On my way to a U2 concert in Las Vegas last fall, about an hour before entering the Mojave Desert, I drove by a sign for the St. Antony Monastery in Newberry Springs, CA. Because I was seeing U2 that night, I did not have time to stop by for a visit. And I could not stop by on the way back home either because I had to rush back to Pasadena to see another U2 show at the Rose Bowl. However, this spring, my friend and I are planning to go to Las Vegas, where I will make it a point to visit the monastery.
The monastery is of particular interest to me because it is named after the Father of Monasticism himself, Antony of Egypt (250-350). And, as I was driving by this monastery last fall, I had just finished reading his famous biography, Life of Antony, written by another anti-Arian bishop: Athanasius (d. 373). Bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, Athanasius actually invented a new literary genre with his Life of Antony, which is much more like a Greek encomium or panegyric than it is like an historical biography. This exaggerated account of a saint is called a hagiography and Life of Antony is the first and arguably the best of this genre.
Orphaned at 18, Antony heard the Gospel call to sell all his possessions and give his money to the poor. So he did. But then he started to worry about his decision. And then he heard the Gospel call to stop worrying. So he stopped and decided to move to the desert to pray in silence and solitude. In the Egyptian desert, Antony wrestled with all sorts of demons, and even with the devil himself, much like Jesus did during his forty-day “hiatus” in the deserts of Palestine.
After Constantine passed the Edict of Milan (313), Christians could no longer earn immediate access to the imago Dei through martyrdom. Believed to be a free ticket to Heaven, martyrdom had made Christian “rock stars” out of Cyprian (c. 260), Perpetua (d. 203), Polycarp (d. 160), Justin Martyr (d. 160), Ignatius of Antioch (d. 106) and proto-martyr Stephen (d. 36). With martyrdom no longer possible, Christians had to find new ways to gain sure access to the imago Dei and an ascetic life of prayer in the desert soon became the popular answer. Once this idea took off, Antony was quickly heralded as the father and founder of “white martyrdom” and thousands followed him. Although not a scholar or an intellectual, Antony displayed profound wisdom, understanding and knowledge in his teachings (which happened to be very anti-Arian).
Relation to Jews
As far as I know, Antony had little to no interaction with Jews and said nothing about them. However, it is worth noting some correlations between Antony’s spirituality and Jewish spirituality. Like the Jews, Antony prayed the Psalms regularly, most likely every night. One can see the influence of the Psalms on Antony when, after a particularly horrifying demonic attack, he asks God, “Where were you?”
Rabbi Hillel teaches that the “timid cannot learn” and because Antony refuses to be timid by boldly (and perhaps angrily) asking God, “Where were you?” he receives an answer from God and therefore learns. (I explore God’s answer, which brings up a lot more questions, in an earlier post)