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St Anthony the Abbot
(entered heaven this day in 356)
Do you think our Lord WANTS you to be stressed out? Can you imagine Christ being stressed out? I can’t. Stress comes from mess – when life is a crowded mess of commitments and obligations and activities and relationships that tumble around in disordered chaos you can’t avoid feeling anxious and unstable. The way to clean up the mess, and thereby remove the stress, is not so hard. Especially for a Christian. Today’s saint has the secret.
Anthony lived in Egypt in the third and fourth centuries. When he was about your age his parents died, leaving him a large fortune and estate. Moved by the Holy Spirit, he liquidated his wealth, gave it to the poor, and retired into solitude to dedicate his life to prayer, penance, and the service of God. For more than 80 years he lived the life of a monk and a hermit, with prayer and self-sacrifice his central activities. After about 20 years, his reputation spread, and a steady stream of people – all kinds of people: would-be monks, peasants, tradesman, merchants, bishops, fellow saints, and government officials – began flowing past his mountain retreat to speak with him and get advice. He was gracious with all, and his fame only increased, until he was forced to found a monastery, and to become more engaged (off and on) in Church and worldly affairs.
He lived to be a hundred and five years old, and knowledge of his holiness spread to the four corners of the civilized world. Even the Emperor himself consulted the holy monk. When Constantine and his sons had obtained sole reins of the Empire, they wrote Anthony a letter, asking him for prayers and advice. Anthony dictated a letter in return. The hermit’s young disciples were deeply impressed by their maestro receiving an imperial epistle. Too impressed. Anthony took advantage of their admiration to teach them a lesson: “Do not wonder that the Emperor writes to us, one man to another; rather admire that God should have written to us, and that he has spoken to us by his Son.”
And that, my well loved niece, is my point. The difference between stress and peace, between mess and order, is not in the amount of things on your agenda, it’s in how they’re organized. You need a unifying principle around which all your many endeavors can be properly arranged. That principle, of course, is none other than God’s will, the Kingdom of Christ. “Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these other things will be given you as well.” To bring that principle into the center of your life, where it can draw order and peace out of stress and chaos, you need only do what you know you should do: give interior and exterior priority to prayer, the Word of God, and the Sacraments. That’s how St Anthony was able to maintain his deep spirit of recollection and wisdom even amid the cascade of visitors and disciples that accosted him, even when he went to the metropolis of Alexandria to encourage the Christian prisoners and martyrs under persecution, even when he was obliged to return to urban living for a time in order to combat the Arian heresy. Here’s how one biography describes it, notice how clearly the symptoms of “stress” are attributed to the devil’s work:
“St. Athanasius observes of him that after thirty years spent in the closest solitude, ‘he appeared not to others with a sullen or savage, but with a most obliging sociable air.’ A heart that is filled with inward peace, simplicity, goodness, and charity, is a stranger to a lowering or contracted look… Hence, true virtue always increases the sweetness and gentleness of the mind, though this is attended with an invincible constancy, and an inflexible firmness in every point of duty. That devotion or self-denial is false or defective which betrays us into pride or uncharitableness; and whatever makes us sour, morose, or peevish, makes us certainly worse, and instead of begetting in us a nearer resemblance of the divine nature, gives us a strong tincture of the temper of devils.”
Your loving uncle,