Anthony: Self-Knowledge, Humility, Compassion

The two readings that we were offered for the Feast of Saint Anthony of the Desert today were perfect, though I wished I could have switched them. The Gospel (Mt 19:16-26) was the story of the rich young man, possibly the very gospel that Anthony heard that sparked his conversion. And the reading from Ephesians (6:10-13) was all about our spiritual weapons against the powers of darkness, recalling Anthony’s successful battles with the demons. But there is something else that I found in my notes that I was focused on all day. This and all that follows is from some notes I just have marked “after a conversation with Columba Stewart.”[i]


Why the desert is so important is because the desert landscape is an image of what we want for our hearts, our minds––an uncluttered view through clear air. A calm clear heart allows for a clear eye.


The one theme of Antony’s that is arguably the most important and perennial for the monastic tradition is self-knowledge, or what Columba Stewart calls “radical honesty about the self.” A teaching that Anthony frequently repeats is that “the knowledge of ourselves is the necessary and only step by which we can ascend to the knowledge and love of God.” The necessary and only path to love of God: pretty strong words! In a famous passage recorded by Athanasius, Anthony lays it out this way: St. Paul says don’t let the sun go down on your anger; Anthony says don’t let the sun go down on any sin. And the best way to avoid this is to “Examine yourself and test yourself. Recount to yourself daily not only your actions of the day but also the stirrings of the soul,” the secret thoughts of the heart, which can then become a breeding-ground for sin. Anthony of course is also famous for his bouts of battling with the demons. But even this is really here a metaphor for his work of self-scrutiny. The demons can be understood as much internal as external, those subtle psychological temptations to which we are most susceptible. Here again is the importance of self-scrutiny as an essential and continuing part of progress in virtue.

Besides the little instruction he gets from a few elders in his early days, basically Anthony’s hard work of self-knowledge is done alone. Athanasius records that Anthony’s only abba is an angel who is a sort of mirror image of himself. Perhaps this is where Anthony gets the idea later to tell his disciples that, when they examine themselves, even when they are alone they should pretend as if they were laying themselves bare to another: “…we record our thoughts as if reporting them to each other. Let this record replace the eyes of our fellow ascetics, so that, blushing as much to write as to be seen, we might never be absorbed by evil things.” This is what is important: by laying the thoughts bare, looking at them for what they are, we are able to avoid the actions themselves. There’s an old recovery adage that says, “We’re only as sick as our secrets.” The desert fathers would say sins or even thoughts that are hidden begin to multiply: one becomes trapped in obsessive thinking and compulsive patterns. James Hollis wrote that though we think what we don’t know won’t hurt us, actually what we don’t know controls us.

This theme will pass into the desert tradition from Anthony and remain in the desert tradition as the essential work of the solitary monks of the desert, the real basis of monastic asceticism, the main practice of the desert fathers––self-scrutiny, self-knowledge. Radical honesty about the self becomes the heart of the desert quest and self-knowledge is the essential first step toward any other wisdom. The desert monks staked everything on the effort to destroy illusion and self-deception. All of their other asceticism was really intended to help cut through the garbage of lives that are hooked on the deception, hooked on materialism, hooked on the false self, and stuck in all the games we play with ourselves.

Four things follow on this radical honesty about the self. I’m not sure what order to put them in because they are all interdependent. But probably first of all comes the connection to humility. One of the most famous apophthegmata of Abba Anthony is “I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, ‘What can get through from such snares?’ Then I heard a voice saying to me ‘Humility.’” Humility here doesn’t mean beating myself up; it means knowing myself exactly as I am, no more and no less. And that leads us to see all creation as it is––with a calm heart and clear eye, instead of, as Martin Laird said once, looking at the world from behind the wallpaper of our own narrative. It also allows us to see God as God is.

That leads to the second: Anthony has to go it alone but by the time we get to Evagrius the centrality of the spiritual guide is in high relief. So for the desert fathers, the ability of a monk freely to expose the secrets of the heart, and especially to open the heart to one’s abba/amma (or to any other) indicates a growth in humility. To be able to say to someone, “This is who I am!” What one of us if we laid the secret thoughts of our hearts bear would have any room for boasting, any room for grandiosity? Columba says that the link between these two things––humility and the manifestation of thoughts to another––gives us a pretty good understanding of what monastic humility is all about: beginning to see as God sees, starting with the self.

And then, you might think this preoccupation with self-knowledge could lead to self-absorption, but it’s really the opposite. Self-knowledge leads to breaking the illusion of self-sufficiency and self-absorption, a realization that we need both Divine assistance––“O God come to my assistance; O Lord make haste to help me!”––and the guidance of an abba or amma, our brothers, fathers, sisters and mothers. And that of course becomes the foundation for everything else the monk is to be about, especially the bedrock of obedience, which St. Benedict mentions in his Rule almost in the same breath as humility, as if together they form the central ascesis of monasticism, both as a result of and as a means to self-knowledge.

And finally, this sometimes gets left out or given short shrift: humility then leads to compassion. Over and over again we read in the desert fathers exhortations against condemning others, and this starts with Anthony as in the famous exhortation that Athanasius records: “If you have not sinned, avoid boasting; instead, persist in the good, and don’t become careless nor condemnatory of a neighbor, nor declare yourself… leaving the judgment to the Lord, let us treat each other with compassion, and let us bear one another’s burdens.” This too passes into Benedict’s teaching on mutual obedience and good zeal, when he urges us to support “one another’s weaknesses of body and behavior with the greatest patience, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another.”

A little more from my notes from my “conversation with Columba” that I quoted at the beginning…

Why the desert is so important is because the desert landscape is an image of what we want for our hearts, our minds––an uncluttered view through clear air. A calm clear heart allows for a clear eye: and the clear eye allows us to contemplate God the Creator with humility, and allows us to contemplate all of creation with humility, with a calm heart and a clear eye, to see as God sees, starting with the self.

cyprian, 17 jan 18

[i] Columba of course is the well-known Benedictine scholar and good friend of our community, from St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, an expert on ancient monasticism.

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