A Spirit of Discernment – St. Anthony of the Desert

ImageProxy-1.mvcI beseech you in the name of Jesus the Christ that God may give you the spirit of discernment…. Prepare yourselves while you have [heavenly] intercessors to pray to God for your salvation, that He may pour into your hearts that fire which Jesus came to send upon the earth (Luke 12:49), that you may be able to exercise your hearts and senses, to know how to discern the good from the bad, the right from the left, reality from unreality…. Truly, my beloved, you know that when there is a fair wind, the ship’s captain boasts; but it is in the time of violent adverse winds that every skilled captain is revealed. (Letter III)

Truly, my beloved, this is a great thing for you, that you should ask concerning the understanding of the intellect [nous] substance [or spiritual nature], which has a beginning [in God] but no end [eternal in God]. … I want God to give you a heart of knowledge and a spirit of discernment, that you may be able to offer your hearts as a pure sacrifice [“making sacred”] before the Father, in great holiness, without blemish…. [But] everyone who delights in his own will, and is subdued to his own thoughts, and takes up the things sown in his heart [i.e., anything not in accordance with God], and rejoices in them, and supposes in his heart that these are some great chosen mystery, and justifies himself in what he does—the soul of such a man is a lair of evil spirits, counselling him to evil… and over such a one the demons have great power…. They are not bodily visible, but you must know that we serve as bodies for them, for our soul receives their wickedness [e.g., their addictions, ambitious desires, hateful or self-destructive impulses, slothfulness, etc.], and when it receives them, then it brings them to manifestation by the body in which we dwell. Now, then, my children, let us give them no place… I pray that you may not grow weary of loving one another…. Lift up your body in which you are clothed, and make it an altar, and set thereon all your thoughts, and leave there every evil counsel before the Lord, and lift up the hands of your heart to Him, that is, to the Creator. Mind, and pray to God that He may grant you His great invisible fire, that it may descend from heaven and consume the altar and all that is on it…. Strive to offer yourselves as a sacrifice to God always, and give gladness to the power that helps you… and to all the band of the saints [who are looking over and helping us]… [I pray that] since we are all created of the same invisible substance, which has a beginning but no end, we may love one another with a single love. For all who know themselves, know that they are of one immortal substance…. Therefore we are all members one of another, and the body of Christ. Therefore we ought greatly to love one another. For he who loves his neighbour, loves God; and he who loves God, loves, too, his own soul. (Letter VI)

St. Anthony of the Desert (251–356), also known as St. Anthony the Great, was a leader among the Desert Fathers – early Christian monks who lived in the Egyptian desert in the 3rd and 4th centuries. The story of his life was written by St. Athanasius of Alexandria. St. Anthony’s parents were wealthy, and after their death he desired to live like the Apostles and early Christians. On hearing these words from the Gospel of Matthew in church, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me,” St. Anthony left all behind to live a life of prayer, fasting, self-denial, and labour. Whenever he heard of other holy people living in this manner, he would visit them to learn from their virtues in order to imitate them in his own life. He eventually removed himself from all society and became the first Christian to live a life of consecrated solitude. He occasionally left his hermitage for pressing matters, once to encourage persecuted Christians, and another to support Pope Athanasius against the heresy of Arius. St. Anthony died at the age of 105! His feast day is celebrated on 17th January.

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