St. Antony the Great: Fuga Mundi Series, Part 1

Fuga Mundi Antony the Great

Welcome to the first installment of the Fuga Mundi Series with St. Antony the Great.  Here and over the next few weeks I’ll be reflecting on the paradox that withdrawal from the world is what allows us as Christians to be authentically Christ to the world.  Page references below in parentheses are from the biography of St. Antony by St. Athanasius: Athanasius : The Life of Antony and the Letter To Marcellinus.

Antony the Great

Icon of Antony the Great

In Antony the Great we find a pioneering, radical type of fuga mundi that exemplified and profoundly influenced the anchoritic monastic life.  Early in Antony’s life at the age of about 20, probably around 270 AD, he sold all of his worldly possessions and embarked upon a solitary life near the village where he lived, not far from several other hermits (32).  Antony constantly sought the virtue of other solitaries so that he could incorporate their piety into his own.  This formation, this “discipline,” and zeal for God form the core of the monastic life.  Yet in giving himself so completely to seeking God, how does he sustain himself materially?  We are told that he works with his hands and “spent what he made partly for bread, and partly on those in need” (32).  While Antony is still proximal to the village this kind of arrangement of working for bread and giving to the poor is still possible, yet he very quickly goes out from the village into more remote places: first to a necropolis, (37) and then to an old fortress (41) where he was supplied with food by people who came to visit and by those who lived nearby.

Antony emerged after nearly 20 years living this kind of life in the fortress, marking a transition to a more balanced life of solitude and contact with the world.  The remainder of Antony’s existence was marked by an ebb and flow of teaching, receiving visitors, and the occasional relocation.  A key element of Antony’s monastic life emerges upon his leaving the fortress, and is relayed by Athanasius:

The state of his soul was one of purity, for it was not constricted by grief, nor relaxed by pleasure, nor affected by either laughter or dejection.  Moreover, when he saw the crowd, he was not annoyed any more than he was elated at being embraced by so many people. (42)

Here we see depicted the whole, paradoxical purpose of fuga mundi:  Antony has emerged in a state of purity from his long, and apparently successful, spiritual labors.  This success and purity has caused him to embrace the “world” represented by the crowds with joy, as Athanasius specifically tells us “he was not annoyed” by their presence.  This would seem to be an ideal state of being for any monk, whether anchoritic or cenobitic.  This attitude of peace with the world characterized the rest of Antony’s monastic life.  On many occasions he was asked to teach monks (43), people from the world that came to him (73), soldiers (93), and even the Emperor (89).  Yet this engagement with the world had its limits.  On at least one occasion he picked up and moved when the pressures of his popularity began to intrude on his solitary life (67-68).  All in all, Antony exemplifies the monastic pursuit of a whole-hearted fuga mundi that enables the monk, paradoxically, to embrace the world in charity.

Stay tuned for next week’s installment where we’ll encounter St. Pachomius, the founder of cenobitic (communal) monasticism and the most famous monastic saint you’ve probably never heard of.

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