or to put the divine on a
level with senseless things and therefore to worship beasts and reptiles and images of
And regarding the Cross, which would you say is better: when treachery is resorted to by
wicked men, to endure the Cross and not to flinch from death in any manner or form, or
to fabricate fables about the wanderings of Osiris and Isis…, the swallowing of children,
and slaying of fathers? Yes, here we have your wisdom! And why it is that while you
deride the Cross, you do not marvel at the Resurrection? For those who reported the one
also wrote of the other. (§75)
Athanasius portrays Antony as a Christian sage, taught by the scriptures and by the Lord himself in prayer. The volume ends with a touching account of his death. For Athanasius, he is the model monk in the way he commended himself to God. When he felt the end of his life coming, in the company of just the two monks Macarius and Amatas, Antony made his final will and testament and directed them never to disclosure the place of his burial. There he died in 356 AD at the age of one hundred and five.
TRANSLATIONS AND EDITIONS
Athanasius’s Life of Antony is available in a number of English translations. My own preference is for the translation by Robert T. Meyer in St. Athanasius: The Life of Saint Antony (Westminster MD: The Newman Press, 1950), volume 10 in the Ancient Christian Writers Series. [All quotations within this essay come from this translation.] A more recent translation into English is that by Tim Viviam and Apostolos N. Athanassakis with Rowan A. Greer (Kalazamoo IN: Cistercian Publications, 2003). This edition provides not only a translation of the Greek text but also one of the Coptic text and other writings about St. Antony.
It may be more convenient for some to use the edition found in the Classics of Western
Spirituality Series, Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, translated by Robert C. Gregg with a preface by William A. Clebsch (Ramsey NJ: Paulist Press,1980). This is a good edition, but there is need to be careful in dealing with the Introduction and its curiously pro-Arian perspective, combined with a hermeneutics of suspicion toward Athanasius’s concern with Christian orthodoxy. There are also oddities about the translation, for Gregg risks distorting Antony’s commitment to a highly rigorous regimen by woodenly rendering askesis as “discipline.” This term certainly captures some important aspects of the hermit’s life but it strikes me as too tame for expressing Antony’s radical asceticism. Clebsch treats the mystical term theopoiesis (“divinization”) as if it implied the transformation of human nature into divine nature rather than regarding it as a way of speaking about sanctification and holiness through becoming
Invariably, a translator needs to make choices in deciding how to render the text, and we readers can profit by their careful rendition of the author’s intent. In the case of Athanasius’s biography of Antony, we see the theological importance of the terms selected. Every hagiographical work will need to describe the interplay between the free choices of the individual and the workings of grace. As we will see throughout our survey of autobiographies and biographies of saints and by saints, there is a recurrent connection between how they depict the ways in which grace operates and how they portray the role of Christ in salvation history. The Arian understanding of Christ as a human being who received divine enlightenment at his baptism in the Jordan and then won salvation by the sacrifices and virtues he displayed thereafter is correlated with their understanding of grace in our own situation. In their view we too can become sons and daughters of God like Christ did if we too open ourselves to the light of divine illumination and then undertake a life of virtue and sacrifice like he did. This picture is not the one that Athanasius champions in his theological works nor the one that he presents in the Life of Antony. The Word of God is the eternal Son of the Father. When the Word assumes our nature, He does so to redeem us and to heal us and to sanctify us. This comes about only by the grace of Christ given to us through the Holy Spirit’s care for the Church. We see Athanasius’s concern for this point again and again in this account of how the grace of Christ healed and strengthened Antony for the various types of struggle he endured. It is not a matter of abstruse theology, but a crucial topic for understanding the contributions made by the lives of the saints for Christian spirituality.