Some men in God's church belong to the the roster of the heroes of faith only because their witness, though in some respects wrong, is important.
Such was Anthony and the ascetics.
The strange conduct of the ascetics can only be understood by some description of the theological thought current in the age in which they lived.
Already in the third century of the history of Christ's church, errors were present in the thinking of the church's theologians concerning salvation by grace. It was thought by some that salvation came, at least in part, through our own works. It must be remembered that the truths of sovereign grace in the work of salvation were not developed in the church until Augustine's controversy with the Pelagians and Semi-pelagians in the 5th century. While, generally, the church surely held to the truth of salvation by grace, the place of works in salvation (a vexing problem which has troubled the church until the present) was not clearly understood.
The practice of asceticism was rooted in a wrong interpretation of the words of our Lord which commanded disciples to sell all that they had and give to the poor, and of the words of Paul that it is better not to marry. Taking these instructions as rules of conduct in the church, many recognized that it was impossible for every member of the church to follow these injunctions of Scripture lest the church cease to exist; but they nevertheless continued to consider them to be authoritative commandments. To solve the problem, many began to think in terms of a "two-level morality." The lower level was for the majority of God's people. They kept their possessions and married and brought forth children. But there was a higher level of morality as well. Those who chose to live on this level lived on a higher plane of holiness and, consequently, earned more favor with God. This higher level was the life of poverty and celibacy to which many aspired.
Coupled with this was the notion that especially the Nazarites in Scripture had made an effective protest against apostasy and worldliness in the church by withdrawing from the life of the nation of Israel as a whole and by denying themselves many of life's comforts.
So, when the church in her early history, enjoying a measure of surcease from persecution, became worldly and carnal, men arose who attempted to protest this worldliness by withdrawing from the church and from society to live the life of an ascetic.
Two things were, therefore, thought to be accomplished by such conduct: one was an effective protest against encroaching worldliness; the other was the attainment of a higher morality which would win special favor with God.
The founder of asceticism was Anthony.
His Early Life
Anthony was born in 251 in Egypt from wealthy parents who left all their possessions to him. But in keeping with the words of the Lord to the rich young ruler, Anthony sold all his possessions, gave the money to the poor, and retreated to the desert to live in solitude. His possessions consisted of 300 acres of fertile land in the Nile Delta. The only exception he made in the distribution of the money to the poor was a small sum which was set aside for his sister who had been entrusted by his parents to his care.
His Ascetic Life
To conquer the temptations of the flesh, he engaged in rigorous acts of self-denial. For a time he lived in a cave, then in a ruined house. The last years of his life were spent on a mountain about a seven-hour journey from the Red Sea. He wore only a hair robe and denied himself all but the basics of food and drink. His food consisted of bread and salt and some occasional dates. He ate but once a day, usually after sunset. He felt shame that he needed even this. Days of fasting completely were interspersed with his sparse diet. He slept on bare ground or a straw pallet, but often he slept not at all, spending his time in prayer through the night. His entire wardrobe consisted of a shirt, a sheepskin, and a belt. In later years he rarely bathed, thinking, perhaps, that filth was next to godliness. He spent his time in struggling with temptation through prayer and meditation on the Scriptures. Philip Schaff, leaning on the biography of Athanasius, writes of these struggles:
Conflicts with the devil and his hosts of demons were, as with other solitary
saints, a prominent part of Anthony's experience, and continued through all his life. The
devil appeared to him in visions and dreams, or even in daylight, in all possible forms,
now as a friend, now as a fascinating woman, now as a dragon, tempting him by
reminding him of his former wealth, of his noble family, of the care due to his sister, by
promises of wealth, honor, and renown, by exhibitions of the difficulty of virtue and the
facility of vice, by unchaste thoughts and images, by terrible threatenings of the dangers
and punishments of the ascetic life. Once he struck the hermit so violently, Athanasius
says, that a friend, who brought him bread, found him on the ground apparently dead.
At another time he broke through the wall of his cave and filled the room with roaring
lions, howling wolves, growling bears, fierce hyenas, crawling serpents and scorpions;
but Anthony turned manfully toward the monsters, till a supernatural light broke in from
the roof and dispersed them.
Only twice, in his long ascetic life, did he emerge from his isolation. Both times, by his ragged dress and emaciated and ghost-like appearance, he made a powerful impression upon Christians and heathen.
The first time he emerged was during a time of persecution when he appeared, almost like Elijah of old, to gain for himself the martyr's crown. He did everything he could to antagonize the persecutors. He visited Christians in the mines and in prisons; he argued with the judges in court; he accompanied martyrs to the scaffold to encourage them; he defended their cause at every opportunity. But no one dared lay a hand on him, and he was forced to retreat again to the desert.
The second time he emerged was during the Arian debate when he was 100 years old. He argued in support of his friend Athanasius and against the Arians, declaring that the Arian heresy was worse than the venom of the serpent, and no better than heathenism which worshiped the creature instead of the Creator.
When asked to remain in Alexandria, he refused: "As a fish out of water, so a monk out of his solitude dies."
By his example, he attracted thousands to the monastic life. Many more thousands, while apparently unable to emulate his way of life, flocked to his cave to visit him and seek his prayers. To feed them in the howling wastes of the desert, he cultivated a large garden, from which he was said to have expelled wild beasts by the Word of the Lord. Miracles were ascribed to him, and his prayers were thought to have unusual efficacy. He spurned learning of every sort: "He who has a sound mind has no need of learning."
He died in 356 at the age of 105, after retiring to his cave with two disciples whom he took along to bury him in an unknown place. Athanasius gives us his dying words:
Do not let them carry my body into Egypt, lest they store it in their houses. One
of my reasons for coming to this mountain was to hinder this. You know I have never
reproved those who have done this, and charged them to cease from the custom. Bury,
then, my body in the earth, in obedience to my word, so that no one may know the
place, except yourselves. In the resurrection of the dead it will be restored to me
incorruptible by the Savior. Distribute my garments as follows: Let Serapion, the
bishop, have the other sheepskin. As to the hair shirt, keep it for yourselves. And now,
my children, farewell; Anthony is going, and is no longer with you.
His example was followed by thousands, some of whom went far beyond his excesses. Some, congregated in colonies, never spoke to each other, except on Saturday and Sunday. Hilarion never ate before sunset. He cut his hair only once a year and engaged only in prayers, psalm singing, Bible recitations, and basket weaving. Others refused to sit or lie, standing for days on end and sleeping by leaning against a rock. Others permitted themselves to be covered with stinging and biting ants in the desert sands. Still others drank only what water could be collected from the dew which occasionally fell.
Perhaps the most unusual of all were the Stylites, who lived on pillars.
The sect was founded by Symeon, who himself lived for 36 years on a pillar sixty feet high. Yet another spent 68 years on the top of a pillar, refusing to come down, having bits of food and drops of water raised to him from admiring throngs. In the blazing heat, under the cruel sun, soaked by cloudbursts, buffeted by the wind, enduring the bitter chill of the nights, these strange men found yet stranger paths to holiness.
They were the founders of monasticism which spread rapidly into the northern Mediterranean world and then into Europe. This monasticism continued in the Roman Catholic Church until today, but was harshly condemned by the Reformers in the 16th century who understood its evils. The way to holiness is not the strange way of the ascetics.
It is between two extremes that the faithful child of God must find his way. On the one side lurks the dangers of the monastic life; on the other the ever-present threat of worldliness. Worldliness destroys the church; but asceticism destroys the soul.
Our Lord has specifically said that, although His children are not of the world, they are nevertheless in the world. They are not called to unite with the world, but they are not faithful to their Lord by fleeing the world.
Ultimately, fleeing the world is impossible, for we carry the world in our flesh -- whether we flee to a cave, a pillar, a cold and dank cell of a monastery, or a barren dune in some far-off desert. The struggle with the world is the most difficult on the battlefield of our flesh -- as the hermits and monks learned. In fact, such disobedience to Christ as world-flight makes the battle with the world in our own natures the more difficult.
This world is God's world. It is destined to be redeemed and glorified. God loves His creatures, and every creature of God is good and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving (I Tim. 4:4). It is a grievous sin to spurn it, and a slap in God's face to despise it.
Being citizens of a heavenly land does not excuse our contempt for God's world; it rather urges us on in our calling to use God's world to seek the things which are above. The battle to attain holiness is born by the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, is carried on in the day-to-day struggle to attain obedience in our daily calling in life, and has its sure victory in faith; for faith is the victory that overcomes the world.