I just finished reading “The Life and Affairs of our Holy Father Antony” written by St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria. Holy Father Antony was the founder of Christian monasticism according to Athanasius. While I am not a monastic, nor do I foresee that in my future, being a happily married lady, I found this little book very inspirational and helpful to my understanding of prayer and the unseen warfare that attempts to thwart us as we progress in our faith.
St. Athanasius’ purpose in writing this little book was to give monastics a good guide for the practice. What I found interesting was, as soon as Holy Father Antony started praying he was challenged by the devil (33) who tried to lead him away from his discipline in all manner of ways of which we would be very familiar, all to no avail. “Working with Antony was the Lord, who bore flesh for us, and gave to the body the victory over the devil, so that each of those who truly struggle can say, it is not, but the grace of God which is in me” (34).
Part of St. Antony’s strategy was to keep things simple, “For he said the soul’s intensity is strong when the pleasures of the body are weakened” (36). Thus some of what he did was fasted, prayed, ate simple foods and slept on bare ground or a rush mat. If he failed, he looked at each day as a new beginning and would start all over.
What I found most compelling was the more St. Antony prayed and drew closer to God, the more he was assaulted by the devil and demons. Why was he attacked? So that they might bring “despair, and declare the discipline [prayer and fasting] useless, and make men sick of the solitary life as something burdensome and very oppressive…” (50). In one section, St. Athanasius tells how St. Antony was beaten to near unconsciousness but he kept his thoughts on God and prayer Who “did not forget the wrestling of Antony, but came to his aid” and Who said, “I was here Antony, but I waited to watch your struggle. And now, since you persevered and were not defeated, I will be your helper forever…” (39). Faith was Antony’s wall of protection and it is ours. God is with us always. We must persevere each day.
The attacks came to Antony as evil thoughts and Antony warns those who came to him, to learn to be monastics and follow his steps, that the same attacks would go against them. His counsel was to “…not fear the apparitions, for they are nothing and they disappear quickly – especially if one fortifies himself with faith and the sign of the cross” (48). Our best defense is the faith God has given us and to bless ourselves with the sign of the cross! “Indeed the more [the demons] do these things, let us all the more exert ourselves in the discipline that opposes them, for a great weapon against them is a just life and trust in God” (54). Holy Father Antony instructs his followers to make the body subservient to the soul (65). How? By fasting, through prayer, through discipline, honoring the rule of the Church. Why? Because the soul is more important than the body. And incredibly, this is how Antony learned about God! Not through reading the scriptures or studying, but through prayer (84)! Through faith!
Dear God – help me to live as though dying daily. Help me to not be afraid. Help me to withstand the assaults. Help me to know You more and more each day. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Citations from: “Athanasius: The Life of Antony & The Letter to Marcellinus.” Trans: Robert C. Gregg. NY: Paulist Press, 1980.