Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

Getting to Know the Fathers of the Church: An Interview with St. Anthony

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Interviewer: Well! A meeting which I have been trying to secure for several years now! We finally meet the man known for his most original and inspiring thoughts, yet who never had a degree; known for his vast influence over Christian piety in both East and West, yet was never ordained above a layman; known to be revered by patriarchs and emperors, yet never had any care for politics or power; known to have captured the hearts of myriads of devout believers in all ages, yet purposely fled the public life to live alone with God! Let me say, though I am just a newspaper journalist, and not very religious myself, this is truly an honor for me, father.

St. Anthony: Thank-you...and an honor for me to sit with one created in God's image.

Int: Why, you are too kind! But let's begin our discussion about your own lifewhere shall we begin?

S.A.: How about if we begin by discussing my sins?

Int: Sins? We have just begun our conversation, and you mention your sins? I have never interviewed anyone who wished to talk about that. But I was informed that most of the world knows you as Saint Anthony.

S.A.: Yes, but in this I believe the world is mistaken.

Int: Mistaken? You must be a rather humble fellow.

S.A.: Not humble, but clear-sighted. What might you see as humility, I see as simple truththat I am, with St. Paul, "chief of sinners".

Int: Okay, tell me about your background. What is your nationality?

S.A.: I am Coptic; I grew up in the Thebaid about 250...AD, to a pair of very honorable and pious parents.

Int: Pardon me, what is Coptic? And where is Thebaid?

S.A.: "Coptic" is a word that has been tossed around by several languages, notably Greek, Arabic and Latin, to simply mean "Egyptian," implicitly Christian. The Thebaid is in Upper Egypta land of simple, honest, hard-working folk.

Int: Let's fast-forward to your later years: did you have a turning point in your life?

S.A.: Yes, it was a single sentence: "If you wish to be perfect, go and sell what you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me."

Int: Fascinating! But You altered the course of your entire life on the basis of a single line?

S.A.: It was just one line, but nevertheless one line spoken by the Lord Himself.

Int: I see. Please excuse my indecency for asking this, but what is the courage of leaving the pressures of real life, to enter the easy path of loneliness in the desert? There are no temptations, no work, no worries out there.

S.A.: Let me ask you this: Do you suppose you would say the same if you suddenly had a herd of wild animals crash through your door and hiss and roar at you from all sides?

Int: What?

S.A.: Would you say the same if you had a demon come while you were not aware, and strike you so hard to the ground that you were near death?

Int: Well...

S.A.: Would you not call it a temptation, if the demons constantly left golden objects in your path, or appeared to you as immoral women, or constantly appeared in their ugly forms with threats of ruin and murder?

Int: I never expected.

S.A.: Yes, this is the sad truth of life in the desertall struggle.

Int: But how could one possibly survive such a dangerous lifestyle?

S.A.: The grace of Christ is plenteous. And we have to struggle physically.

Int: How exactly?

S.A.: I limited my food to bread, salt, and water; I ate once a day; I slept on the bare ground; I wore only a hair shirt, sheepskin, and girdle...and in all this, the only way I lasted was by the constant care of Christ. He came to my rescue every time.

Int: Well! I guess I was not aware of such things. But let's go on. You lived in the third century AD. Wasn't it unfortunate to be born in a time of great scientific ignorance?

S.A.: Maybe, but the world now lives in a time of great moral ignorance. You have more solid knowledge these days, but much less common sense, I think, than we had.

Int: And that leads us into your first quote which I would like to discuss. One of your disciples has recorded that you once said,

A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, "You are mad, because you are not like us."
Did you say this?

S.A.: I did. You see, there is a psychological phenomenon called groupthink, wherein an idea that may seem bizarre and outrageous to a single individual will begin to be normal and accepted if a group of individuals consider it together.

Int: An example?

S.A.: To me, running into a public building with weapons will seem foolish; but if I get a group of friends to agree to it, it will seem like an effective means to achieve something. Today you have many, many people doing or saying abnormal and eccentric things, mainly because they see that so many other people treat it as "life as usual". Everyone is almost crazy these days, and the few people who really see the truth are judged to be dumb fanatics. It's really unfortunate.

Int: Here is another quote:

"Obedience and abstinence give men power over wild beasts."
Do you really believe you can control bulls, goats and snakes?

S.A.: You have missed the point. I meant the "wild beasts" within a personthe pride, lust, envy, fear and selfishness that many people struggle so hard with; yet feel disheartened. All such "animals" can be overcome by obedience to one's spiritual father, and abstinence from excess luxury and stomach-stuffing. I know that these two words are laughed at today. A 21st century citizen will demand rights and pleasure instead of obedience and abstinence. Oh well!

Int: Okay. Well, can you please explain the following story to me:

The brothers praised a monk before Abba Anthony. When the monk came to see him, Abba Anthony wanted to know how he would bear insults; and seeing that he could not bear them at all, he said to him, "You are like a village magnificently decorated on the outside, but destroyed from within by robbers."

S.A.: You see, any person can go along with compliments about himself; but it is only when insulted that you really test a person's "steel". If you take ten men and praise them, they will all grin or remain expressionless. But insult each of them, and then you will really see the differences between them. If a man cannot bear insults with composure and peace, then he is a long way off from true virtue.

Int: Wow, this is really above my head.

S.A.: It might seem overwhelming, but God is your engine. Once you set foot on the path of salvation, God's grace propels you along.

Int: I would like to ask you about one last thing your disciple Athanasius wrote about you in his book, "The Life of St. Anthony".

"He did not hold time passed in his memory, but day by day, as if making a new beginning...increased his exertion to advance, saying to himself continually Paul's word about 'forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.'"
If you kept advancing in your spiritual life, why does he say that you needed to start all over again each day? Was not one day better than the one before?

S.A.: I was never completely happy with myself. Each day, no matter how much I tried to please God, I was conscious of my sins and knew I needed to treat each new morning as a fresh start. One must feel he is moving forward in the spiritual life; but he must also daily feel a sort of "newness" that erases the sins of yesterdayby repentanceand makes today a new chance to please and praise God. This has been my motto all these years.

Int: Well, this has certainly been an enlightening and inspiring time with you; I see why hundreds of pious men fled to the desert to imitate youeven in your own lifetime. What an example!

S.A.: Hmm...they were all deceived.

Int: What do you mean?

S.A.: They were all following behind me, but I was following behind God. They took me for number one in line, but I was really number two; one of the group following the real Leader to wherever He drew me.

Reference works on St. Anthony the Great:

Gregg, Robert. Athanasius: The Life of Antony and The Letter to Marcellinus. Paulist Press: New York, 1980.

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Cistercian Publications: Oxford, 1975.

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