St. Athanasius, the author of The Life of Antony, is rightly called the defender of Orthodoxy. It is difficult to comprehend our debt to Athanasius. Though he was the bishop of Alexandria for forty-six years, he was banished by pain of death on five separate occasions, spending around fourteen years in distant lands or in the harsh Egyptian desert. The troubles he endured resulted from the Arian controversy, a theological and political crisis which engulfed the whole Roman Empire during the early fourth century, the chief question of which was whether Jesus was fully divine. Though we are perhaps familiar with Athanasius’s rebuttal of Arianism, let us briefly note some of his other theological contributions.
First, he wrote what seems to be the greatest apologetic work in the Greek Patristic Tradition, the two part treatise Against the Greeks-On the Incarnation, wherein he meticulously refutes pagan objections to the Lord’s incarnation and crucifixion. Second, his writings on the Holy Spirit, contained in four letters written to a bishop called Serapion, were dictated while Athanasius was exiled in the Egyptian desert, making it likely, therefore, that all the scripture references and citations therein came directly from Athanasius’s memory. The nuanced biblical exegesis of these letters is complimented by Athanasius’s sterling theological synthesis, the evidence of which is seen in Athanasius description of the Spirit as “of one essence” with the Father, a description which was not used of the Holy Spirit before Athanasius wrote it. It is right therefore that we would honor this holy man by thanking God for his example. Yet if we would be excellent in the Christian Faith, we would not only remember the teaching of St. Athanasius, together with the other Church Fathers, but we will also imitate their manner of life.
For this reason, it is fitting to turn our attention to The Life of Antony, a work composed by Athanasius as a portrait of Christian living. St. Athanasius was introduced to Antony in circumstances beyond our knowledge, but it is clear that St. Athanasius considered Antony a spiritual father, and that Athanasius, in his many troubles, drew inspiration from Antony’s boldness to cleave always to Christ. Though there are many noteworthy elements in this work, I have chosen to concentrate on one theme: spiritual warfare.
It is important, in reading The Life of Antony, to interpret it according to Athanasius’s intent. Because some are unaware of Athanasius’s purposes, they pass over this work without realizing its great helpfulness. They read about a man named Antony, an Egyptian who leaves all his possessions to live in a desert tomb, wrestling night and day with demons without fear to his own injury, and these readers think, therefore, that this monk’s biography is completely unlike their own. Most of us are not monks, neither do we particularly believe that graveyards constitute the favorite residence of demonic spirits. Indeed, if we were to hear of a man who dropped all his earthly cares, in order that he might fight demons in the Mojave, we would direct this man to pastoral counseling. Therefore, it is easy to dismiss The Life of Antony as irrelevant and unusual.
Yet Athanasius, in making Antony a template of faith, is not seeking to convert all Christians to monasticism. Athanasius himself, rather than being a monk, was a bishop engaged with civil and political matters. Yet the evidence suggests that Athanasius believed Antony, in his fearless monastic lifestyle, is exemplary for all of God’s people. This is because there is not one of us who is free from the assaults of Satan. Although many theologians deny the existence of demons, interpreting spiritual warfare in wholly psychological terms, it is clear that Athanasius, in continuity with Christ and the Apostles, believed that there were personal demonic forces. For those, therefore, who interpret spiritual warfare in the vein of the Apostles and Fathers, it is necessary to have examples of courage in battle, in order that we might imitate those who refused to become despondent when contending with Satan. In reflecting upon the life of Antony, St. Athanasius offers God’s people a portrait of fortitude, so that we might have a concrete example to follow.
It is no secret that our souls are easily bruised by Satan. One of Satan’s darts can carry fear into our hearts, paralyzing us in every attempted work. Antony’s venture into the desert demonstrates that he was unafraid to follow Christ into the most difficult circumstances. Unlike our present conditions, where desert cities are numerous and luxurious, the ancient world conceived of deserts differently. They were places which induced fear, places which were barren and without much water, and places, therefore, that were associated with Satan and the curse. Antony’s pilgrimage into the desert reflected his confidence that God would deliver him from peril. The reader, therefore, must grasp what Athanasius intends in comprising this biography. We need not literally make our residence in a desert tomb. We are rather to follow our Lord with the confident expectation that he will provide for his children, and that Satan’s terror can never derail those whose hearts belong to Christ. Let us consider, therefore, the following quote from The Life of Antony:
Wherefore let us not despond after this fashion, nor let us have a thought of cowardice in our heart, nor frame fears for ourselves, saying, I am afraid lest a demon should come and overthrow me; lest he should lift me up and cast me down; or lest rising against me on a sudden he confound me. Such thoughts let us not have in mind at all, nor let us be sorrowful as though we were perishing; but rather let us be courageous and rejoice always, believing that we are safe. Let us consider in our soul that the Lord is with us, who put the evil spirits to flight and broke their power. Let us consider and lay to heart that while the Lord is with us, our foes can do us no hurt. (The Life of Antony 42)
Notice that Antony’s exhortation begins by a dual set of commandments. He first calls Christians to have no fear with reference to Satan’s many strategies. Though Satan might seek to invade our bodies with his presence, or cloud our minds with his confusion, we are to put away our fear. We are instead to grow courageous in our conflict, expressing our boldness by rejoicing in our Savior, no matter what type of assault Satan presses against us. The reason why we are bold is not because we are sufficient in ourselves – may it never be – but our boldness arises from the confidence that “the Lord is with us.” This is an important point, one which is thoroughly in conformity with the pattern of scripture. For the prophets of scripture, being frequently fearful in receiving their commission, were strengthened by the divine promise that the Lord will be near to them (Genesis 26:24; Exodus 3:12; Jeremiah 1:8). Indeed, the whole church of God, in receiving the commission from Christ, finds its confidence in the promise that he is with us always, even until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).
We see that Antony, in bounding into the demonic tombs, demonstrates courage in the face of Satan’s assaults. It was with wise pastoral sensibilities, therefore, that St. Athanasius introduced the whole church to the valor of St. Antony. We are easily discouraged when Satan sets upon us, but when we remember that the son of David is our common Savior, we are bold to array ourselves in the insignias of his kingdom, no matter what threats Satan may direct against us. Though we live in a technological age, where people are busy going to and fro, we can secretly carry the mantle of St. Antony, participating in his mission of valor in whatever context we inhabit. Indeed, we are all to be Antonies incognito, wearing the boldness and valor of Christ underneath our otherwise normal exterior. Let us, therefore, pay closer attention to Antony’s exhortation, which is also the exhortation of St. Athanasius – the Father of Orthodoxy – because it was not haphazardly that Athanasius records this particular teaching of St. Antony. We will close, then, with Antony’s further elaboration on spiritual warfare, particularly the necessity to patiently endure Satan’s assaults with courage, trusting that the Lord is our high tower.
For when they come they approach us in a form corresponding to the state in which they discover us, and adapt their delusions to the condition of mind in which they find us. If, therefore, they find us timid and confused, they forthwith beset the place, like robbers, having found it unguarded; and what we of ourselves are thinking, they do, and more also. For if they find us fainthearted and cowardly, they mightily increase our terror, by their delusions and threats; and with these the unhappy soul is thenceforth tormented. But if they see us rejoicing in the Lord, contemplating the bliss of the future, mindful of the Lord, deeming all things in His hand, and that no evil spirit has any strength against the Christian, nor any power at all over any one- when they behold the soul fortified with these thoughts – they are discomfited and turned backwards. Thus the enemy, seeing Job fenced round with them, withdrew from him; but finding Judas unguarded, him he took captive. Thus if we are wishful to despise the enemy, let us ever ponder over the things of the Lord, and let the soul ever rejoice in hope. (The Life of Antony 42)