This past Sunday, the Russian Orthodox Church commemorated Saint Anthony of Egypt. We remember him as the father of monasticism, a beacon of righteousness, but most importantly as a brave warrior in the inner struggle against the devil. In today’s world, where rationality and scientism prevail, belief in the enemy within is uncommon. Few recognise the need to confront him spiritually. The devil delights himself in this situation: he has the freedom to do what he likes. Saint Anthony’s example, therefore, is as relevant as ever. He is still our source of spiritual wisdom for our spiritual warfare.
In his struggle, Saint Anthony confronted multiple temptations from the devil. Born into a wealthy family, he lost his parents at eighteen years of age and became responsible for the care of his younger sister. One day at church, he was struck by the gospel reading about a rich man who asked Christ how to find the Kingdom of Heaven. Christ advised him to sell off his estate and follow Him. The rich man in the reading walked away, but Saint Anthony obeyed Jesus’ word after much painful deliberation. He distributed his estate among the poor, left his sister in the care of a convent and became a hermit outside his home town. He made his living by weaving baskets. He gave alms and led an ascetic life. That way, he overcame his first grand temptation – of wealth.
However, other temptations soon followed. He became preoccupied with guilt. Was he right to dispose of his wealth the way he did? Could he have made better use of it? Should he have left the money to his sister? The devil tempted him with boredom, laziness and mirages of attractive women. But Saint Anthony allayed his passions with prayer and contemplation of Christ. He ascetised more, allowing himself to take food only after sunset and praying overnight for two nights out of three.
Soon, he took the struggle to the enemy’s ground. He went to the desert and shut himself in a desert cave. He prayed and ascetised, and the devil intensified his attacks. He tried to scare the monk out of the cave and the desert. At first, the devil came as a pack of wild hungry beasts ready to devour him. But Saint Anthony called the devil’s bluff: "If it were the wild beasts, it would take only one of them to eat me,” he observed. Then he drove the devil out by showing him the cross. After a while, the devil appeared again as a dark man. He admitted defeat and congratulated the saint on his victory. Immediately, the saint understood that the evil one was trying to arouse pride and vanity in him. He chased the enemy away with prayer.
When fear and seduction did not work, the devil assaulted the saint physically to kill him. A friend came to bring him food the next morning. He took the saint for dead and carried him to the church for burial. At Church, Anthony came round and returned to the cave. When the devil came again, Saint Anthony cried out to the Lord. His Divine light shone through the roof and the enemy retreated. Anthony exclaimed, “Where have You been, O Merciful Jesus? Why did not You appear from the very beginning to end my pain?” The Lord replied, “I was here, Anthony, but wanted to see your struggle.” After this vision, his wounds healed and his strength returned to him.
Saint Anthony’s struggle shows that the devil within us is a daring, cunning and treacherous enemy. Worldly wisdom teaches us to negotiate with an opponent if we consider it too risky to attack him head-on. But for the saint, a compromise was not a possibility. He taught that fighting the devil to the end is a duty of every Christian. “Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Without temptations no one can be saved,” he wrote.
Saint Anthony never resigned from the problems of this world. He left his hermitage to come to Alexandria and oppose the heresy of Arius. But people listened to him because he spoke from the strength of his ascetic feats and spiritual victories. For Saint Anthony, the war on evil is waged on the battlefield of our souls. Our victory is in overcoming ourselves, taking control over our souls, bodies, minds, hearts, will, and lives and dedicating them to God. One does not fight the enemy simply by opposing some global evil, such as abortion, same-sex marriage or worldly injustice.
Saint Anthony lived to be a hundred and spent nearly eight decades as a hermit. Yet, on his death bed, he still lamented that he had not had the time to repent. In vain did his disciples laud him on his victory of the spirit. His last words were, “No, it is just the beginning.” He teaches us that our inner war is a lifetime undertaking.
Saint Anthony lived in the fourth century, but he confronted many of the same temptations that affect the people of today. Monastics and laity alike are seduced by wealth, power, greed, lust and many other passions. We at Saint Elisabeth Convent consider ourselves to be in the frontline of the spiritual struggle. We fight the enemy with prayer, worship, alms and ascetic deeds, as monastics have done for centuries. However, the people of the world are perhaps even more vulnerable. They cannot separate themselves from worldly temptations physically, but only spiritually. Saint Anthony gives the same advice for both: "Sign yourselves with the cross and depart boldly. The devil may appear powerful, but he is no match for those who put their trust in God.”
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