Today is the memorial of St. Anthony of Egypt (c. 251-356), aka “Anthony the Great,” the prototypical “desert father.” I wanted to share a story about him that shows his character and priorities.
Someone asked Abba Anthony, ‘What must one do in order to please God?’
The old man replied, ‘Pay attention to what I tell you:
whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes;
whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures;
in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it.
Keep these three precepts and you will be saved.’
(From Benedicta Ward’s lovely volume The Desert Christian: Sayings of the Desert Fathers, the Alphabetical Collection. New York: MacMillan, 1975, p. 2.)
This is not the only saying of a desert father or mother on the kind of life that leads to salvation, but Anthony has a particular simplicity about it. Elsewhere he says to live in a rhythm of prayer and work — the very model of monastic life, but available to all of us.
In the story above he gives us the inner commitments needed during that rhythmic life.
Anthony of Egypt on a Simple Christian Life
1. Pray without ceasing.
Practice the elemental contemplative form of prayer, keeping your attention on God.
Anthony doesn’t insist on anything so elaborate as the divine office or recitation of the Psalms, though those practices were known in the desert.
The Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!”) is a classic, simple way Orthodox Christians keep that focus.
The key thing is to pay constant attention; look toward God with your mind’s eye always.
2. Shape your behavior by the Bible’s teaching.
Read your Bible, says the monk, and do what it says.
So much for the typical Protestant complaint that monastic life is not biblical.
For Anthony the desert was a place to focus more wholly on living biblically. Wherever you are, whatever you do, line it up with God’s Word.
3. Stay put.
Don’t move from place to place, or church to church, or relationship to relationship. Don’t think a new situation will solve your problems.
Your main problem, Anthony of Egypt implies, whoever you may be, is you. You have to stay put and deal with yourself as a person who has trouble following Jesus.
Another desert father, in another collection, put it quite simply:
Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you all you need to know.
May we, who can find millions of pages of advice for every aspect of life just by searching the blogosphere, find the clarity of St. Anthony.
Focus on God. Do what the Bible teaches. Stay put and solve your problems.
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