‘St. Anthony the Abbot and St. Paul the First Hermit’ – Diego Velazquez, 1635 – WikiArt
“The whole earth is a living icon of the face of God.”
~ John of Damascus
The birth of a religion is always a time of effervescence. This was the case with Christianity, when appeared many monks, hermits, writers and theologians who contributed to build what would become the foundations of this religion. They were later called the Church Fathers, for they were the first Christians, who cleared the grounds. They took the teaching of Jesus and put it to the test, to the fire of experimentation. They explored it in Greek, in Latin, in Syriac, in silence, in poverty, in the desert, in knowledge. They were the first commentators, the first bishops, popes, exegetes, monks, martyrs of a religion that was still under construction. They came to it with fresh minds. They popped up from Syria, Egypt, Arabia, Turkey, Algeria, Italy, Spain, France, some of them still hungry to find out in their body and mind the traces of truth. They bore the evocative names of a distant time: Anthony the great, Moses the Black, Augustine of hippo, Papias of Hierapolis, Polycarp of Smyrna, Isaac of Nineveh, Maximus the confessor, and many more. Some of the oldest ones had been the direct students of the apostles. Others went to the desert where they lived in reclusion, as was the case with Anthony the Great.
Anthony the Great was born in 251 in Egypt. He was one of these Desert Fathers, and amongst the very first ones to live the hardships of a solitary life in the wilderness. For decades, he remained a strict ascetic. His purpose for doing so was clear enough: “The person who abides in solitude and quiet is delivered from fighting three battles: hearing, speech, and sight. Then there remains one battle to fight — the battle of the heart.” Towards the end of his life, he organised the many people who had finally gathered around him into the first body of monks in history, which is why he was later known as the ‘Father of All Monks’. He died in 356, leaving to his companions this very touching message: “Be earnest to keep your strong purpose, as though you were but now beginning. You know the demons who plot against you, you know how savage they are and how powerless; therefore, fear them not. Let Christ be as the breath you breathe; in Him put your trust. Live as dying daily, heeding yourselves and remembering the counsels you have heard from me. […] And now God save you, children, for Anthony departs and is with you no more.”
“To one whose mind is sound, letters are needless.”
“To say that God turns away from the sinful
is like saying that the sun hides from the blind.”