SPIRITUALITY TODAYRoss Mackenzie: Solitude, Truth, and Vision:
Winter 1983, Vol. 35, No. 4, pp. 336-340.
Antony and the Desert Tradition of Prayer
St. Antony's venture into the desert led to discoveries that are models for the discoveries that we Christians of the twentieth century need to make.
Dr. Mackenzie, formerly on the faculty of Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, has been ministering for the past two and a half years to the congregation of the First Presbyterian Church, Gainesville, Florida.
IN his Confessions Augustine records how one of his friends, while walking near the city walls of Treves, found a copy of the life of Antony, written by Athanasius:All at once he was filled with the love of holiness. Angry with himself and full of remorse, he looked at his friend and said, "What do we hope to gain by all the efforts we make? What are we looking for? What is our purpose in serving the state? Can we hope for anything better than to be the Emperor's friends? . . . But if I wish, I can become the friend of God at this moment."(1)
Shortly afterwards, in the garden in Milan, Augustine himself, like Antony, was confronted directly by the word of the gospel. In a crisis of reorientation similar to Antony's, he turned towards what he was later to call "a truly great vision for a life's work."(2) Augustine's influence on subsequent Christian faith and practice is beyond easy measurement. It is significant, however, that his conversion occurred as he studied the life of a Coptic ascetic through whose anachoresis, or ingress, into the wilderness we may still discover the way to the true life that is hidden "in, under, and with" our everyday existence.
Athanasius composed the life of Antony during his third exile (A.D. 355-62), presumably just after the death of Antony at an advanced age in 356. The century during which Antony had lived was one of political instability, attempts at reconstruction, and recurrent collapse. The empire was being cannibalized, and an enormous price was paid by the civil population for increases in military expenditures. The church was beginning to enjoy, on the one hand, great prestige and temporal power in the new Christian establishment, where to be a Christian and to be a citizen were increasingly not just coextensive but in fact identical. On the other hand, the doctrinal crisis of Arianism seemed to be making half of the Christian church refuse to acknowledge the orthodoxy or even the good faith of the other half. A Christianity of diminished intensity may have been politically desirable and socially acceptable, but clearly not for Antony. So, just as the Jews had escaped from their bondage in Egypt and had gone out into the wilderness, Antony took his departure from the city to the Egyptian desert, there to build, as Georges Florovsky expressed it, "on the virginal soil of the Desert, a New Society, to organize there, on the Evangelical pattern, the true Christian Community."(3)
We may summarize Antony's contribution to the development of Christian spirituality in three ways which sound especially congenial to modern thinking about prayer and appropriate to contemporary needs. We can speak of these as the discoveries of solitude, truth, and vision.
The first discovery is that of solitude. Antony's first discovery in the desert is the first also in the spiritual life: we choose to surrender to Jesus Christ every other primary claim. "Draw inspiration from Christ always," Antony advised, "and trust in him. And live as though dying daily."(4) Prayer, as Antony's own life demonstrates, is the surrender of all things in which I lay my confidence (including my own self-certitude). I surrender them all, so that I may stand before God in my nothingness. As Christ's own life was a negation of the tyranny of the world and a self-surrender to God, so, by sharing in that renunciation, we may find the beginning of a genuinely new (and not simply refurbished) life.
To what primary claims does the actual life of a Christian congregation, or its several members, bear witness today? Do they "pray through" their political, economic, and personal decisions in ways which show that, in Origen's words, "we have another system of allegiance"? Explicit in Jesus' own teaching is a summons to an evangelical anachoresis -- a withdrawal from existing social structures, "house, brothers, sisters, father, children, or land" for his sake (Mark 10:29); or, to use different phraseology, it is an ingress into the reality of God's rule which is present in Jesus of Nazareth.
The second discovery is that of the desert as the place of truth. In prayer we may find the possibility of advancing to a new degree of liberation, the awakening of a new consciousness of self so charged and changed that it will recast the whole of our day-to-day existence. Antony describes his experience in the desert typically as an encounter with the demons. It may be helpful if we transpose into modern terms what he says about his struggles in the depths.
To be a human being is to think. But thinking has its own regions of darkness. So does prayer, which has what can be called its own morbid psychology. Prayer can be a way of recasting my everyday existence through the renewing of my mind, through allowing Christ to take captive its every thought. It can also be my attempt to put God in a relation to me that parallels the way I relate to my own inner being. Thus, if I fear or hate my own urge to control, or my competitiveness, or my gross sexuality, then I will find a God who will hate my controlling ways, my aggressiveness, or my repressed or distorted sexuality. But in this behavioral maneuver I am merely inviting God to have towards me the same disintegrative relationship I have towards myself. Paradoxically, in the very prayer which should be a bond or communion between God and myself, I can actually create a sense of distance and make myself unassailable by encompassing God in my own delusions about myself -- or supposing that I can. If, when I pray, I disclose a self-contempt which is actually a form of self-preservation, my confession of sins may actually prevent me from dying to the old and coming alive to the new that is in Christ.
To "encounter the demons," therefore, is to penetrate into the unknown abyss which all of us encounter within, and which conceals the dark forces which threaten or dominate us. Against the darkness of this interior the light of Christ's resurrection throws its light. His death was a negation of all "worldly" power -- that is to say, controlling or manipulative power -- and at the same time a total surrender to the love of God and neighbor with heart, mind, and soul. Faith in Jesus Christ as the acceptance of his call to bear the cross means sharing in this negation and self-surrender, but at the same time it also means sharing in his resurrection. To pray, in this sense, is both to say no to that ominous and self-assertive power of controlling others and to say yes to the loving service of God and neighbor. To use the sign of the cross in praying, as Antony characteristically did,(5) is to say no and yes in a single moment; it is to ask God's aid in seeking to give up every shred of conventionalized and structured existence and to awaken to a new sense of living in reality and no longer in pretense.
The third discovery is that of the desert as a place of vision. The life by Athanasius frequently refers to Antony's visions. We read, for example, of the beam of light which drenched him as he heard a voice, saying, "I will be your helper for ever."(6) The visions occurred, evidently, in the later period of his life, after the time when he came out of the wilderness, "having been led into the divine mysteries," as he puts it, "and inspired by God."(7) By this stage in his life as a contemplative Antony had become responsive and open at every point to the Spirit of God. He no longer, therefore, needed to remain a solitary and was thus available to serve those who sought his guidance or healing in the places of human need from which he had withdrawn. Living a simple and unencumbered life, he began to immerse himself in the issues of injustice, social oppression, pastoral concern, and theological controversy.
The only safe revolutionary, it has been said, is the contemplative. If by safe we refer to that credibility which is grounded in the example of Christ, Antony provides us with a pattern that will be most helpful when we transpose it into modern terms. He remains a remarkable example of a spirituality that involves a daily reorientation of our life to Christ through a massive shift in personhood in which everything of oneself is now drenched in the light of the risen Christ -- eating and drinking, buying and selling, justice, culture, and custom. To pray is not simply to renounce the demonic or to strip ourselves of everything. It is to commit ourselves to the transformation of all things through Christ, in whom all things are coming to their fulfilment. It is to enjoy all things in the joy of the new age. "The world, life and death, the present and the future, are all your servants," says Paul (1 Cor. 3:21). "All I have is yours," the father says in Jesus' parable (Luke 15:31).To pray is to ponder and to commit ourselves to those actions by which we begin to participate in the renewal of creation as we say, "Thy kingdom come." The contemplative way, as Antony understood and practised it, is a form of discipleship which is inevitably and radically social; and yet it is marked by a peacefulness and tranquillity that do not yield to the pressures of others to conform to their own world views.
"To remember Antony," Athanasius wrote in the Life, "is a great profit and assistance." It remains so. In Antony, evangelical treasures, long hidden, remain to be found by those who follow him deeper and deeper into the country whose Lord and giver of life is the Spirit.
- Augustine, Confessions, 7,6.
- Augustine, De ordine, 2,10,28.
- Georges Florovsky, Christianity and Culture (Belmont, Mass.: Nordland Publishing Co., 1974), p. 86.
- Athanasius, The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcelinus, trans. Robert C. Gregg (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), p. 91.
- E.g., ibid., 13, 35, 53, 79, 80.
- Ibid., 10.
- Ibid., 14.
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