HERE IS A PAINTING OF SAINT ANTONY OF EGYPT who is said to have been the first Christian monk or hermit. The new Butlers Lives of the Saints (January 17) says this about Antony:
"Anthony was born to Christian parents around 252 in Corna...in Upper Egypt. His parents were fairly wealthy landowners; they died when he was eighteen or twenty. Around this time he heard the Gospel words, "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor...then come, follow me" (Matt. 19:21). Taking these quite literally, he gave some of the family estates to neighbours, sold the remainder, giving the money to the poor, and became the disciple of a local hermit. Around 273, he retired to an old burial ground, where he stayed for thirteen years. By the time he was thirty-five, this was not hard enough for him, and he moved to an abandoned hill-top fort in the Arabian desert, some three days march from the populous area of the Nile valley. There he stayed for the next twenty years. He is said to have lived in near complete solitude and to have followed a regime of great asceticism (spiritual discipline)."
Holy people who live alone are soon enough discovered and so we have a report of some things Antony said to visitors and followers. Anthony said: I no longer fear but, but I love Him." We don't know where Anthony would have ever learned to be afraid of God. Could his parents have mistakenly taught him that? Or did he pick it up from friends? Or in his earlier years did he do something very wrong that caused him to be afraid of God? At any rate, it's clear he ultimately learned the most important thing: the love of God.
The expression Fear of the Lord then must mean that I would be afraid only of whatever could take me away from God. That I would dread only the loss of God. There are written accounts and paintings of Anthony undergoing horrifying temptations to abandon the love of God.
But what could cause me to lose God? The core teaching of Jesus is found in Matthew's Gospel, chapters 5,6 and 7. Christians should have a look at it now and again. In Matthew 6:19,20 Jesus teaches:
"Do not store up riches on earth, where moths and rust destroy them, and where thieves break in and steal them, but store up your riches in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy them, and where thieves cannot break in and steal them. For wherever your treasure is, your heart will be also."
And again, in Matthew 6:24-34 Jesus says:
"No slave can belong to two masters, for he will either hate one and love the other, or stand by one and make light of the other. You cannot serve God and money. Therefore, I tell you , do not worry about your life, wondering what you will have to eat or drink, or about your body, wondering what you will have to wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body than clothes? Look at the wild birds. They do not sow or reap, or store their food in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more account than they? But which of you with all his worry can add a single hour to his life? Why should you worry about clothing? See how the wild flowers grow. They do not toil or spin, and yet I tell you , even Solomon in all his splendor was never dressed like one of them. But if God so beautifully dresses the wild grass, which is alive today and is thrown into the furnace tomorrow, will he not much more surely clothe you, you who have so little faith? So do not worry and say, "What shall we have to eat?" or "What shall we have to drink?" or "What shall we have to wear?" For these are all things the heathen are in pursuit of, and your heavenly Father knows well that you need all this. But you must make his kingdom, and uprightness before him, your greatest care, and you will have all these other things besides. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will have worries of his own. Let each day be content with his own ills."This is a very difficult teaching for those of us who live in the first world. This is the world which is characterized by shopping. One Trappist monk upon entering one of America's mega-stores said, "It's not the kingdom come but the thingdom come."
Is it possible to live this teaching of Jesus literally? Alessandro is a young Franciscan Friar in Italy. He doesn't own a car and so once (that I know of) he walked from Assisi to Florence, which took three days. He slept wherever someone offered him hospitality. He ate only what was offered to him; one little boy gave him an apple. He carried only a small cloth bag which contained a toothbrush, a change of underwear and a pocket bible. He had only non-material things to offer: listening to those he met, a word of encouragement, his smile, a song, a wave.
We can gain a new appreciation for the gifts which are non-material and also begin to practice the rule of Saint Basil of Caesarea who said: If you have not used it in a year, it no longer belongs to you but to the poor." We might also begin to get into the habit of buying only what is essential. In this way we'd be freeing ourselves from the culture built on lies. We only need to listen to the attractive promises of television and radio commercials to understand this: Take this pill and lose thirty pounds in a weekend!
The other way we risk losing God is through resentment, which is negative feeling about people. The injunction of Jesus is that we don't become stuck or grounded in resentment. I expect Jesus is especially tolerant and understanding of our difficulties in getting free of resentment as he lived surrounded by tedious, obnoxious, spiteful, malevolent people who wanted him gone, if not dead. But Jesus knows that when we're grounded in resentment we become sleepless, distracted, weary and frustrated. Here's the teaching of Jesus, again found in the Sermon on the Mount, (Matthew5:43-48).
"You have heard that they were told, "You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for your persecutors, so that you may show yourselves true sons of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on bad and good alike, and makes the rain fall on the upright and the wrongdoers. For if you love only those who love you what reward can you expect? Do not the very tax-collectors do that? And if you are polite to your brothers (and sisters) and no one else, what is there remarkable in that? Do not the very heathen do that? So you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is."
I"m not free if I'm stuck in resentment. A friend said that resentment is like taking poison and hoping that the other person will sicken and die. I wonder if whenever Jesus speaks of being free he has in mind my own inner freedom from negativity, fear, cynicism and resentment.
I learned a wonder-working prayer from a friend who lived the Twelve Steps of AA. He suggested making a list of every person with whom I have any negative feelings. As I create the list I should go as far back in my life as memory will allow: teachers, parents, siblings, old friends, relatives, people whose names I don't even know, fellow school mates, neighborhood people. Then I should make a list of those names and if I don't know the name I should write down, "The person who..." Then everyday, twice a day for two weeks, I should slowly read the list of names and then pray this prayer:
Lord, as you know I have resentments with all of these people, and even if I don't feel it right now, I ask you to remove them. Take my stony, cold, hard heart and make it into a heart of mercy, compassion and love. Amen.Notice that the prayer asks God that I would change, not the other person. The soul who wrote the Anima Christi prayer understood loss. It was a world and time of deadly plague, slavery, great poverty for so many, brutality and seemingly endless wars. Yet, he or she prays to be kept from the suffering of only one loss - the loss of Jesus. Talk about a different world! Jesus gives us a heads-up in his great Sermon. And the two things which seem to matter most to Jesus, if I am to live in a happy and close relationship with him, are: attentiveness to things and resentment. And in my prayer I thank Jesus for his kind patience with me.