The future St Anthony the Great, the first of the Desert Fathers, was born about 250 a.d. in a rich Egyptian family of noble descent. His parents died when he was 18 or 20, and he was left with one sister the heir of great estates. He had been a serious child, and since youth had listened attentively to the teachings of the Christian Church. Jesus’s answer to the rich young man to go and sell all that he had and give to the poor and follow Him had imprinted itself on his mind. So on his parents’ death St Anthony distributed his lands to the people of his village and sold most of his other possessions for the benefit of the poor, but he kept back a little for his sister. Eventually he gave this away too and handed over his sister to be brought up by some nuns.
St Anthony now became a solitary monk. He lived first in a house not far from his former village. At this time he visited many righteous men and humbly begged their teachings. It was said of him that ‘he possessed a wonderful mind, for he never pondered and thought how far he had advanced in discipleship, but each day he kept in mind that he had only just begun at the beginning thereof’.
After a while he moved to a tomb in a cemetery on a mountain near the village. Subsequently, at about the age of 35, he began to dwell in a place which was like unto a cleft in the rocks on a mountain near a river. Visiting him there, Egyptian monks and laity, expecting to find an emaciated ascetic, were astonished when they ‘saw that his appearance was like unto an angel of light. They marvelled why it was that his body had not been weakened by all his confinement, and why it was that his understanding had not become feeble, and why, on the contrary, his appearance and his bodily stature, and his countenance were then as they had known them always to have been in the times which were past’.
In search of solitude he went off into the desert, but there too monks gathered round him, and a monastery grew up.
To escape the multitudes that came to him to be healed and also to enjoy ‘a little silent contemplation’, St Anthony wanted to go to the desert of the Thebaid, but a voice from heaven urged him instead to go to the innermost desert. Even there his solitude was not complete. Athanasius, Archbishop of Alexandria,
visited him often, and at least at his death there were disciples living with him.
Athanasius gives this description of St Anthony in his old age. ‘When he became old and waxed aged, he was simple in his speech, and austere and stern in his mind, but still he was perfect and complete in everything… Now his speech… was so exceedingly savoury and so well seasoned with heavenly salt that no one of his hearers could be angry at his words, and no man could be envious of the acts of his daily life, for he was ready and prepared to hear and answer every kind of opinion.’
St Anthony died in 356 a.d. at the age of 105. His life was written by his friend Athanasius. The quotations given above are taken from it as translated from the Greek by E. A. Wallis Budge in his The Paradise of Fathers, two vols., London, 1907,1, pp. 3-76.
The following extracts from St Anthony’s 170 ‘Counsels on the Manners of Men and the Good Life’ have been translated from the Philokalia in the original Greek, published in Venice in 1792. A very much larger selection of extracts is given by E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer in their Early Fathers from the Philokalia, London, 1954, pp. 21-38, but their translation was made from Archimandrite Paisy Velichkovsky’s translation of the Philokalia into Church Slavonic (Dobrotolyu- biye, Moscow, 1793) and is therefore at a greater remove from the original.
In this translation ‘mind’ is used for the Greek nous and ‘soul’ for the Greek psyche. Nous here refers to the higher mental faculty active in spiritual intuition and interior discrimination. It corresponds to the Sanskrit term buddhi. Psyche on the other hand refers to the everyday mind and corresponds to the complex of manas, chitta and ahankara in the Vedantic psychology.
Counsels on the manners of men and the good life
45, If we make every effort and use every means to avoid the death of the body, how much more ought we to strive to avoid the death of the soul. For nothing hinders a man who wants to be saved but carelessness and idleness of soul.
- Death, when understood by men, is immortality, but when not understood by fools, it is death. It is not death which is to be feared, but the destruction of the soul, which is ignorance of God. For it is that which is terrible to the soul.
- Men filled with evil and intoxicated by their ignorance do not know God, for they are not sober in soul. But God can be known, and though He cannot be seen, He is most manifest of all in things which are seen, like the soul in the body. For as the body cannot exist apart from the soul, so all that is seen and exists, cannot exist apart from God.
- Why was man born? So that, by considering the creations of God, he should contemplate Him, and praise Him, who has made them for man. The mind which loves God is an unseen good, which is given by God to those who are worthy because of their good life.
- Know that the bodily pains are by nature private to the body, since the body is material and corruptible. In such experiences the schooled soul therefore should gratefully display patience and endurance and not blame God for having created the body.
- Some of the guests at an inn have beds, but others sleep on the floor, and they snore no worse than those who rest on beds. And having tarried for the space of a night, with the dawn they leave the places where they slept in the inn and go forth all together carrying only their own belongings. So all who travel through this life, both those who have lived modestly and those who have lived on wealth and glory, leave life as men leave an inn, taking nothing with them of worldly luxury or wealth, but only their own deeds, both good and bad, which they have done in their lives.
- He who is truly a man strives to be holy, and he is holy who does not desire things alien to him. All created things are alien to man. Therefore he spurns all things, being the image of God. Man becomes the image of God when he lives rightly and in a manner pleasing to God. And this cannot be, until a man abandons all things which pertain to life. He who has a mind that loves God knows all the benefit to the soul and all the protection that comes from it. A God-loving man blames no one else for his own failings, and this is a sign of a soul that is on the path to salvation.
- The greatest disease of a soul, and its calamity and destruction, is not to know God, who has made all things for man, and who gave him both mind and reason, by which he might fly up and be united with God, knowing and praising Him.
- The mind sees all things, even heavenly things. And nothing darkens it but sin. There is nothing the pure mind cannot understand, just as there is nothing the Word cannot express.
- As a body which leaves its mother’s womb imperfect cannot be brought up, so a soul which leaves the body without having achieved the knowledge of God through a good life cannot be saved and united with God.
- The eyes are the sight of the body, and the mind is the sight of the soul. As a body without eyes is blind, and cannot see the sun which illumines all the earth and sea, and cannot enjoy the light, so a soul without a good mind and honourable life is blind and neither knows nor praises God, the creator and benefactor of all things. Nor can it enjoy His incorruptibility and His everlasting blessings.
- Ignorance of God is anaesthesia and stupidity of the soul. For evil is born of this ignorance. But good comes to men from knowledge of God and saves their souls. If therefore you strive to avoid fulfilling your desires, remaining sober and knowing God, your mind is directed towards the virtues, but if you strive to fulfil your evil desires, for your pleasure, drunken with your ignorance of God, you are destroyed like the irrational creatures, unmindful of the evils which will befall you after death.
- It is an ordinance of God that as the body grows the soul should be filled with mind, so that a man might choose what pleases him out of the good and bad. A soul which does not choose the good does not receive mind. Hence although all bodies have a soul, not every soul is said to have a mind. For a God-loving mind is given to those who are wise, holy, just, pure, good, merciful and pious. The coming of mind is man’s succour in his approach to God.
- Only one thing is not allowed to man, to be immortal.* But he is allowed to be united with God, if he realises that he can be united to Him. For if he wishes, and understands, and believes, and practises love through a good life, man becomes God’s companion.
- The eyes see the phenomena. But the mind has knowledge of the unseen. For the God-loving mind is the light of the soul, and he who has a God-loving mind is illumined in his heart and with his mind sees God.
- To man alone does God listen. To man alone does God
* This applies to the body and not to the soul. But even the body will be made immortal after the resurrection (note in the Greek original) appear. God is a lover of man, and wheresoever man is, there also is God. Man alone is a worthy worshipper of God. For man’s sake God transforms Himself.
- Owing to the love which God, our creator, bears for men, exceeding many are men’s paths to salvation, which convert souls and bring them up to the heavens. For the souls of men receive rewards for virtues and punishments for sins.
- God is good and passionless and unchangeable. If a man considers it right and true that God does not change but wonders how then He can rejoice at the good, turn away from the bad, be angry with sinners, and being worshipped become benign, one must answer that God neither rejoices, nor is angry, for both joy and grief are passions. Nor is God served by gifts, for He would be decreased by pleasure. The divine can neither be benefited nor harmed by human actions. But God is good and only benefits and never harms, remaining ever as He is. It is we who, when we remain good, unite with God through likeness to Him, but when we become bad, draw apart from Him through unlikeness to Him. When we live the fife of virtue, we hold on to God; but when we become bad, we make Him hostile to us. Not that he is actually angry with us, but our sins do not allow Him to shine in us. Instead they unite us with the chastising demons. If we dissolve our sins by prayers and good deeds, we do not win God over or change Him, but by our practices and by our turning to God we cure our sins and come again to enjoy God’s goodness. To say that God turns away from the bad is the same as to say that the sun hides itself from men deprived of sight.
- The mind which is found in a pure and God-loving soul truly sees God, the unborn, who is not the object of contemplation and is beyond speech—He who is the only pure one for the pure in heart.
- It is not difficult for him who believes and wishes to know God to do so. If you wish also to contemplate Him, look at the good order and providence in all the things which have been made and are being made by His Word. All things have been made for man.
- When with thanksgiving you he down upon your bed, mindful of God’s kindnesses and His so great providence towards you, you are filled with good thoughts and rejoice the more. Then the falling asleep of the body comes to you as the sobering of your soul, the closing of your eyes brings the true sight of
God, and your silence, pregnant with good, offers from all the soul and with all its strength intense perceptive praise to the God of all things. For when evil is absent from man, thanksgiving alone pleases God more than a costly sacrifice. To whom be glory for age after age. Amen.