Saint Anthony of Egypt is credited with starting the desert monastic movement. He was born around the year 250 C.E. to relatively wealthy parents and grew up in a small village on the shore of the Nile River. It’s believed that Anthony was raised as a Coptic Christian, the descendants of the ancient Egyptians who suffered persecution and oppression from Greeks and Romans. Anthony’s parents died just as he entered adulthood, leaving him with the responsibility of tending the household and raising his younger sister. He planned to simply live off his inheritance until a reading in church changed the course of his life.
He heard the story of the rich young ruler from Matthew 19 (which is not the gospel appointed for his feast day), and experienced an ‘aha’ moment. Jesus’ words struck home and Anthony felt he must follow the gospel’s directive ‘sell all you have and give to the poor.’ He divested the sizable family inheritance and distributed his money and belongings to the poor, keeping only enough to care for his sister.
Anthony headed out into the wilderness to spend a few years learning about monastic life from an older man living nearby. So we know Anthony was not actually ‘the first’ Desert Father. Turns out, simplicity wasn’t a natural fit for Anthony. He missed the pleasures money provided and worried that selling his possessions wasn’t the best idea. But when Anthony felt such temptation, he doubled down on his decision to sell it all. He’d fast all day, eating only a simple meal after sunset or even fast for several days at a time.
He studied the practices of hermits in his region and took on manual labor to cover his basic human needs. Anthony remained dedicated to voluntary poverty, sacrifice, and discipline. Eventually he set out on his own and lived in an empty tomb in an abandoned cemetery. He subsisted only on food brought to him by people every few days.
Around this time Constantine converted to Christianity and the religion moved above ground. The good news is that this brought an end to persecuting Christians. The bad news is that many devout Christians felt their faith was being corrupted and risked losing its prophetic character. They believed Christianity was compromised and folks converted to the faith out of convenience and political pursuits rather than a belief in Jesus Christ.
So Christians begin fleeing to the desert in search of a more authentic way of living their faith. Novices sought out Anthony in hopes of learning from his discipline and prayer. Lay people flocked to him hoping he could miraculously heal them. He withdrew from society to more and more desolate places, but people kept finding him. Finally, Anthony agreed to live near several disciples with one condition: they must not visit him ‘too’ frequently. If they complied, then he would visit occasionally and teach them about monastic discipline, divine love, and the gifts of contemplation.
The sayings of Anthony and his fellow Desert Ancestors were often recorded and shared with other Christians. Often short pithy sayings similar to Jesus’ parables or wisdom from proverbs, these lessons are meant to stir the heart and give the hearer something to mull over. There was an expectation that the listener would respond deeply to the word.
One of my favorite sayings of Anthony is,
‘Abbot Anthony taught Abbot Ammonas, saying: You must advance yet further in the fear of God. And taking him out of the cell he showed him a stone, saying: Go and insult that stone, and beat it without ceasing. When this had been done, Saint Anthony asked him if the stone had answered back. No, said Ammonas. Then Abbot Anthony said, you too must reach the point where you no longer take offense at anything.’
How do you reach the point where you no longer take offense at anything?
My husband refers to this as being a duck. Rather than absorbing water that falls upon its back, a duck’s feathers cause it to bead up and roll off. The hope is that we too might let things roll off our own backs. Oh, but this is so difficult. My husband and daughter are deeply sensitive. It’s their superpower for sure, but, also the source of much pain and hurt feelings. How can we develop thick skin so that insults or misspoken words won’t strike deeply?
One of the things I try to do in my vocations as parent and priest is using language that helps foster identity. Rather than commenting on a behavior, my intent is to recognize the person. So instead of saying, ‘sharing your toys was so generous.’ I say instead, ‘I noticed you sharing with your brother; you are such a generous person.’ Jesus does this when he names his followers as salt of the earth. My hope is that over time, my naming them as generous, loving, kind, intelligent, respectful people will be incorporated into their self-identity. Anything that contradicts it might roll off their backs.
The other thing I say as often as I remember is, “Pailet, you are a beloved child of God and a beloved child of mine. No matter what you do or what other people say to you, this will never change. You are beloved.” A version of this often finds its way into my sermons as well.
How do you keep from taking offense?