Athanasius: The Life of Antony of Egypt (Classics in Spiritual Formation). A Paraphrase by Albert Haase O.F.M. [Book Reaction]
In a flighty, frantic world, what’s needed is the rooted writing of wisdom and spiritual life. Due to the lofty feel some of these authors have (e.g., when I say, “Ascetic Desert Monastic,” you feel _______), a good paraphrase is needed to get us past those lofty preconceived notions and into the depths of wisdom.
Albert Haase does this for us, connecting us to a great guide in the Jesus Way: Antony of Egypt.
In short, Antony is an awakened, recovering sinner who’s led into the desert, like Christ, to practice a way of life that is not so much reclusive as it is engaging with the internal spiritual battle of vice and virtue.
The catalyst of his journey is the word of Jesus to give up everything you have, give all that to the poor, and to come, follow Jesus. Through a dream and another experience, Antony’s heart is bent to receive that message with faith, trusting that such a word is a redemptive word. And, Antony ventures into the desert to practice, step by step, the Redemptive Way.
In twenty years, word gets out about Antony’s journey as well as progress; others seeking such a similar redemption and freedom (one that’s not an abstract “you’re free from your sins,” but rather, “you’re free from your sins and becoming free through the work of grace and Spirit to naturally express virtue rather than vice.) find Antony. Soon, Antony senses a new calling: to guide others in the Redemptive Way, the Way of the Desert (think Manna in the Wilderness from Exodus 16).
Experiences with demons, dragons, and delusions, become the training ground for Antony. While these demon, dragon, and delusion stories seem fantastic, they’re written to convey an experience we own today. Like us, there is always a fork in the road: a narrow and broad way. When we choose the broad, there is forgiveness; but our life is not built on how many times we are forgiven for the broad choice, but on being evermore shaped to naturally choose the narrow.
My favorite parts?
The sections that captivated me most were when traveling monks would stop by Antony’s place and ask him questions and for advice. Antony’s resolutions were short and simple. A memorable example, one I feel is relatable today, is of a monk who comes to Antony seeking healing. (Sensing God’s power taking free course in Antony, such healing was anticipated.) I’ll quote it:
“There was a certain man by the name of Fronto, from Palatium, who had a terrible sickness. Like an epileptic, he would sometimes bite his tongue, and on top of that, he was gradually losing his eyesight.
He came to Antony’s mountain and pleased with the beloved of God to pray for him.
Antony prayed and then said to Fronto, “You can leave. You’ll be healed.”
But Fronto’s condition grew even worse, and so he refused to leave.
Antony said to him, “You can’t be healed while staying here. You must go, and when you get to Egypt, you’ll be healed.”
Fronto believed him and left. As soon as his eyes looked upon the land of Egypt, he was healed, just as the Savior had told Anotny in prayer.”
I find this story remedial. So often our minds are made up; we know how God will work, we’ve built the parameters for his landscape of operation. …and we fester. In particular, when our eyes are drawn to a teacher or pastor rather than Jesus, we fester (this is why Jesus said, “None of you shall be called Teacher for there is one Teacher.”).
If I could change one thing about the book?
…I’d change some of the translation. I applaud the work of Haase to get a book like this out of the clouds and into the hearts of “normal folks.” However, at times his translative work borrows quite a bit from the world of cliche, which I think runs the threat of diluting the wisdom with over used, dead phrases, like, “Throw your hat into the ring with the monks,” “Tickled to death to hear…” and “pie-in-the-sky.”
While such phrases ease the lofty feel of ancient Christian wisdom writing, they also ease the depths of wisdom.
And maybe that’s just the point. Perhaps I (we) have become too accustomed to thinking wisdom needs to come from people who “sound” wise; perhaps what we need is a disorientation to realize that wisdom itself vines up from the soil of the ordinary.