The Life of Antony
One of my classes this semester is "History and Theology of the Early Church: Patristics Survey." This is a subject I must confess I have thought little about to this point in my life. Growing up as a Methodist, I don't remember hearing much about the early Church fathers - it seemed distant and exotic just to think about our 18th century Anglican roots! And even when I became an Episcopalian there was little discussion of this period of ecclesiastical history. So it is all new territory for me.
This week I have been reading "The Life of Antony" written by Athanasius, an Egyptian bishop and disciple of this early Christian hermit and monk. According to my studies, this biography of Antony (c. 251-356 AD) presents the earliest information we have on the monastic life. In the narrative, Antony wrestles with demons throughout his formation as a monk (which takes 35 years!) Here is a typical passage:
“But the devil, who hates and envies what is good, could not endure to see such a resolution in a youth [Antony], but endeavored to carry out against him what he had been wont to effect against others. First of all he tried to lead him away from the discipline, whispering to him the remembrance of his wealth, care for his sister, claims of kindred, love of money, love of glory, the various pleasures of the table and the other relaxations of life, and at last the difficulty of virtue and the labor of it; he suggested also the infirmity of the body and the length of the time. In a word he raised in his mind a great dust of debate, wishing to debar him from his settled purpose. But…the enemy saw himself to be too weak for Antony’s determination, and…was conquered by the other’s firmness, overthrown by his great faith and falling through his constant prayers…”
What does it all mean? Well, that is the three-page paper I had to write tonight. The assignment was, "Papers should articulate a thesis about the subject of 'Demons in the Life of St. Antony.'" I guess it goes without saying that I have been sweating this one.
Interestingly, when I sat down and began to writing, a thesis did emerge. I believe that, as one of the first treatises on the monastic life, the devils personify the temptations to abandon this hard life that come to most who try to live a cloistered existence. Through the story of Antony's wrestling with demons, Athanasius addresses the obstacles that a young hermit may encounter, and provides a model for overcoming them.
I did manage to write exactly three pages on this subject. Don't know if I got it right, but it turned out to be much more interesting than I suspected. We'll see if the professor agrees!