Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A Timeless Tale

I'm someone who is really prone to despair and depression, which is to say that I very easily lose sight of God and prefer to look inward at my weakness rather than upward at His strength. When I'm at my worst, I pick up The Life of St. Antony by St. Athanasius. Needless to say, this is one of the few books that has drastically changed my life and the way I understand things, and it cannot be re-read enough times. I honestly have no idea why, but reading the life of such a saintly being just brings my spirits up to heaven like no other. I read it for the first time six years ago. I have found no other remedy for my depressive tendencies.

There is one account in particular that always has the same effect on me every time I read it. It is a story of one of his many encounters with the devil, and when I read it, no matter what state of despair I am in, it all fades away. It is as if his love and faith in God are so unshakable that in a moment, he can carry ten thousand weak spirits like my own on his shoulders and bring all of us up toward the love of Christ.

This account is the exact antithesis of self-obsession and despair:
Girding himself in this way, Antony went out to the tombs that were situated some distance from the village. He charged one of his friends to supply him periodically with bread, and he entered one of the tombs and remained alone within, his friend having closed the door on him. When the enemy could stand it no longer--for he was apprehensive that Antony might before long fill the desert with the discipline--approaching one night with a multitude of demons he whipped him with such force that he lay on the earth, speechless from the tortures. He contended that the pains were so severe as to lead one to say that the blows could not have been delivered by humans, since they caused such agony. But by God's providence (for the Lord does not overlook those who place their hope in him), the friend came the next day bringing him the loaves. Opening the door and seeing him lying, as if dead, on the ground, he picked him up and carried him to the Lord's house in the village, and laid him on earth. And many of his relatives and the people of the village stationed themselves by Antony as beside a corpse. But around midnight, coming to his senses and wakening, Antony, as he saw everyone sleeping, and only his friend keeping the watch, beckoned to him and asked him to lift him again and carry him to the tombs, waking no one. 
So he was taken back there by the man and, as before, the door was closed. Again he was alone inside. Because of the blows he was not strong enough to stand, but he prayed while lying down. And after the prayer he yelled out: "Here I am--Antony! I do not run from your blows, for even if you give me more, nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ." Then he also sang, "Though an army should set itself in array against me, my heart shall not be afraid." These things, then, the ascetic thought and spoke, but the enemy who despises good, astonished that even after the blows he had received he dared to return, summoned his dogs and said, exploding with rage, "You see that we failed to stop this man with a spirit of fornication or with lashes. Far from it--he is even insolent to us. Let us approach him in another way." Now schemes for working evil come easily to the devil, so when it was nighttime, they made such a crashing noise that that whole place seemed to be shaken by a quake. The demons, as if breaking through the building's four walls, and seeming to enter through them, were changed into the forms of beasts and reptiles. The place immediately was filled with appearances of lions, bears, leopards, bulls, and serpents, asps, scorpions, 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. But unmoved and even more watchful in his soul he lay there, and he groaned because of the pain felt in his body, but being in control of his thoughts and as if mocking them, he said: "If there were some power among you, it would have been enough for only one of you to come. But since the Lord has broken your strength, you attempt to terrify me by any means with the mob; it is a mark of your weakness that you mimic the shapes of irrational beasts." And again with boldness he said, "If you are able, and you did receive authority over me, don't hold back, but attack. But if you are unable, why, when it is vain, do you disturb me? For faith in our Lord is for us a seal and a wall of protection." So after trying many strategies, they gnashed their teeth because of him, for they made fools not of him, but of themselves. 
In this circumstance also the Lord did not forget the wrestling of Antony, but came to his aid. For when he looked up he saw the roof being opened, as it seemed, and a certain beam of light descending toward him. Suddenly the demons vanished from view, the pain of his body ceased instantly, and the building was once more intact. Aware of the assistance and both breathing more easily and relieved from the sufferings, Antony entreated the vision that appeared, saying, "Where were you? Why didn't you appear in the beginning, so that you could stop my distresses?" And a voice came to him: "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." On hearing this, he stood up and prayed, and he was so strengthened that he felt that his body contained more might than before. And he was about thirty-five years old at that time.

The entire book is extremely short, 94 paragraphs in all, and extremely readable. St. Athanasius was a brilliant writer and biographer.

The Life of St. Antony by St. Athanasius can be read online or downloaded as a pdf from here:
 - http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf204.xvi.ii.i.html


  1. This is a great excerpt, Martha! Thanks for highlighting it.

    1. Thanks for commenting Phoebe! Isn't it? I feel like posting it here doesn't even do it justice, it's probably a lot more powerful when read in context.

  2. Hey Martha! Thank you for this. It is so nice and I really want to read the book now. It's amazing how he was able to identify the devil's tricks and resist them with such strength. I abslutely Love your blog and love the topics. A lot of the issues you discuss are really applicable to my life and so thank you! I have tried to post in the summer but for skme reason it didn't work-- hopefully it works today lol. Miss you btw