From Dom Guéranger's The Liturgical Year.
THE East and West unite, to-day, in honouring St Antony, the Father of Cenobites. The Monastic Life existed before his time, as we know from indisputable testimony; but he was the first Abbot, because he was the first to bring Monks under the permanent government of one Superior or Father.
Antony began with seeking solely his own sanctification; he was known only as the wonderful Solitary against whom the wicked spirits waged an almost continuous battle: but in course of time, men were attracted to him by his miracles and by the desire of their own perfection; this gave him disciples; he permitted them to cluster round his cell; and monasteries thus began to be built in the desert. The age of the Martyrs was near its close; the persecution under Diocletian, which was to be the last, was over as Antony entered on the second half of his course: and God chose this time for organizing a new force in the Church. The Monastic Life was brought to bear upon the Christian world; the Ascetics, as they were called, not even such of them as were consecrated, were not a sufficient element of power. Monasteries were built in every direction, in solitudes and in the very cities; and the Faithful had but to look at these communities living in the fervent and literal fulfilment of the Counnsels of Christ, and they felt themselves encouraged to obey the Precepts. The apostolic traditions of continual prayer and penance were perpetuated by the monastic system; it secured the study of the Sacred Scriptures and Theology; and the Church herself would soon receive from these arsenals of intellect and piety her bravest defenders, her holiest Prelates, and her most zealous Apostles. Yes, the Monastic Life was to be and give all this to the Christian world, for the example of St Antony had given her a bias to usefulness. If there ever were a monk to whom the charms of solitude and the sweetness of contemplation were dear, it was our Saint; and yet they could not keep him in his desert when he could save souls by a few days spent in a noisy city. Thus, we find him in the streets of Alexandria when the pagan persecution was at its height; he came to encourage the Christians in their martyrdom. Later on, when that still fiercer foe of Arianism was seducing the Faith of the people, we again meet the great Abbot in the same capital, this time preaching to its inhabitants that the Word is consubstantial with the Father, proclaiming the Nicene faith, and keeping up the Catholics in orthodoxy and resolution. There is another incident in the life of St Antony which tells in the same direction, inasmuch as it shows how an intense interest in the Church must ever be where the Monastic Spirit is. We are alluding to our Saint's affection for the great St Athanasius, who on his part reverenced the Patriarch of the Desert, visited him, promoted the Monastic Life to the utmost of his power, used to say that he considered the great hope of the Church to be in the good discipline of monasticism, and wrote the Life of his dear St Antony.
But to whom is the glory of the institution of monasticism due, with which the destinies of the Church were, from that time forward, to be so closely connected, that the period of her glory and power was to be when the monastic element flourished, and the days of her affliction were to be those of its decay? Who was it that put into the heart of Antony and his disciples the love of that poor and unknown, yet ever productive life? It is Jesus, the humble Babe of Bethlehem. To him, then, wrapt in his swaddling-clothes, and yet the omnipotent God, be all the glory!
It is time to hear the account of some of the virtues and actions of the great St Antony, given by the Church in her Office of his Feast.
Antonius Ægyptius, nobilibus et christianis parentibus natus, quibus adolescens orbatus est, cum ingressus Ecclesiam ex Evangelio audivisset: Si vis perfectas esse, vade et vende omnia quæ habes, et da pauperibus; tanquam ea sibi dicta essent, sic Christo Domino obtemperandura existimavit. Itaque, vendita re familiari, pecuniam omnem pauperibus distribuit. Quibus solutus impedimentis, cœlestis vitæ genus in terris colere instituit. Sed cum in periculosum illud certamen descenderet, ad fidei præsidium, quo erat armatus, adhibendum sibi putavit subsidium reliquarum virtutum, quarum tanto studio incensus fuit, ut quemcumque videret aliqua virtutis laude excellentem, illum imitari studeret.
Nihil igitur eo continentius, nihil vigilantius erat. Patientia, mansuetudine, misericordia, humilitate, labore, ac studio divinarum Scripturarum superabat omnes. Ab hæreticorum et schismaticorum hominum, maxime Arianorum, congressu et colloquio sic abhorrebat, ut ne prope quidem ad eos accedendum diceret. Humi jacebat, cum eum necessarius somnus occupasset. Jejunium autem adeo coluit, ut salem tantummodo ad panem adhiberet, sitim aqua exstingueret; neque se ante solis occasum cibo aut potu recreabat; sæpe etiam biduura cibo abstinebat, sæpissime in oratione pernoctabat. Cum talis tantusque Dei miles evasisset Antonius, sanctissimum juvenem hostis humani generis variis tentationibus aggreditur, quas ille jejunio et oratione vincebat. Nec vero frequens de satana triumphus securum reddebat Antonium, qui diaboli innumerabiles artes nocendi noverat.
Itaque contulit se in vastissimam Ægypti solitudinem, ubi quotidie ad Christianam perfectionem proficiens, dæmones (quorum tanto erant acriores impetus, quanto Antonius ad resistendam fortior evadebat) ita contempsit, ut illis exprobraret imbecillitatem: ac sæpe discipulos suos excitans ad pugnandum contra diabolum, docensque quibus armis vinceretur: Mihi credite, dicebat, fratres: pertimescit satanas piorum vigilias, orationes, jejunia, voluntariam paupertatem, misericordiam et humilitatem, maxime vero ardentem amorem in Christum Dominum, cujus unico sanctissimæ Crucis signo debilitatus aufugit. Sic autem dæmonibus erat formidolosus, ut multi per Ægyptum ab illis agitati, invocato nomine Antonii liberarentur: tantaque erat ejus fama sanctitatis, ut per litteras se ejus orationibus Constantinus Magnus et filii commendarent. Qui aliquando quintum et centesimum annum agens, cum innumerabiles sui instituti imitatores haberet, convocatis monachis, et ad perfectam christianæ vitæ regulam instructis, sanctitate et miraculis clarus migravit in cœlum, decimosexto Kalendas Februarii.
Antony was born in Egypt, of noble and Christian parents, who left him an orphan at an early age. Having one day entered a Church, he heard these words of the Gospel being read: If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell all thou hast, and give to the poor. He took them as addressed to himself, and thought it his duty to obey these words of Christ his Lord. Selling therefore his possessions, he distributed all the money among the poor. Being freed from these obstacles, he resolved to lead on earth a heavenly life. But at his entrance on the perils of such a combat, he felt that besides the shield of faith, wherewith he was armed, he must needs fortify himself with the other virtues; and so ardent was his desire to possess them, that whomsoever he saw excelling in any virtue, him did he study to imitate.
Nothing, therefore, could exceed his continency and vigilance. He surpassed all in patience, meekness, mercy, humility, manual labour, and the study of the Sacred Scriptures. So great was his aversion for the company of, or conversation with, heretics, especially the Arians, that he used to say that we ought not even to go near them. He lay on the ground when necessity obliged him to sleep. As to fasting, he practised it with so much fervour that his only nourishment was bread seasoned with salt, and he quenched his thirst with water; neither did he take this his food and drink until sunset, and frequently abstained from it altogether for two successive days. He very frequently spent the whole night in prayer. Antony became so valiant a soldier of God that the enemy of mankind, ill-brooking such extraordinary virtue, attacked him with manifold temptations; but the Saint overcame them all by fasting and prayer. Neither did his victories over Satan make him heedless, for he knew how innumerable are the devil’s artifices for injuring souls.
Knowing this, he betook himself into one of the largest deserts of Egypt, where such was his progress in Christian perfection that the wicked spirits, whose attacks grew more furious as Antony’s resistance grew more resolute, became the object of his contempt, so much so indeed, that he would sometimes taunt them for their weakness. When encouraging his disciples to fight against the devil, and teaching them the arms wherewith they would vanquish him, he used often to say to them: 'Believe me, Brethren, Satan dreads the watchings of holy men, and their prayers, and fasts, and voluntary poverty, and works of mercy, and humility, and above all, their ardent love for Christ our Lord, at the mere sign of whose most holy Cross he is disabled and put to flight.' So formidable was he to the devils that many persons in Egypt who were possessed by them were delivered by invoking Antony's name. So great. too, was his reputation for sanctity, that Constantine the Great and his sons wrote to him, commending themselves to his prayers. At length, having reached the hundred and fifth year of his age, and having received a countless number into his institute, he called his Monks together; and having instructed them how to regulate their lives according to Christian perfection, he, venerated both for the miracles he had wrought, and for the holiness of his life, departed from this world to heaven on the sixteenth of the Calends of February (January 17).
The Churches of the West, during the Middle Ages, have left us several Sequences in honour of St Antony. They are to be found in the ancient Missals. As they are not by any means remarkable as liturgical pieces, we shall content ourselves with inserting only one, omitting the three which begin Alme Confessor; In hac die lætabunda; Antonins hnmilis.
Pia voce prædicemus,
Et devotis celebremus
Dei Sanctus exaltetur,
Et in suis honoretur
Sanctis, auctor omnium.
Hic contempsit mundi florem,
Opes ejus et honorem:
Et coniugit ad desertum:
Ut non currat in incertum
In hoc vitæ stadio.
Mira fuit ejus vita:
Clarus fulsit eremita.
Sed mox hostis subdoli
Bella perfert: sæpe concutitur
Gravi pugna: verum non vincitur
Ictu crebro flagellatur:
Et a sævis laceratur
Lux de cœlo micuit:
Et clara personuit
Dei vox de nubibus.
Quia fortis in agone
Te clamabit totus orbis.
Pro pellendis item morbis
Id, Antoni, nunc impletum
Conspicamur, et repletum
Mundum tuo nomine.
Hoc implorat gens devota:
Tibi pia defert vota
Pro tuo munimine.
Nunc in forma speciosæ
Nunc in massæ specie,
Dæmon struit illi fraudes;
Sed, qui tanta, vafer, audes,
Succumbis in acie.
Mille fraudes, mille doli
Sunt inanes: illi soli
Cedit orcus ingemens,
Militem hunc veneratum,
Et robustam ejus manum
Horret hostis infremens.
Non lorica corporali
Fultus, inimico tali
Hic athleta restitit.
Aqua potus, terra lectus
Illi fuit: his protectus
Armis, victor exstitit.
Herba fuit illi victus:
Palmæ frondes et amictus,
Ac cum bestiis conflictus,
Atque somni parcitate
Et philosophis profanis,
Paulum visit, nec inanis
Fit via, nec irrita.
Nam convenit hunc viventem,
Inde sanctam ejus mentem
Cœlos vidit ascendentem,
Carne terræ reddita.
O Antoni, cum beatis
Nunc in regno claritatis
Gloriaris; hie gravatis
Mole camis, pietatis
Tuæ pande viscera.
Ne nos rapiat tremendæ
Mors gehennæ, manum tende.
Nos a morbido defende
Igne, nobis et impende
Gloriam post funera.
Let us piously proclaim
the praises of Antony,
and celebrate his name in sacred hymns.
Let us honour God's Saint;
and God, the author of all,
be honoured in his Saints!
Antony despised, in obedience to the Gospel,
the beauty, and riches,
and honours of the world.
He fled into the desert,
that he might not run with uncertainty
in the race of this life.
Wonderful was his life.
He was a celebrated hermit.
But soon does the crafty enemy
Wage war against him.
The combat is fierce and oft renewed;
but he is not vanquished by the devil's attacks.
The demons scourge him with many blows,
and his flesh is cruelly torn
by the angry enemy.
But a light shone down from heaven;
and the sweet voice of God was heard
speaking from above:
'Because thou hast bravely fought in the combat,
thy name shall be published
in every country.
'The whole earth shall proclaim thy glory.
Thou shalt be invoked
against the disease of Fire.'
This, O Antony! we see fulfilled,
and the world resounds
with thy name.
The devout servants of God call on thy name,
and fervently pray to thee
for help and protection.
Sometimes, again, it is in the appearance of a beautiful woman,
and sometimes under the form
of a piece of gold,
That the devil lays snares for the holy man:
but after all thy daring, O crafty tempter!
thou art defeated in the fight.
Yea, vain are his thousand frauds and tricks;
and all hell falls back bemoaning
that one man single-handed has repelled them.
Roaring with rage, the enemy trembles
before this venerable soldier,
whose hand so roughly deals its blows.
The brave combatant resists these mighty enemies,
and yet he wears no breast-plate
such as soldiers use.
His drink is water, his bed the ground;
these were his arms,
and by these he conquered.
Herbs were his food;
the palm-leaf gave him raiment;
and his companions were the wild beasts
of the wilderness.
He restrained lust
by assiduous prayer,
frequent manual labour,
and short sleep.
He confuted the Arians
and the profane Philosophers;
he visited Paul the Hermit,
nor was the journey fruitless or vain;
For he found him alive,
and then saw his holy soul
mounting up to heaven,
and buried his body.
O Antony! thou art now in glory,
with the Blessed, in the kingdom of light;
show thy affectionate pity on us,
who are here weighed down
by the burden of the flesh.
Stretch out thy hand,
lest the terrible death of hell seize upon us.
Defend us from the burning distemper,
and assist us to gain heaven
when our life is spent.
The Greek Church is enthusiastic in her praises of St Antony. We extract the following stanzas from her Menæa.
Die XVII Januarii
Quando in sepulchro teipsum gaudens inclusisti, Pater, propter Christi amorem, sufferebas quam fortiter dæmonum insultus, oratione et caritate istorum fumo debiliora depellens tentamenta; tunc plauserunt Angelorum ordines clamantes: Gloria roboranti te, Antoni.
Helias demonstratus es alter, habens celebres discípulos, novos Elíseos, sapiens, quibus et gratiam tuam duplicem dereliquisti, raptus tanquam in curru, æthereus pater; nunc ab illis decoratus, omnium recordaris, beatissime, tuam celebrantium cum amore venerabilem festivitatem, o Antoni.
In terris Angelum, in cœlis Dei virum, mundi omamentum, bonorum et virtutum florem, asceticorum gloriam, Antonium honoremus; plantatus enim in domo Domini effloruit justissime, et quasi cedrus in deserto multiplicavit greges ovium Christi spiritualium in sanctitate et justitia.
O illuminate Spiritus radiis, quando te divinus amor combussit, et animam evolare fecit ad desiderabile caritatis fastigium, tunc despexisti carnem et sanguinem, et extra mundum factus es, multa ascesi et tranquillitate ipsi unitus, quo repletus es; exinde quæsisti bona et resplenduisti sicut stella irradians animas nostras, Antoni.
Tu qui dæmonum sagittas et jacula contrivisti caritate divini Spiritus, et malitiam insidiasque ejus omnibus patefecisti, divinis coruscans illustrationibus, Monachorum effectus es fulgidissimum luminare, et eremi primum decus, et supremus ægrotantium medicus, et Archetypus virtutum, Antoni Pater.
Asceticum super terram proíessus exercitium, Antoni, passionum ictus in torrente lacrymarum omnes hebetasti; scala divina et veneranda, ad cœlos elevans, mederis passionum infirmitatibus eorum qui ad te cum fide exclamant; Gaude, Orientis stella deauratissima, Monachorum lampadifer et pastor; gaude, celebrande, tu deserti alumne, et Ecclesiæ inconcussa columna; gaude errantium dux illustrissime; gaude, o gloriatio nostra, et orbis terrarum decor fulgidissime.
Columna splendida et virtutibus obfirmata, et nubes obumbrans effectus es, his qui in deserto ad cœlum e terra Deum contemplantur, præpositus; crucis báculo passionum rumpens mare, spiritualem autem arduamque ad cœlum in facilem mutatus viam, invenisti, beatissime, incorruptibilem hæreditatem; cum incorporeis throno assistens Christi, quem deprecare animabus nostris dare magnam misericordiam.
Vitæ derelinquens perturbationes, crucem tuam humeris deferens, totum te commisisti Domino, et extra carnem. Pater, et mundum factus, Sancti effectus es confabulator Spiritus, ideoque ad zelum populos evigilans, civitates vacuas fecisti, civitatem in deserto transferens. Antoni Deifer, deprecare Christum Deum dare peccatorum remissionem celebrantibus cum amore tuam sanctam commemorationem.
When, O Father! thou didst shut thyself in a sepulchre, with joy, for the love of Christ, thou didst most bravely endure the attacks of the demons, putting to flight, by prayer and charity, the cloud of their temptations; and the choirs of Angels applauding, cried out: Glory, O Antony! be to him that strengthens thee.
Thou wast as another Elias, surrounded by thy glorious disciples; to whom, as to Eliseus, thou, their wise father, taken up as it were to heaven in a chariot, didst leave thy twofold grace; now that they are thy ornament above, thou art mindful of us all who lovingly celebrate thy venerable feast, O Antony!
Let us honour Antony, who was an Angel on earth, the man of God in heaven, the ornament of the world, the flower of good men and of virtues, the glory of Ascetics; for being planted in the house of the Lord, he bloomed in perfect justice, and as a cedar in the desert, he multiplied the flocks of Christ's spiritual sheep in holiness and justice.
O Antony! illumined by the rays of the Spirit! when divine love consumed thee, and made thy soul take her flight to the summit of charity thou didst long for—then didst thou despise flesh and blood, and become a stranger to this world, in deep spirituality and peace united to him with whom thou wast filled. Then didst thou seek after true goods, and shine as a star reflecting light on our souls.
Thou that didst, by the love of the Holy Spirit, break the arrows and darts of the demons, laying open their malice and their snares to all men; thou that didst shine with the divine teachings, thou wast made, O Antony! the brightest luminary of Monks, the grandest glory of the desert, the ablest physician of the sick, the Archetype of virtue.
Professing on earth the life of an Ascetic, O Antony! thou didst deaden in the torrent of thy tears all the blows of thy passions. Thou art the holy and venerable ladder that raises men to heaven; and thou healest the infirmities of their passions from those that cry to thee with faith: Rejoice, most richly gilded Star of the East, the lamp-bearer and shepherd of Monks! Rejoice, illustrious Saint, child of the desert, unshaken pillar of the Church! Rejoice, most glorious Chieftain I Rejoice, O thou our glory, and brightest ornament of the whole earth!
God made thee a bright pillar solid in virtue, and a shadegiving cloud, to lead the way to such as, in the journey from earth to heaven, contemplate God. By the rod of the Cross thou didst break up the sea of the passions; and changing the spiritual and difficult way to heaven into one that is easy, thou didst obtain, O most blessed Antony! the incorruptible inheritance. Pray to that Christ, at whose throne thou assistest with the Angelic spirits, that he bestow his great mercy on our souls.
Leaving the distractions of this life, and carrying thy cross on thy shoulders, thou didst commit thy whole self to the Lord; and estranging thyself, O Father! from the flesh and the world, thou wast admitted into intimate communication with the Holy Spirit; and therefore didst thou rouse up the people to fervour, emptying the cities of their inhabitants, and changing the desert into a city. O Antony, that bearest God within thee! beseech Christ our God that he give remission of sin to us all who lovingly celebrate thy holy commemoration.
We unite, great Saint! with the universal Church in offering thee the homage of our affectionate veneration, and in praising our Emmanuel for the gifts he bestowed upon thee. How sublime a life was thine, and how rich in fruit were thy works! Verily thou art the Father of a great people, and one of the most powerful auxiliaries of the Church of God. We beseech thee, therefore, pray for the Monastic Order, that it may reappear in all its ancient fervour; and pray for each member of the great Family. Fevers of the body have been often allayed by thy intercession, and we beg for a continuance of this thy compassionate aid; but the fevers of our soul are more dangerous, and we beg thy pity and prayers that we may be delivered from them. Watch over us in the temptations which the enemy is unceasingly putting in our way; pray for us, that we may be viligant in the combat, prudent in avoiding dangerous occasions, courageous in the trial, and humble in our victory. The angel of darkness appeared to thee in a visible shape; but he hides himself and his plots from us; here again we beg thy prayers that we be not deceived by his craft. May the fear of God's judgements, and the thought of eternity, penetrate into the depth of our souls. May prayer be our refuge in every necessity, and penance our safeguard against sin. But above all, pray that we may have that which thou didst counsel—the Love of Jesus; of that Jesus who, for love of us, deigned to be born into this world, that so he might merit for us the graces wherewith we might triumph—of that Jesus who humbled himself even so far as to suffer temptation, that so he might show us how we were to resist and fight.