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The Torment of Saint Anthony by Michelangelo.
“He was like a physician given by God to Egypt. For who met him grieving and did not go away rejoicing? Who came full of anger and was not turned to kindness? … What monk who had grown slack was not strengthened by coming to him? Who came troubled by doubts and failed to gain peace of mind?” These are a few of the words that St. Athanasius used to describe St. Antony, Abbot in Egypt, who we celebrate today.
Antony was born into a wealthy family, but six months after his parents death he heard the Gospel we read today: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Antony heard those words and responded. Selling everything, he spent the next twenty years living alone, praying, reading, and working. Later he would form a monastery and develop a rule that the monks would follow. Writing of this monastery, Athanasius said, “Their cells like tents were filled with singing, fasting, praying, and working that they might give alms, and have love and peace with one another.”
To what level of commitment did Antony expect of the monks in his care? One story tells how a brother renounced the world and gave his goods to the poor, but he kept back a little for his personal expenses. He went to see Abba Anthony. When he told him this, the old man said to him, “If you want to be a monk, go into the village, buy some meat, cover your naked body with it and come here like that.” The brother did so, and the dogs and birds tore at his flesh. When he came back the old man asked him whether he had followed his advice. He showed him his wounded body, and Saint Antony said, “Those who renounce the world but want to keep something for themselves are torn in this way by the demons who make war on them.”
Renouncing the excesses of this world as Antony and these monks did is not a life that everyone is called to. However, like them, there are excesses in each of our lives that we cling to that should be set aside so that we might more fully follow God. Those excesses can sometimes come in the form of what we can purchase. More toys. More food. More wine. Etc. But often those excesses come in how we use our time. An excess of T.V. or internet or time worrying can take us away from our time with God and others.
When Jesus said to the young man, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me,” Jesus had identified the excess in this man’s life that was obstructing him from a greater life with God and therefore told him to rid himself of it. So what is it for you? Like the meat that hung on the monk’s body that the demons devoured, what is it that hangs on you that needs to be cast aside?
Antony and those like him demonstrate to us that by putting off those excesses that devour us, we can live lives that are more dedicated to God. Examine your own life and see what might be let go. Then in faith, act. The Holy Spirit will give you the courage and strength to see it through.