Winter 1984, Vol. 36, No. 4, pp. 333-339.

Robert W. Englert:
      Losing Control Gracefully: A Study of St. Antony's Entombment

The asceticism of the fourth-century hermit St. Antony of Egypt and the account of his entombment speak to contemporary concern about human control and national security.

Dr. Englert is a graduate of Fordham University. He is a teacher and therapist in New York City, where he is chairperson of the religion department of Malloy St. Ann's School. His articles have appeared in Review for Religious, Contemplative Review, and Spiritual Life.

IF we are to write of temptation, we must say something of Antony, the Coptic ascetic whose exploits have beguiled Westerners for centuries. Antony's reputation was immortalized by the pen of St. Athanasius, who bequeathed the legendary fellow to Augustine and Jerome. Athanasius's Life of Antony thus furnished a tale of heroic asceticism which others drew upon for centuries.

Later Hieronymous Bosch immortalized Antony's temptations in oil and Gustave Flaubert dramatized his plight in La Tentation de S. Antoine. Always, Antony was portrayed as a Christian Prometheus whose ascetic regimen dazzled the imagination.

The saint lived in Egypt in that great period of seclusion and retreat which accompanied the Roman persecutions. His admirers constantly recall his acumen as an accomplished ascetic, and his bouts with demons are legendary. Athanasius wrote that Antony was physically beaten by demons whose bizarre efforts failed to ruffle his stoic countenance.

Still this solitary figure was not a person unfamiliar with frailty. As much as Athanasius tried to create a hero, his pen did not disguise the agony of a human being, whose temptations all but killed him. If Antony was courageous, he was not unfamiliar with pain, discouragement, and imminent death. In a word, he experienced the full anxiety of being human.

In a most exciting narrative, Athanasius wrote of Antony's encountering sensuous visitors in the night and wrestling with hordes of beasts who violated his repose. Bishop Athanasius thus created an excitement that would fertilize the imaginations of artists for centuries to come. It was a tale of bizarre seduction and spiritual warfare. Such a conflict moved the imaginations of persons like Bosch and Flaubert centuries after Athanasius had written.

In a description such as this, it is difficult to capture the essence of Athanasius's hero. Still, there is one symbolic event which does afford us a clear view of Antony's asceticism. Like those other anchorites and solitaries who would seclude themselves totally from the world for centuries to come, Antony was led by the spirit to "seal himself in a tomb," where, undisturbed, he might pray constantly. He thus embraced the tradition of the hermit, so common to history and so foreign to contemporary understanding.

Like the great Julian of Norwich and our contemporary Thomas Merton, Antony chose to seclude himself in order to attend only to God's love. Thus Athanasius tells us that Antony "sealed himself' in a desert tomb to pray undisturbed, except for occasional deliveries of food. Subsequently Athanasius relates a strange tale of demonic visitation, and we learn that Antony is beaten unconscious by a horde of demons. In a tragic narrative, Bishop Athanasius relates that Antony is found by friends in a comatose state and is carried to a church for a midnight vigil that strongly resembled a wake.

If we can suspend our modern need to wonder about the presence of demons in anyone's life, there is much to be discovered in Athanasius's account. In his account, we soon notice that the hero who began to pray unceasingly found that he could not pray at all. His place of prayer became, in fact, a place of annihilation, and his desire for God was all but extinguished. Unlike those titans who stood against the foe, Antony was banished to sleep with the dead.

Now, if we read further in Athanasius's tale, we discover even greater mysteries. After some hours of "death," Antony "awoke" to return again to his hermitage, greatly strengthened by Jesus! We might say that he had "risen" from helplessness to a life which surpassed ascetical expectations. Here, in Athanasius's description, we discover a new Antony, revitalized by the powers of the risen Christ. In a dramatic fashion, this Antony now repels the onslaught of demons with his new found strength!


What sense are we to make of this tale which proffers such mythology, leaving us moderns without a ready sense of reference? Now it is only by returning to the great myths that Antony's passage from death to life is rendered comprehensible. Such myths always tell us of sudden rebirths which we are unable to predict with the most practiced eye. Like Aeneas, Dante, and Jesus himself, Antony endured the bowels of the earth before being surprised by unparalleled joy. He lost control of his life before it was returned to him with abundance. Before coming alive, he first did what all mortal heroes hate to do -- he lost control of his fate.

Such losing control is the very stuff of Christian existence -- it is the "falling into the earth" that Jesus described, the diminishment prior to wholeness. Because it represents a coming apart or a disintegration, we mistakenly view it as a terminal point, a point of extinction. We forget that, at some point, losing control allowed us to speak fluently, to walk without effort, to kiss without awkwardness, to speak the truth without fear. All these positive experiences of losing control are forgotten by those forces in us which fear such loss.

Antony's experience in the tomb is thus clearly intended by Athanasius to parallel the experience of him whose diminishment and resurrection inspire the history of the West. What is so clear to us is that Athanasius has fashioned, not a stoic, but a resilient lover who follows the rhythm of life and death. The experience of losing control is thus placed in a favorable light in Western tradition. It is an experience exemplified by Jesus who passed through death to eternal life on behalf of us all. He "let go of everything" in the most graceful fashion in order "to gain everything."

Now Jesus and Antony (his follower) both lost control of their fate. Neither was certain of anything, including the duration of his life. Both were subject to diminishment, pain, uncertainty, and the threat of annihilation.

Yet both trusted the rhythm of life; both trusted themselves to life's process of diminishment and growth. In some way, both also trusted themselves, or they never would have survived the ordeal of entombment. They never could have gone into the earth with such trust. If they believed in God, they also believed in their ability to survive the earth's rigors.

Entombment is a process over which the human person has little control. Once the tomb is sealed, there is little hope of returning under our own power. Moreover, there is no way to avoid whatever terror ensues within. The tomb is thus an ultimate horror of claustration, from which there is no exit. The notion of voluntary entombment thus becomes a statement of the most total trust.

For Antony, it entailed the trust that God would deliver him from every evil. Such a trust reached its apex when Antony allowed the tomb to close around him. For each of us, trust is only complete when the tomb does close around us. Moreover, it is because the tomb must someday close, that every other act of trust in some way anticipates this one.

The finality of Antony's enclosure was not lessened by the periodic deliveries of food, which a friend tendered. For all purposes, Antony had severed connections with the familiar world and entered the realm of unknown forces, over which he had no dominion. In entering the earth, Antony opened himself to the onslaught of the unconscious without recourse to escape.

The lesson of entombment is direct enough. Holiness entails a complete abandonment to divine providence! It involves a total trust in God which our fear of extinction finds repugnant.

Today we must admit that no generation has ever experienced itself to be more "in control" of nature than ours. Thus we have great difficulty with figures who "lose control" of their destiny. The gesture of voluntary entombment is a strange one in an age that seeks to avoid death by producing life-support systems, armaments, and fall-out shelters. Entombment is the polar opposite of control. It is a vulnerable gesture which exposes itself to life's rhythm rather than hording our resources to avoid diminishment. In a sense, the attitude of the anchorite rejects the ersatz control of the systems analyst. It says that there is no security in ultimate design, no wisdom in ultimate planning. If systems are to serve us, they must assist us to lose control gracefully.

If we are to be grounded in anything, Athanasius tells us that it is in Christ rather than in our own designs. Deftly he associates Pauline teaching with Antony's vulnerability. Antony is heard to exclaim again and again: "It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me." This is the Christ who lives through dying. Antony is thus grounded in a wonderful love which rejects mortal fear in quest of a constant joy. Such a joy arises when mastery and power are no longer one's primary concern.


Going into the tomb thus rejects the need "to protect ourselves." It involves the choice of a dark void, free of any program to deter demons, real or imaginary. In Castaņeda's now famous expression, the anchorite "stops the world" with a refusal to endorse its fear of losing control. Asceticism is thus a refusal to accept fear as the final state of our being. It is the deliberate choice to live without those fears which afford a certain security by offering us an obsession that is at least familiar. The refusal to fear is the rejection of the lie that we are at our best when groveling in a familiar baseness.

Although written in the fourth century, Athanasius's account of the ascetic ordeal of Antony with its voluntary entombment reminds us that fear is not our truest companion. It tells us that asceticism and anxiety are at odds. As the Johannine author suggested, "love casts out fear" and it impels us to enter the earth as Jesus did. Neurosis is thus the antithesis of resurrection, and basic human angst pales before the risk-taking attitude of anchorites. The Christian is not to be "insecure" but to live without security -- or to discover a treasure that cannot be priced. Here in the tale of the anchorite we discover the imagination of the "reign of God" which defies the subtleties of discouragement and despair. The Christian thus lives beyond the world's understanding and meets demons that the world would avoid through routines of unimaginative compromise.

Now nations treasure security over insecurity even when this security emerges from systems of terror. On the contrary, the anchorite embraces weakness as the way through which he or she is touched by a dawning compassion. Such persons choose diminishment rather than control.

All of us fear the cross of diminishment. We want to know how things will turn out -- and we simply cannot abide the prospect of placing the future in God's hands. The example of the "birds of the air" eludes our sensibilities.

On the contrary, the anchorite does not know where the spirit-wind will blow. He or she has no assurances, no guarantees of the future. Even the consolation of "being righteous" is foreign to entombment, since it promises one a security that the loneliness of the tomb shakes to its core.

The tomb isolates us from all that is familiar, forcing us toward the unfamiliar in a most stark manner. It is in the unfamiliar land that our fears grow, in the desert that our demons emerge. Still it is toward the alien, unfamiliar desert that the Spirit leads us. We are thus asked to trust what had been alien, to "pass over" into a new experience of being reconciled to what was "foreign." The "foreign" is thus essential to our experience of wholeness.


Now the anchoritic journey is largely such a "passing over into alien lands," a pilgrimage into the "unknown" or "unfamiliar." It is the unfamiliar, elusive presence that we really seek after to fill out our life, and we cannot have its fullness if we bind ourselves to familiar paths. The experience of the cross is thus an experience of passing over, of transcending "needs" in quest of hidden "values" that are apparently "alien."

What begins as a burial in the earth thus becomes a passing over to new birth. It is a rebirth because it involves reconciliation with our unknown origins. The fullness of the anchorite is not a denial but a reconciliation with the unfamiliar. It is a matter of meeting strangers and lepers, the poor and unwanted, the unknown, "sinful" parts of ourselves. The anchorite thus forsakes the familiar because it is in the stranger that we rediscover our own lost possibility and our God.

The final attitude of the anchorite thus becomes an attitude of full trust. A once distant mystery is then able to become the light which illumines the tomb, and the emptiness of the earth is altered by joys that could not be anticipated. What was begun as a task of foreboding denial thus comes to be an experience of wonderful joy. After an onslaught of demons, it is not surprising that Antony is greeted by a dazzling light!