Antony and Athanasius

This Halloween, my intentional community hosted a party in which guests were invited to share personal stories about close encounters with death. After a few glasses of hard cider and a bottle or two of Pumpkin Ale, I shared my story of a marijuana-induced case of temporary toxic psychosis. As little “devils” rang our doorbell demanding candy, I described the demons of fear that harassed me the night I ingested several cookies baked with bud butter.

I remember feeling as though I was either going to die or spend the rest of my life possessed by demons. The fear of death and demonic possession became the demon itself, causing me to stay up all night, provoke myself to vomit, and then seriously consider calling 911. In the midst of my psychedelic nightmare, I prayed several times for the evil to leave me, yet the devils of fear remained persistent.

Fortunately, I finally recovered from the horrifying paranoia. Yet, in recalling the event at the Halloween party these many years later, I could not help but ask myself, “Where was God in the midst of my toxic psychosis?”

Antony, in Athanasius’ Vita Antonii, asks a similar question, after God rescues him from an army of demonic creatures: “Where were you? Why didn’t you appear in the beginning, so that you could stop my distresses?” (Gregg 1980, 39). Now I have no interest in making the absurd comparison between the asceticism of the patron saint of monasticism and a naïve youth’s drug experience; however, the question we both asked still demands attention: Where is God in the midst of our psychological hells?

In exploring the three worlds of the text, I will argue that the above question asked by Antony and the subsequent answer given by God offer a powerful solution to the problem of suffering. Furthermore, this solution may have served as a source of spiritual strength for Athanasius during his own time of distress and transition.

The analysis will be primarily limited to paragraph 10 (Gregg 1980, 39), which includes Antony’s question to God, “Where were you?” and God’s subsequent response, which invigorates and emboldens Antony as he begins a new phase in his discipline.

The World Behind the Text

Although some historians dispute Athanasian authorship (Ng 2001, 208), the majority consensus upholds Athanasius as Vita Antonii’s author. Known primarily for his polemical work against Arianism, Athanasius displayed his gifts in leadership and administration at a young age while serving as “a deacon and principal secretary to Bishop Alexander” (Burton-Christie 2010, 14) and then three years later, stepping into the role of bishop himself. At the age of 33, Athanasius experienced both enormous loss and great gain in the death of his close friend Bishop Alexander and in the role of filling his shoes in the weighty responsibility of ecclesial leadership. As Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius’ struggles increased in the heat of the Arian controversy, which forced him into exile “no fewer than five times” (Burton-Christie 2010, 15). During one of these exiles, Athanasius wrote the hagiographical Vita Antonii in order to inspire other monks to emulate Antony’s Christ-like discipline, while also pushing his anti-Arian agenda. As Darleen Pryds explains, “Hagiography often reflects more about contemporary expectations of holiness than it does about verifiable facts concerning the subject’s life. To that end, one can surmise that details of [Anthony]’s Vita may have been exaggerated to meet the author’s agenda…” (Pryds 2010, 174). Beyond “contemporary expectations of holiness” and “the author’s agenda,” one cannot help but wonder if the writing of Vita Antonii served as a vehicle for Athanasius to express his own source of spiritual succor during his times of onus and trial. In comparing the lives of Anthony and Athanasius, this possibility becomes both clear and likely.

In Vita Antonii, St. Anthony endured the great loss of loved ones, which also forced him into a life of new responsibility: “After his parent’s death…he was responsible both for the home and his sister” (Gregg 1980, 31). Like Athanasius, St. Anthony enjoyed the tutelage of mentors: “There was an old man who had practiced from his youth the solitary life. When Antony saw him, he emulated him in goodness” (Gregg 1980, 32)[1] Eventually, Antony’s journey led him where no mentor could follow: “[M]eeting the old man mentioned earlier, [Antony] asked him to live with him in the wilderness. But when he declined, both because of his advanced age and because such practice was not yet customary, Antony set out immediately for the mountain” (Gregg 1980, 40). Just as Athanasius at 33 set out for “the mountain” of the episcopal see in Alexandria without his longtime mentor, so did Antony at 35 set out without “the old man” whose goodness he used to emulate.

By analyzing the life of the author, the reader of Vita Antonii sees Athanasius in more than just the anti-Arian rhetoric of the text; the reader starts to see certain aspects of Vita Antonii shimmering with likeness to “Vita Athanasius.”

A closer look at Antony’s frustrated prayer while losing his mentors’ tutelage gives the reader an insightful glimpse into Athanasius’ spirituality at the time of his difficult transition from student to bishop. As Antony dealt with an onslaught of demonic creatures so did Athanasius deal with the psychological darkness involved with losing a friend and mentor. When Antony insisted that God account for his absence, God’s answer provides a foundational spirituality of security that no doubt consoled Athanasius throughout his troubled career.

The World of the Text

Imagine all the animals at a zoo throwing a Halloween party in hell. Now imagine everyone at the party turning violently against one person. In paragraph 9 of Vita Antonii, that person was Antony:

The place immediately was filled with the appearance of lions, bears, leopards, bulls, and serpents, asps, scorpions and wolves, and each of these moved in accordance with its form. The lion roared, wanting to spring at him; the bull seemed intent on goring; the creeping snake did not quite reach him; the onrushing wolf made straight for him—and altogether the sounds of all the creatures that appeared were terrible, and their ragings were fierce. Struck and wounded by them, Antony’s body was subject to yet more pain (Gregg 1980, 38).

Before the demonic party killed Antony, God, who dramatically broke through the roof as a beam of light, killed the party. The demonic creatures instantly disappeared along with Antony’s pain; and the relieved saint did not give thanks, but instead asked, “Where were you?” And God responds,

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, and I will make you famous everywhere (Gregg 1980, 39).

After hearing this, Antony “was so strengthened that he felt that his body contained more might than before” (Gregg 1980, 39). Then, with no more human tutelage, he left for the mountain.

In the divine response, God called Antony by name (John 10:3) and assured him of his presence and oversight. God, who oversaw Antony’s struggle and waited through it, seemed to permit the suffering in order to test Antony’s character. The same divine permission of hellish suffering is seen when Antony elucidates the book of Job:

Now if anyone considers the events of Job’s life, and says: ‘Why then did the devil set forth and do all those things to him? Did he not strip him of his possessions, destroy his children and strike him with painful boils?’—let such a questioner know that the devil was not the one possessing strength, but it was God who turned over the testing of Job to him . . . indeed destruction would not befall even the man’s cattle unless God allowed it. In fact, the devil has no authority over swine, for, as it is written in the Gospel, they begged the Lord, saying, “Send us to the swine.’ But if they held no sway over the swine, how much less do they hold over people made in the image of God! (Gregg 1980, 53-54)

The devil and the demons alone are impotent in Antony’s view. The only power that evil forces can hold is the power given to them by God, and perhaps even that power is given only by request. Although God is not evil, God allows evil to test Antony’s perseverance and fortitude. Furthermore, God waits on the sidelines, cheering on His saint, and, only when the situation grows too dire and dangerous for anyone to endure, God eventually (finally!) steps in as the Deus ex Machina to save the day.

As a result of Antony’s perseverance through suffering, God promises him eternal succor and worldwide fame. Initially, the divine promise of fame (“I will make you famous everywhere”) sounds strange when the reader recalls earlier diabolic attempts to lure Antony away through “the…love…of glory” (Gregg 1980, 33). However, similar promises of renown are made in Scripture to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3) and David (2 Samuel 7:8-16). Fame and prominence do not appear to be harmful in and of themselves. The harm lies in the vehicle that is used to attain such fame and prominence. Like Jesus, Antony was tempted by the devil in the desert with worldly glory. Neither Jesus nor Antony sought after the glory by the devil’s means. Yet both of them, after enduring enormous amounts of suffering under the supervision of God, achieved worldwide fame as a result, regardless of their intent.

The World Before the Text

In the World Behind the Text, the author Athanasius, whose life resembles Antony’s, uses paragraph 10 of Vita Antonii as a smokescreen for expressing his own source of spiritual strength during his difficult transition out of tutelage. In the World of the Text, the source of spiritual strength breaks through as a radical affirmation of God’s presence and power. While allowing horrific evil to assault his saints, God waits and watches in order to test his saints’ perseverance and then reward them with everlasting aid and worldwide fame.

In the World Before the Text, the initial question is reiterated: Where is God in the midst of our psychological hells? Psychological hells can freeze over whenever loved ones are lost, mentors pass away, exiles and deserts become home, or marijuana cookies are consumed. Athanasius and Antony teach us that God is present in the midst of our psychological hells, watching and waiting. The idea that God allows the evil that harasses us is not entirely comforting. However, there is comfort in knowing that the power of evil is contained and controlled within the greater power of divine love. There is also comfort in knowing that glory and eternal aid wait for us on the other side of suffering, as long as we persevere.

During my temporary toxic psychosis, God was present even as the demons continued to haunt me. God’s power oversaw and contained the demonic power. God waited and watched me struggle, not sadistically but patiently and lovingly, looking forward to rewarding me with his aid. Because my psychedelic hell was brought about by recreational rather than ascetical reasons, there was no promise of worldwide fame at the end of my struggle, only mild embarrassment.

I appreciate Antony’s assertive prayer in almost angrily asking God, “Where were you?” and, in many ways, I take comfort, along with Antony and Athanasius, in God’s reply: “I am here. I have been here. I am in control. And I am on your side.” However, the idea of God waiting and watching while his children suffer brings up a whole new cornucopia of more questions, especially in light of genocide, world hunger, rape, suicide and other atrocities. God is present in our psychological hells, but where is God for those who experience hell as an everyday reality? I know that many pray God would quit waiting and watching and break through as Deus ex Machina as he did for Antony. But most of the time he does not. I know that many, including myself, ask God why he allows all this suffering in the first place. In hope of an answer from a God who struggles to persevere in our hearts, we sadly end up being the ones who, on the sidelines, continue to wait and watch.


[1] And “He was sincerely obedient to those men of zeal he visited, and he considered carefully the advantage in zeal and in ascetic living that each held in relation to him. He observed the gracious of one, the eagerness for prayers in another…” (Gregg 1980, 33).

 

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