Today’s feast of St. Anthony of the Desert is full of lessons, but of them I will draw out only two related notes. First, was his regular battle with the enemy. With some friends the other night my wife and I sat discussing the spiritual life and the role of the devil. St. Ignatius is adamantly clear that the evil spirit is weak. He flees when he is confronted with fervor and strength. He charges whenever we falter or delay. But ultimately he is weak.
This is a very comforting thought, but then what of the example of St. Anthony, or St. Gemma Galgani or St. Pio of Pietrelcina? To them the evil one was not just a tempter of the mind who would suggest delaying prayer or having that extra beer. To them, the devil took the form of things, harassed them terribly, appeared to them in frightening shapes. This is weakness?
Of course, it was precisely because of St. Anthony’s strength and resolve against the devil that such displays by the evil one were necessary. Hollywood is enamored of the devil and exorcisms these days. But this is most likely because Hollywood is incapable of saying “no” to any impulse. Firm and immediate refusal of the devil is not in the lexicon of the modern man. But it was the case with St. Anthony who knew how to resist and thus incurred the wrath of the enemy.
This is how St. Athanasius, St. Anthony’s biographer, relates the struggle between this saint and the devil:
9. Anthony was carried therefore by the man, and as he was wont, when the door was shut he was within alone. And he could not stand up on account of the blows, but he prayed as he lay. And after he had prayed, he said with a shout, Here am I, Antony; I flee not from your stripes, for even if you inflict more nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ. And then he sang, ‘though a camp be set against me, my heart shall not be afraid. ‘ These were the thoughts and words of this ascetic. But the enemy, who hates good, marvelling that after the blows he dared to return, called together his hounds and burst forth, ‘You see,’ said he, ‘that neither by the spirit of lust nor by blows did we stay the man, but that he braves us, let us attack him in another fashion.’ But changes of form for evil are easy for the devil, so in the night they made such a din that the whole of that place seemed to be shaken by an earthquake, and the demons as if breaking the four walls of the dwelling seemed to enter through them, coming in the likeness of beasts and creeping things. And the place was on a sudden filled with the forms of lions, bears, leopards, bulls, serpents, asps, scorpions, and wolves, and each of them was moving according to his nature. The lion was roaring, wishing to attack, the bull seeming to toss with its horns, the serpent writhing but unable to approach, and the wolf as it rushed on was restrained; altogether the noises of the apparitions, with their angry ragings, were dreadful. But Antony, stricken and goaded by them, felt bodily pains severer still. He lay watching, however, with unshaken soul, groaning from bodily anguish; but his mind was clear, and as in mockery he said, ‘If there had been any power in you, it would have sufficed had one of you come, but since the Lord has made you weak, you attempt to terrify me by numbers: and a proof of your weakness is that you take the shapes of brute beasts.’ And again with boldness he said, ‘If you are able, and have received power against me, delay not to attack; but if you are unable, why trouble me in vain? For faith in our Lord is a seal and a wall of safety to us.’ So after many attempts they gnashed their teeth upon him, because they were mocking themselves rather than him.
Yeah, that’s cool, and it is a reminder to us of St. Ignatius’ rule that the devil is ultimately weak. We need not fear him unduly, so resist him immediately when temptations arise.
Of course, the other lesson to learn from all of this is that we must at all times keep in mind the last things, the final judgment, the end times, yes, we must remember our death. And this was what St. Anthony chose to write to the Emperor Constantine. It seems that the Christian Emperor and his two sons Constans and Constantius (vain much?) wrote St. Anthony in request of prayers. Anthony chose not to respond right away and calmed his fellow monks down when the letter arrived by reminding them that we have all received a letter from the God via his only Son. Perspective my friends. Perspective.
But when St. Anthony did decide to respond to the Emperor and his boys, the message was simple. St. Athanasius tells us that he
wrote an answer approving them because they worshipped Christ, and giving them counsel on things pertaining to salvation: ‘not to think much of the present, but rather to remember the judgment that is coming, and to know that Christ alone was the true and Eternal King.’ He begged them to be merciful and to give heed to justice and the poor. And they having received the answer rejoiced.
Oh but what a message that could be for our own day. Do you think, humble as we might be and nowhere near the particular sanctity of St. Anthony, but do you think that we might write our emperor and remind him of the need to give “heed to justice and the poor”? Perhaps the rightly worded notice might convict our emper- um … president … that he ought to remember his obligation to justice and the poor and to remember, since he claims to worship Christ after all, to remember the things that pertain to salvation and not reelection.
We can only hope, but in the mean time, let us pray to St. Anthony for the courage to resist the devil with the fervor of a follower of Christ and for the grace to display that same courage as we remind our political leaders about their obligations to justice, the poor, and their own eternal souls.