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Saint Anthony the Great’s Three Keys to the Spiritual Life

January 17, 2013

I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, “What can get through from such snares?” Then I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Humility.'”

A brother said to Abba Anthony, “Pray for me.” The old man said to him, ” I will have no mercy upon you, nor will God have any, if you yourself do not make an effort and if you do not pray to God.

The brothers praised a monk before Abba Anthony. When the monk came to see him, Anthony wanted to know how he would bear insults; and seeing that he could not bear them at all, he said to him, “You are like a village magnificently decorated on the outside, but destroyed from within by robbers.”

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There are many sayings attributed to Saint Anthony the Great, the father of monasticism. However, these three encapsulate essential ingredients to a life pleasing to God: 1) humility, 2) ascetic labor, and 3) a willingness to bear the “slings and arrows” that beset us in this life. The first saying recommends humility, for that virtue is integral to the spiritual life being an antidote to the uniquely human sin of pride. It also combats egocentricity—the notion that we are the center of the universe—by providing the soul with a perspective from which she can see the snares of the enemy. The second saying counsels ascetic labor and prayer. Without commitment, without our own engagement in the struggle with the world, the flesh and the devil, without action, and without prayerful communion with God, there is no Christian life and we can hardly resist the seductive pull of philautia. The third encounter with the Saint reveals that we need to have self-awareness and to know the difference between how we appear and who we are inside if we are to be peaceful and undisturbed in the face of insults. When we realize that we are lowly and we have sinned, we don’t react angrily to insults, but humbly respond by recognizing our weakness and thanking God for His mercy.

Humility is truly a cardinal Christian virtue. All three sayings are ultimately about humility. Even the second saying about prayer and ascetic struggle is about recognizing our dependence upon God and being His servants. In true humility, we become imitators of Christ who humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. (Phil. 2:8)  Humility borne out of love scatters the darkness and delusion of pride.  A true test of genuine humility may be found in that third “saying” of Saint Anthony.  One who cannot bear the insults and slander of others is not really humble.  Our foolish and ultimately dishonest pride compels us to respond in word or action to any perceived slight or injustice.

Finally, the spiritual life is not possible without our willingness to engage in the struggle.  Father Anthony told his disciples that “Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” He even added, “Without temptations no-one can be saved. . . This is the great work of man: always to take the blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath.”  The spiritual life and our journey toward Christ becoming “all in all” in our very being requires struggle on our part.  Even prior to the Fall in the Garden of Eden, man was expected to put forth ascetic labor in order to reach the perfection of theosis in which he was to become truly like Christ in humility, in compassion, and in love.  After the Fall, how much more necessary is our spiritual struggle!

On this great and holy feast day, let us implore the intercession of Father Anthony and most importantly put into practice his counsels so that we might say with him, “”I no longer fear God, but I love Him. For love casts out fear.”  This is the goal of the spiritual life attained by the meek and humble of heart like Saint Anthony the Great.

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