January 17, 2007

Anthony of Egypt

Today is the feast of St. Anthony, the "Father of Monks." Here is a homily I once gave to the brothers:

I suggest to you, brothers, that today we keep the feast of our great-grandfather. For Anthony, who took up the life of a hermit in the late third century, is seen by tradition as the beginning of men’s religious life in Christianity. After Anthony came our grandfather Benedict, who institutionalized the common religious life, realizing that not all who begin this journey are strong enough to fight the demons alone and without the support of human society. After this our own father Francis found a way to imagine a mendicant life that was faithful to the Church, inventing a new form of religious life that was freed from the limits of the feudal imagination.

Let’s listen for a moment to the Life of St. Anthony by St. Athanasius:

“Now it was not six months after the death of his parents, and going according to custom into the Lord's House, he communed with himself and reflected as he walked how the Apostles left all and followed the Savior; and how they in the Acts sold their possessions and brought and laid them at the Apostles' feet for distribution to then needy, and what and how great a hope was laid up for them in heaven. Pondering over these things he entered the church, and it happened the Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man, 'If you would be perfect, go and sell what you have and give to the poor; and come follow Me and have treasure in heaven.' Anthony, as though God had put him in mind of the Saints, and the passage had been read on his account, went out immediately from the church.”

Anthony’s religious vocation begins when he hears the Gospel addressed to him personally and he begins to put it into practice immediately. Sound familiar? One of our traditional stories about Francis is very similar. Upon hearing the Gospel on the feast of St. Matthias, in which Christ tells the disciples not to carry gold nor silver, nor wallet, belt or shoes, nor two tunics, Francis immediately puts what he hears into practice, as if it were addressed to him personally. Francis famously declares, “This is what I want to do with all my strength!”

But remember carefully, brothers. Remember that this event happened after what we usually call Francis’ conversion. Francis had already met the poor and humble Christ in the leper and in the Crucifix of San Damiano. He had already renounced his family and taken up the religious state. He had already repaired a couple of churches. He had already embarked upon a religious vocation in the best way he could imagine it. And yet he was still attentive enough to hear the Gospel calling him deeper into his vocation, into a new form of religious life, a new form for a changing world.

Athanasius assures us that Anthony was a perfectly good disciple of the Lord when he lived at home with his family. And yet, for the sake of the Church, the Holy Spirit invented a new form of religious life through him. And the Spirit did this through Anthony’s attentiveness to the Gospel. Francis too, was living a perfectly good form of religious life, praying, doing penance, repairing churches, when he heard the Gospel calling him to imitate the poor and humble Christ in a new way.

Let’s notice our own call in all this. Our Constitutions encourage us to be open to new forms of religious life that may be emerging in history. How will we know? The same way Anthony and Francis did, by being attentive to the proclamation of the Gospel and hearing it addressed to our particular time and place. Therefore, let’s show up and listen.

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