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"The personalization of the mystical path begun with Philo's presentation of Moses and the patriarchs here reaches a new stage, as Athanasius portrays his contemporary, Anthony the Monachos, as the ideal mystic initiate." Bernard McGinn, The Foundation of Mysticism
Antony, the Father of Monks:
I was captivated when I first heard, at an early age of twelve, the Life of St. Antony, written by Athanasius, the heroic defender of church orthodoxy. The stories of Antony's battles with demons, and his toil and escape into the desert to avoid temptation, appeal to Coptic kids, even at early age and is used by the church to promote the monastic ideals in childhood.
The Vita Antonini, which St Athanasius wrote as the hagiography of Saint Antony, unveils fascinating mystical encounters while living daily within the boundary of a world ruled by the Powers of darkness. Written about 357, three decades after his election for Papacy in the great church of Alexandria, the Megalopolice. Athanasius for more than a half century toiled to preserve Nicene Orthodoxy, championed by him and by his successors establishing the solid foundation upon which Christian faith of the Christian East was built.
Antony's monastic pilgrimage was plagued with spiritual warfare during which Antony resisted temptation and became a target for renewed attacks. The rest of the work could be sorted as a manual of monastic instruction, with particular emphasis on resisting evil through self mortification. Within the same patristic tradition John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus wrote their marvelous books for lay and monastics. Athanasius records Antony's struggles, and tells his readers how to recognize and fight the devil. St. Antony is believed to be a Thaumaturgies, the vehicle for many miracles, and those who sought healing were always instructed to give the glory to God, the source of all good. Antony became an icon of Christian humility and self-mortification. The life of Antony is an edifying biography to all Christians, at any stage of their spiritual pilgrimage. One wonders if the work that left its readers breathless in late antiquity could still be heard today.
The Vita Antonini:
The 'life' is recounted in the first fourteen chapters, giving particular details of his mystical schema (spiritual itinerary), while the following eighty illustrate the examples of Antony's Theognosis, his wisdom by knowing and experiencing the presence of the Lord. Anthony withdrew to the desert, living ascetically on bread and water. As a result of his prayerful life and self denial, he came to the attention of the faithful in outer world.
Western scholars alleged that Athanasius might have been using the Vita as a polemical tool, to promote monasticism in the West. There are times when some still wonder if Athanasius, who was a gifted 'Orator and Preacher,' known as the 'Evangelical Doctor,' used his charming style of hagiographic story telling in persuasion for the holy cause.
Throughout, Athanasius teaches that monastic life is an imitation of Christ, a discipleship of his following. Antony followed this discipline (askesis), which for him was a battle with the demonic powers of self and the world. He conquers in those extreme temptations by the grace of Christ, who strengthened him. At the end, Antony is presented as the renewed human, who through the Christ recovered what Adam had lost.
Message of the Vita:
In a most compelling analysis, Philp Rousseau, the eminent patristic writes in, 'The Desert fathers, Antony...', "Antony recalled his own initial vulnerability. demons could do little more than argument an existing frame of mind;... So it is not so much the imagery as the mechanics that we must attend to. The ascetic was bent upon reclaiming his conscious life from memories of error, weakness, and indulgence. this he did by fixing his attention on a range of concepts and of texts or dicts that could not but exclude those other 'thoughts'. in this way he built up a psychic wall against his past, both cultural and personal." (The Study of Spirituality, pp 126)
The Mind of Athanasius:
The heart of Athanasius's theology, is centered around the relationship of God with the universe in creation and salvation. God's absolute transcendence, which Athanasius held in common with his Alexandrine predecessors, is clearly modified. God's immanence is not merely a mitigation of transcendence, in the world (and) fundamental to God's own nature. " This is all the more striking because Athanasius does not weaken the absolute distinction between creator and created, but rather assumes this in strong terms. Yet the Incarnation in particular presents God to the world in an immediate (and paradoxical) sense that contrasts with most of Athanasius's Middle-Platonizing theological predecessors. This remains a striking and powerful position," wrote Andrew McGowan, on 'The Coherence of his Thought'
The emphasis on the gulf between God and humankind called in question Hellenistic ideas found in Alexandrine thought, Origen in particular, in virtue of which human beings could attempt to ascend to God. For Athanasius, who defended the reality of the incarnation, "He was made man, that we might be made God," deification no longer meant restoration of our natural state but realization of a new possibility offered to us by God through the incarnation. Andrew Louth came to a conclusion that Origen's Greek concepts, in which humans realize their kinship with God, fall into the background, Athanasius emphasis is on god's condescension to us rather than on our ascent to God. Fr. Louth makes this statement, "an important part of Athanasius' achievement was in his championing of the ascetic movement... In his widely influential Life of Antony, he presented an understanding of the ascetic life less in human search for God than as the way in which the war against the forces of evil, in which God has achieved the decisive victory through the cross and resurrection,..."