Welcome to our May reading group selection! (For the rest of the summer reading schedule, see this link.) Athanasius of Alexandria is a really interesting figure from the early church, especially among folks who study early Christian doctrine. We’ve got a couple of his writings on deck for this month — one text that is theological, and one that’s a narrative. First, we’re going to read his Life of Anthony, a story of an early monk in the Egyptian desert. Then, after that, we’ll read his On the Incarnation, a theological treatise on why Jesus became human. Let’s start with a little about Athanasius, so we are all on the same page.
Athanasius of Alexandria
Athanasius was born in the late 200s and lived until the year 373. He is most famous for having been the “Patriarch” of the Alexandrian churches for nearly 50 years. A lot of people think he was an instrumental figure in the Council of Nicaea (325); however, while he did attend, he was only a deacon and didn’t have a whole lot to do. But, when he became Patriarch three years later, he devoted a considerable portion of his adult life to defending the statement of faith that was developed at Nicaea, a version of what we call the “Nicene Creed.”
In fact, Athanasius so passionately defended that set of beliefs (especially about the right way to understand Jesus’s (the Son’s) relationship to God the Father), that he was exiled multiple times when the Roman emperor happened to disagree with his position or find him a nuisance. One of the texts that most clearly articulates Athanasius’ ideas on this topic is his set of Orations Against the Arians, which you can read in an old-fashioned translation at this link.
Athanasius’s Life of Anthony
But this month we’re starting with something related but different: his Life of Anthony, the famous monk from Egypt. I’m reading the translation by Robert C. Gregg, in the edition that’s part of Paulist Press’s “Classics of Western Spirituality” series (which is great, by the way). In this book, Athanasius tells the story of Anthony’s adult life, focusing especially on his adventures as a spiritual ascetic, living further and further away from other human beings, yet being apparently unable to escape fame for his spiritual exploits.
As the introductions to the book note, Athanasius does actually include a fair amount of theological material in the book, in that the depiction of Anthony’s dependence on Jesus is clearly shaped by Athanasius’s beliefs that the Son was fully God, just like the Father. But the text has been far more influential in its depiction of the rigors of the spiritual life. Indeed, we know that it was translated into multiple languages within just a few decades of its writing (that’s fast in the ancient world). St. Augustine of Hippo, in his celebrated autobiography (called Confessions), describes how a translation of this text into Latin helped bring about his own conversion to Christ. The images of Anthony, fighting against various demons, devils, and temptations, have been fodder for both artists (see above) and those seeking deeper spirituality for hundreds of years.
The First Part of the Text
Today I’ll just share some thoughts on the first part of the text. First, it’s appropriate for us to be reading this text for our own profit. Athanasius says at the beginning that his addressee apparently is attempting to “measure up to or even to surpass” the monks in the “discipline of virtue.” He intends to help accomplish this goal by sharing the story of Anthony, in response to his audience’s request, and he acknowledges that Anthony’s life has been a “profit and assistance” for himself as well. This opening reminds me of the books of Luke and Acts, where the author tells “Theophilus” that the things written there were to strengthen him in his belief, at whatever stage that may have been.
Second, I find the beginning of Anthony’s story compelling. After telling us a bit about his background as an Egyptian Christian (ch. 1), Athanasius quickly moves to his late adolescence (or early adulthood). By that point (ch. 2), both of his parents had recently died, leaving his young sister and the family’s lands (they were reasonably affluent) in his care. But Anthony was used to going to church, and one day when he did so, he heard the Gospel text from Matthew 19: “If you be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” According to the story, Anthony immediately did exactly that: he gave his lands away, sold his movable goods and gave the proceeds to the poor, and kept only a few things aside for his sister. But then he went to church again and heard the Gospel text that reads “Do not be anxious about tomorrow”… and so he gave away to the poor even the things he had kept back. He put his sister in a convent so that she could be raised well, and then he turned himself over to a life of ascetic discipline. This immediate obedience to the Gospel reminds me of the story of St. Francis, who did something very similar in obeying a word he received in church.
Finally, Athanasius does not wait very long to get going on an aspect of this text that is rather disconcerting to many modern readers: unambiguous descriptions of demonic activity, both in Anthony’s mind and actually in apparently material ways — things he can see, hear, smell, and touch. First, in ch. 5, Athanasius writes, “The devil … attempted to lead him away from the discipline, suggesting memories” of various things to which he might be attached. Later in the chapter, the devil “undertook one night to assume the form of a woman,” so that Anthony might be led astray by lust. In ch. 6, there is a famous and controversial image of the devil taking on the likeness of a “black boy”; as many commentators have noted (see here and here for two examples), this image may suggest racism, the blackness of sin, a temptation toward homosexual behavior or pederasty, or all of these! Many modern readers find this kind of language quite foreign, if not repellent. Don’t we live in an enlightened age? Don’t we no longer believe in such superstitions? Maybe. But the Hollywood box office suggests that there is still a latent belief in such things — and maybe people are on to something.
That’s it for today. Here’s a pair of questions to consider: Which commands of Jesus do you find it easy to obey? Which have been hard for you? Why do you think this is so?
Image credits: http://egliseorthodoxe-togo.com/en (the icon of Athanasius) and https://commons.wikimedia.org (detail of Lucas van Leyden’s Temptation of Saint Anthony, and Michelangelo’s Torment of Saint Anthony)
Suggested next click: Life of Anthony, Part 2