January 17th is the memorial of Anthony of Egypt, a saint representing the important early saints and spiritual tradition of Egypt. He influenced St. Athanasius and St. Augustine, as well as modern spiritual authors like Thomas Merton.
Anthony offered himself as a martyr during a 3rd century Roman persecution of Christians in Alexandria, his biographer St. Athanasius says, but they ignored him, and so he turned to the martyrdom of everyday.
There’s a martyrdom every day, and every day we’re tempted, Anthony realized. But don’t fear the trials you face. That was Anthony’s advice to those seeking his counsel. Artists like Martin Schongauer (above) portrayed Anthony surrounded by his temptations, but the saint is not afraid. Know your temptations, he said, and God will lead you from them.
Anthony’s life helped many, among them St. Augustine, to steer through the temptations they faced. Here’s a simple version of Anthony’s battle with temptation as Athanasius describes them:
“Those who follow Jesus should expect temptation; Anthony experienced a range of them over the hundred years of his life. The devil knocked regularly on the door of his heart, assuming different faces and making different suggestions, but this shy, gentle man was not conquered.
“In the early years Christ called him, he often thought: ‘Have I made a mistake?’ The days were so slow and monotonous, nothing important going on. ‘Am I doing anything with my life?’ he wondered.
“One day, weary of it all, he left his house and opening his arms wide cried to heaven: “Lord, what should I do?” For awhile, nothing but silence. Then, Anthony heard someone moving behind him. Turning, he saw someone like himself, getting up from his bed, saying his prayers, eating his meals, doing his work, welcoming some visitors, and finally saying his prayers and going to sleep. Just as he did everyday.
“God’s angel answered his prayer, Anthony realized. He was beginning to think ordinary life had no meaning. But that’s where treasure is; life is holy ground. Ask God to see it, and don’t give up. Anthony went back to his life again.
“Other temptations beset Anthony. Sometimes he worried about his health. If he got sick, who would care for him? He had chosen to live for God alone. Wouldn’t it be better to have a family to support you? He gave so much to others and kept so little for himself. Wouldn’t it be better to be a rich man? Lustful thoughts sometimes filled his mind.
“Temptations swept over his soul like dust storms, causing confusion and uncertainty. But in the storms, Anthony learned another lesson: Christ is always with you.
“One restless night, Anthony was almost pulled to pieces by violent temptations. Monsters and demons were everywhere, flying through his room shouting and screaming, ready to kill him. He was about to give up hope when a beautiful light shone through the roof of his house and the demons disappeared. In the peaceful light, he saw Christ.
“Lord, where were you when I was being tried?” Anthony said.
“I was right here all the time you struggled,” Jesus replied. “My hand was on you as your helper.”
“After that ordeal, Anthony experienced peace for a while. Then, one day he heard a knock at his door and, opening it, saw a little man grinning from ear to ear, bowing to the ground before him as if he were king.
“You are a saint, Anthony,” he said ingratiatingly. “Everyone says so. People say you’re wiser and better than anyone on earth. So, tell me everything you have to say and everything you know; you’re just perfect.”
“Anthony slammed the door in the little man’s face. “You’re more dangerous than any temptation I’ve had, because you want me to believe I’m God, and I’m not. You are the temptation of pride.”
“Gradually over the years, people discovered this man with so much hard earned wisdom. Soon , from everywhere people were coming for his advice and his prayers and his healing for themselves or someone they loved. Because he knew himself so well, Anthony knew their hearts too.
“One constant message he repeated again and again to those who came to him, ‘Don’t be afraid, live joyfully in God’s grace. Never give up. God delivers us from temptation.’”