January 17th is the feast of Anthony of Egypt, the 3rd century saint whose biography, written by St. Athanasius, inspired many early Christians, among them St. Augustine. Years ago, I visited Anthony’s native village outside Luxor in Egypt and the cave in the Valley of the Kings where he lived for a time in the desert.
Over the centuries artists like Martin Schongauer (above) portrayed vividly the temptations of Anthony. Early on, during a Roman persecution of Christians in Alexandria, Anthony went to the city to offer himself as a martyr, but they ignored him. He went back home, his biographer said, to the martyrdom of everyday life. There’s a martyrdom waiting each day, the saint realized, and you’re tempted there. Yet, they make you holy. Facing his temptations, prepared Anthony to be a spiritual guide for many who came to seek his advice.
“Those who follow Jesus must expect temptation. Anthony experienced a range of temptations over the hundred years of his life. The devil knocked regularly on the door of his heart, assuming different faces and making different suggestions, but this shy, gentle man was not conquered.
“During the early years Christ called him, he often thought: “Have I made a mistake?” The days seemed slow and monotonous. Nothing important seemed to be happening in his life. “Am I doing anything?” Anthony wondered.
“One day, tired by his life as it was, he went out of his house and opened his arms wide and cried to heaven: “Lord, what should I do?” For a while, only silence. Then, Anthony heard someone moving behind him. He turned to his house and saw someone like himself, who got up from his bed, said his prayers, ate his meals, did his work, welcomed some people, and finally said his prayers again and went to sleep.
“Anthony realized an angel of God was answering his prayer. His temptation was to see nothing in ordinary life. Life had no meaning. So, going back to his house he began his ordinary routine again. Treasure is always there; life is holy ground.
“Other temptations beset Anthony. Sometimes he worried about his health. If he fell ill, who would care for him? He had chosen to live for God alone. But wouldn’t it be better to have a family? He gave so much to others and he kept little for himself. Wouldn’t it be better to become a rich man? Lustful thoughts sometimes filled his mind.
“Temptations swept over his soul like dust storms, causing confusion and uncertainty. But in the storms, Anthony learned another lesson: Christ was always with him.
“One restless night, Anthony was almost pulled to pieces by violent temptations. It was as if monsters and demons were flying through his room shouting and screaming, ready to kill him. Just as he was about to give up hope, a beautiful light came through the roof of his house and the demons suddenly disappeared. In the peaceful light, he saw Christ.
“Lord, where were you when I was being tried?” Anthony said.
“I was right here all the time as you struggled,” Jesus replied. “You didn’t give in because I was your helper.”
“After that ordeal, Anthony experienced peace for a while. Then, one day he heard a knock at his door. Opening it, he saw a little man grinning from ear to ear, who bowed almost to the ground before him as if he were a king.
“You are a saint, Anthony,” he said ingratiatingly. “Everyone says it. People say there’s nobody wiser or better than you on earth. So, I want to hear everything you say and know your every thought; you’re a man who’s just perfect.”
“Anthony quickly slammed the door in the little man’s face. “You’re more dangerous than any temptation I’ve had, because you want me to believe I’m God, and I’m not. You are the temptation of pride.”
“Gradually over the years, people discovered this man with so much hard earned wisdom. Soon , from everywhere people were coming to seek his advice and his prayers and his healing for themselves or someone they loved. Because he knew himself so well, Anthony seemed to know their hearts too.
“One constant message he repeated again and again to those who came to him – Never let fear overcome you, live joyfully in God’s grace. Never give up. God delivers us from temptation.”