January 17th is the feast day of the man recognized as the father of Christian monasticism, St. Anthony the Great. During the last Roman persecution under Diocletian, Anthony visited Alexandria in the hopes that he would be martyred for his faith. To have the courage to be killed for declaring oneself a Christian was the pinnacle of what it was to be a believer in the first 300 years of the Church. Egypt had a notable collection of martyrs such as Katherine, the brilliant daughter of a government official, General Menas who endured brutal tortures rather than deny Christ for the sake of the emperor’s praises, and the husband-and-wife Timothy and Maura who encouraged each other in their deaths. Anthony sought to die to this world and enter the kingdom of heaven.
St. Anthony the Great of Egypt
When Emperor Constantine legalized the Christian faith in 313, proclaiming the faith was no longer a crime against the empire. In fact, becoming a Christian became popular. Though Constantine didn’t make it the official religion, people saw that it was preferred. Thus, the Church became populated with believers with all sorts of ulterior motives, heretical beliefs, and lack of desire to grow spiritually. Attending Liturgy and bringing up the name “Jesus” in conversation was the thing to do. For Anthony to broadcast his faith in the great city would not be cause for martyrdom. He could easily fit in with government policy and the popular trend. He sought the kingdom of heaven, not that of earth.
Monastery of St. Anthony in the Red Sea Desert
Anthony returned to and made his home in the Egyptian deserts repenting of his sins, developing godly virtues, fasting, praying, reading, and teaching anyone willing to listen. Other believers from the empire and other parts of the world heard of his life of spiritual discipline and came to the deserts to follow his example. Some became solitary hermits like himself. Other men and women lived in monasteries with a common rule of life. Others lived in close communities with individual rules with a common worship. And still others grew in God’s grace and returned to the cities and towns spreading this great light to those who wanted a deeper Christian experience. The British Isles, Siberia’s forest, Syria’s ravines, Ethiopian highland caves; these and other places became centers of the Christian ascetic movement that began in Egypt attributed to Anthony.
My workplace “desert”
Unfortunately, Anthony’s example is lost on many Christians. We prefer a safe faith that will not draw ridicule, much less a prison sentence. We want religion that is popular with neighbors and acceptable to authorities. Fasting, prayer, spiritual reading and other disciplines are done more for social reasons rather than to struggle against sinful passions. To engage in popular Christian trends in a nation that that declares itself to be Christian may not be to our spiritual advantage. Such faith can easily become complacent and use the Cross as a decoration rather than the agent of change in the heart and soul. Eventually, all earthly kingdoms come to an end. The kingdom of heaven does not. This is what Anthony aimed for. We should do likewise.
Find a place and time where you can be alone and examine your soul. Establish a regular pattern of prayer being careful to repent of even the slightest sin. Read and learn the wisdom of the scriptures and the saints who walked before us. The desert is not always geographic location. Essentially, it is where we encounter God and grow in His grace.