Abba Anthony also said, "Our life and our death is with our neighbour. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ."
One day Abba Anthony received a letter from the Emperor Constantius, asking him to come to Constantinople, and he was wondering if he ought to go. So he said to Abba Paul, his disciple, "Ought I to go?" He replied, "If you go, you will be called Anthony, but if you stay here, you will be called Abba Anthony."
Desert Father Stories
Reflection – One of the criticisms of the desert fathers that has been made over the centuries is that theirs is a way of life essentially self-centered. They are focused entirely on the salvation of their own souls and care nothing for their neighbours. Why don’t they spend their lives feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, if they want to be so close to God? Isn’t that what Jesus did? Isn’t that what he told us to do?
It is a superficially strong argument. And of course there are indeed thousands if not millions of Christians over the millennia who have indeed become very holy, very close to God precisely by lives of active charity and generous unstinting service to their fellow man. That is beyond dispute.
But this little pair of desert father sayings, again from the great Abba Anthony, help answer the objection made to the way of life of the desert, which is of course the pattern of all monastic life and in a certain sense of all consecrated life. Even those consecrated people who are engaged in the active apostolate have a little wee current of the desert fathers running somewhere through their lives of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
That is, the fathers of the desert communicate to us that the most helpful thing we can do for another person, the most lavish act of service we can perform for another human being, the most profound act of charity and Christian compassion, is to win this person for Jesus Christ. This is not to dismiss or disparage in any way whatsoever the corporal works of mercy. But those corporal works are, in fact, ordered properly only when they are in fact ordered towards winning souls for Christ.
And souls are won for Christ, not by all sorts of doing and talking and human activity, but in a very deep way of prayer and fasting and our own inner purification and union with Jesus. ‘Acquire interior peace, and a multitude will find salvation near you,’ a more modern ‘desert father’ of Russia said, St. Seraphim of Sarov.
That has been the lived experience of the Church for 2000 years—that the real and deepest good for human beings has been accomplished by men and women who allow God to take possession of their deepest being, that grace flows through such men and women like a vast, swift-moving river, that hearts are changed and souls are saved and the earth is renewed as in the spring-time by such men and women and the Spirit of the Living God flowing through them.
This is what is meant in the second story—if Anthony goes to Constantinople (where he can really be useful to the emperor!) he will remain Anthony. Not a bad thing, actually, and it’s not like he would have been committing some grave sin to do so. But if he stays in the desert, stays in this mysterious and seemingly useless life of prayer and fasting and total oblation to God, he will be ‘Abba’ Anthony. A spiritual father, a man whose life will beget life in others, who will bring forth new souls made new in Christ.
And we see this over and over again in the life of the Church. ‘Abba’ Anthony is still bringing forth souls for Christ; his spiritual fecundity has spilled over the bonds of time and history and into eternity, and there are still countless thousands of men and women won for Christ by the teachings and way of life laid down by him and those who came after him. And we can see the same thing happening with Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Dominic whose feast day is today, and so many others, Catherine de Hueck Doherty among them (in my opinion).
And yet, when it comes down to us, we have to struggle through it. Is my life worth anything? Is what I’m doing going to make the slightest bit of difference in the world? Is my faithfulness to Christ, my poor efforts to pray and fast and do what the Lord wills for me—is it worth it? Can I become ‘Abba Denis’ (the sound of which makes me snort in derision, just a little). Can you become Abba or Amma (insert your name here)? And if you do, what good will it do?
This is the great struggle, the great question all of us face, even if our lives are filled with works of active charity that have some obvious immediate good effect. And we have to struggle through it with God’s help—no shortcut, no way around it but through it. But souls hang in the balance, our brothers and sisters who are far from Christ can only be brought near to Him by the ministry of Christian souls set on fire for God by God—all the depths and heights of this desert life are for them, ultimately.
So it is anything but self-centered to walk this path of radical holiness, radical belonging to God. It is all about becoming a living flame of love in the world, without which many will die of the cold. So let’s try, just a little, today, to let God burn in us as he did in those great men and women of the desert. The world is suffering from ‘global chilling’, you know, and needs that fire, that warmth, more than ever.