St. Antony & the Virtue of Stabilitas
A new year has dawned and with it have new hopes, ambitions, and resolutions. Even if you are not the type to make formal “New Year’s Resolutions” the beginning of a new year is a time of cultural and social reflection, a time that makes us think about the future and what lies ahead for us. Many of us would do well to reflect on what virtues we need to continue to grow in, what our weaknesses are, and where we are lacking in submitting ourselves to the divine will of Jesus Christ. The saints are great models of how to grow and learn the virtues, but one January saint truly exemplifies the virtue of what the Benedictines would later call stabilitas. We might translate that as stability, but it implies something more than our watered-down ideas of being stable. Stabilitas has the connotation of perseverance, of remaining rooted where God calls you, and joyfully enduring whatever may come without interior tumult. St. Antony of Egypt is our man to look towards at the beginning of this new year, whether we have resolutions to keep or whether we simply want to persevere in the circumstances in which God allows us to find ourselves.
What we know of St. Antony comes to us from St. Athanasius’s biography of him, Life of St. Antony. How beautiful that we have the story of one great saint written by another! St. Athanasius begins his biography of Antony with the bold statement, “the very act of remembering Antony is of enormous profit and benefit to me, and I am sure that you, listening in wonder, will be keen to follow his commitment: for to know who Antony was offers us the perfect path to virtue.” What stunning words from one who would walk this very path himself! Antony was born in the early 200s to wealthy, Christian parents who died while he and his younger sister were but teenagers or young adults at most. The young Antony was tasked with the care of the family’s estate and his younger sister. But one day, already feeling a tug towards leaving the world behind, he heard the Lord’s words to the rich young man to sell everything and follow him. And so Antony did. He entrusted his sister to some religious women, and he began a religious life loosely in association with others (he predates formal monastic orders).
Growth in Virtue
This was a life hidden from the world, a life lived in rejection of those things that were appealing to him as a rich young man, for the sake of the love of Christ and a desire to be perfect. He devoted himself to the Sacred Scriptures and to an ascetic, simple life. Learning from others who were living the religious life, he “obeyed all those whom he visited in his eagerness to learn and absorbed their various individual gifts.” He was called by those who knew him “God’s friend” – an intimate title of one who is truly striving to live as Jesus called the Twelve to live in the Last Supper discourse in John’s gospel. But with Antony’s zealous application to the life of virtue came bitter trials. In his particular circumstances, the Lord allowed many devils to plague him with seductive dreams, with mirages of silver and gold, with physical beatings that would last for days. But still Antony persevered. He remained faithful to Jesus even though he was literally attacked from every side by the demons. After one particularly severe beating, he lay on the floor and called out to the demons, “Look, here I am, Antony. I do not run away from your fights: even if you arrange more difficult ones, no one will separate me from the love of Christ.” Not even these attacks could make him move from where Christ wanted him to be. He recognized these demonic attacks as opportunities to remain unmoved and grow in love of Christ.
A Desert Father
Antony later went out to a mountain in the desert and dwelt in solitude for twenty years. When the religious brothers sought him out, they found a man alive with zeal for Christ, a man who joyfully embraced the daily toil of his situation. He offered great wisdom to the thousands that sought him in the desert:“His speech, seasoned with salt, brought comfort to those who grieved, instructed the ignorant, reconciled those who were angry and persuaded everyone that nothing should be valued higher than the love of Christ.” His presence and words reminded those who found him of Christ himself, and he was even described as having a heavenly, cheerful countenance because his mind was forever on divine things. One could not leave him disappointed because in him, Christ was found. Here is one who was firmly rooted, who exemplified the stabilitas of Christ’s love for others and the great desire to love Christ more fully. He would spend more time than he probably liked instructing those younger and more spiritually immature for their benefit, though he preferred being left alone on his mountain. In spite of his desire to be left alone, he still offered pearls of wisdom such as, “a pure life and fearless faith in God are powerful weapons against the demons.”
This continues to remain true for us today. A pure life and fearless faith are necessary to practice stabilitas, to persevere in the circumstances allowed by God’s providence, no matter what they might be. Just as St. Antony fought against the powers of this world and faced many spiritual attacks, so we too are engaged in fierce spiritual warfare. And the demons do not want us to persevere. They seek to undermine our pure life and fearless faith by dragging us down with crude ways of the world and insidious fear. This is true in the small things as well as the great, and it is arguably in the small things that our stabilitas is either strengthened or withers away. We are called to be faithful in the small things, in the little resolutions or the recognition of poor habits or the monotonous daily tasks, so that when we are faced with the big things (like beatings by the demons, or, perhaps, something more likely: temptation, sickness, financial cares, vocational discernment, etc.) we can persevere with joy. May we model ourselves after this desert father in his stouthearted stabilitas and seek to lay ourselves down, day in and day out, for love of Jesus Christ.