You find a surprising range of pictures of saints, like St. Anthony, on internet search engines like Google. He’s pictured on some traditional holy cards blissfully holding the Christ Child in his arms, which is how someone reported seeing him one day towards the end of his life. Sometimes he’s pictured holding a book in his hand. Some pictures and statues portray him holding the Child and the book together.
The pictures and statues say a lot about him.
Anthony was born in Portugal in 1195 and died near Padua, Italy in 1291, acclaimed by people of his time for his preaching and virtues. Canonized shortly after his death, he’s invoked as a miracle-worker, especially good at finding something lost. But Anthony’s more than a miracle-worker.
His world was the complex, changing world of the 13th century when Europe’s economy was expanding; military crusades against the Muslim powers were taking place in Spain, Sicily and the Holy Land, and new religious movements like the Franciscans were bringing reform and new vigor to the western church.
The young Anthony first entered the Augustinian community in his birthplace, Lisbon, and studied at the renowned theological center of Coimbra. Just decades before, Portugal had been re-conquered from the Moors but now, unfortunately, the victors were fighting among themselves for power and spoils from the crusades.
Anthony rejected the violence and avarice he saw in feuding leaders of the church and state; he was a crusader of another kind. When the bodies of some Franciscan missionaries martyred in Morocco in 1219 for preaching the gospel were brought back to Portugal, Anthony decided to join the new community. He became a Franciscan and went to Morocco, hoping to preach the faith to the Muslims there, but illness forced him out and he went to Sicily, then to Italy, where he began a new phase as a Franciscan missionary and teacher.
Only a few years before, in 1206 in Assisi, young Francis Bernadone stripped himself of his trendy, stylish clothes and put on the dress of a poor man, to follow the poor Man of Nazareth, Jesus Christ. Thousands followed him and the movement he began quickly spread through the Christian world, attracting people like Anthony, eager to bring the gospel “to the ends of the earth.”
The Franciscan movement began with a dedication to absolute poverty and a simple life, but as church leaders requested them to preach the gospel throughout the world its members needed books, education, training and places of formation. Anthony emerged as a model preacher and teacher for the Franciscans.
Through northern Italy, then through France, Anthony’s vivid, down-to-earth preaching stirred people’s hearts and minds and showed other preachers how to preach. At the time, the Franciscan movement was not the only movement attracting the people of Europe. Through northern Italy and especially in France, Albigensian teachers were preaching a message of simplicity and release from the burdens of life to believers dissatisfied with the church. They denied that Jesus was divine, they questioned the gospels and painted the world as an evil place.
“Wise as a serpent and simple as a dove” Anthony disputed their message in his preaching. Gifted with an extraordinary memory for the scriptures and an ability to illustrate his talks with homey examples simple people understood, he spoke “with a well-trained tongue.” Thousands came to hear him. The world was not an evil, Anthony taught, Jesus, the Word of God, was made flesh and dwelt among us.
Artists capture Anthony’s spirit in their portraits of him. As a preacher and teacher, he carries of book, most likely a psalter holding the Jewish psalms. St. Augustine, whom Anthony studied as a youth, always carried this one book of the bible with him, as a summary of the scriptures.
Some say this book is also clue to Anthony’s gift for finding lost things. He probably kept his notes for teaching and preaching in it. If he lost it–some say one of his students stole it– he lost something valuable to him. He found it, so he knows what it means when someone loses something too.
The Christ Child Anthony holds in his arms was more than a momentary vision he had. Anthony was deeply attracted, as St. Francis was, to the mystery of the Incarnation. The Word became flesh. God became a little child, who grew in wisdom and age and grace in the simple world of Nazareth. He died on a cross, accepting it as his Father’s will. Then, he rose from the dead.
Human life and the world itself has been blessed by this mystery. Because of it, we can’t see life as small and inconsequential. Even suffering and death have been changed. “The goodness and kindness of God has appeared.” We hold it in our hands.
I suppose this is why Anthony is down in the laundry where Brother Angelo is washing sheets and towels and clothes. He speaks to this world.