Tomorrow, the church celebrates the life of St. Antony, Abbot in Egypt. Antony is a strange and challenging figure, one who makes it clear just how “different” some of the saints were from what we’d expect. Antony was born in a Christian home. After his parents died, Antony gave up their considerable estate and became a recluse in the Egyptian desert. He prayed, he worked, but then he withdrew into a deserted fortress to wrestle with demons. St. Athanasius, who wrote Antony’s biography, describes what happened:
Those of his acquaintance who came to him often spent days and nights outside. They heard what sounded like clamoring mobs inside making noises, emitting pitiful sounds and crying out, “Get away from what is ours! What have you to do with the desert? You cannot endure our treachery!” At first those who were outside thought certain men were doing battle with him…but when they stooped to peer through a hole, they saw no one, and they realized that the adversaries were demons.
I have never known what to make of this passage, and of others like it. They make me uncomfortable, challenge to me find a way into an understanding of the Cosmos that seems, to me, to be primitive.
And yet, one thing is clear: when Antony noticed that he had a problem, he did what it took to engage it. He did not look for short-term solutions or a quick fix. He did not try to find an easy way out. Instead, he struggled and wrestled with his demons for nearly twenty years, emerging at the end in a state of spiritual equilibrium, able to give wise counsel, to heal those with injuries, to reconcile those who had become estranged. He was transformed through his very perseverance.
And we, do we have the courage to face down our temptations? Do we care enough about any evil to wrestle for long years to bring about transformation? Climate change? Violence? Access for quality education for all?
One thing is certain: no major change has ever come through casual engagement, not in us, not in our world. When my friend Maggie got onto a bus as Freedom Rider, she had already seen the footage from Anniston and Birmingham. Those men and women who marched on the Edmund Pettus Bridge knew the cost they might pay. The Suffragists, the Abolitionists, those who ran the Underground Railroad, they gave their lives to what they believed.
If we want to see God’s work with our own eyes, if we want to taste the bread of God’s Kingdom, maybe we need to learn from Antony.