Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Monday, 17 January 2011

St Antony of Egypt

Today is the feast of St Antony, often described as the patriarch of monks. Born in Lower Egypt in 251 he died in 356, witnessing the persecution by Diocletian and his successors, the Peace of the Church and the early Christological debates, wherein he supported St Athanasius. There is an article about his life here.

My particular reason for posting about him is to comment about the extract from the Life of St Antony written by St Athanasius which forms the second lection in today's Office of Readings.

The whole text of the Life can be read here in a version published by the Coptic Church - Christians who need our prayers at this time - and here, with a set of critical notes in the Fordham Medieval Online Texts series.

Quite apart from the account of how a man received his vocation what strikes me as being of interest is the fact that c.270 there was such a settled pattern of Christian village or small town life in Egypt. In Antony's village there is the church with services being celebrated and people going in and out, plus a convent of holy women. Here is an established Christian community of the type that we have known for centuries making perhaps its first appearance in the written record. If this was, as it may well suggest, the given pattern of daily life the impact of the persecution under Diocletian must have been all the more horrendous.

From the Life of Saint Anthony by Saint Athanasius

Saint Antony receives his vocation

When Antony was about eighteen or twenty years old, his parents died, leaving him with an only sister. He cared for her as she was very young, and also looked after their home.
Not six months after his parents’ death, as he was on his way to church for his usual visit, he began to think of how the apostles had left everything and followed the Saviour, and also of those mentioned in the book of Acts who had sold their possessions and brought the apostles the money for distribution to the needy. He reflected too on the great hope stored up in heaven for such as these. This was all in his mind when, entering the church just as the Gospel was being read, he heard the Lord’s words to the rich man: If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor – you will have riches in heaven. Then come and follow me.

It seemed to Antony that it was God who had brought the saints to his mind and that the words of the Gospel had been spoken directly to him. Immediately he left the church and gave away to the villagers all the property he had inherited, about 200 acres of very beautiful and fertile land, so that it would cause no distraction to his sister and himself. He sold all his other possessions as well, giving to the poor the considerable sum of money he collected. However, to care for his sister he retained a few things.

The next time he went to church he heard the Lord say in the Gospel: Do not be anxious about tomorrow. Without a moment’s hesitation he went out and gave the poor all that he had left. He placed his sister in the care of some well-known and trustworthy virgins and arranged for her to be brought up in the convent. Then he gave himself up to the ascetic life, not far from his own home. He kept a careful watch over himself and practised great austerity. He did manual work because he had heard the words: If anyone will not work, do not let him eat. He spent some of his earnings on bread and the rest he gave to the poor.

Having learned that we should always be praying, even when we are by ourselves, he prayed without ceasing. Indeed, he was so attentive when Scripture was read that nothing escaped him and because he retained all he heard, his memory served him in place of books.
Seeing the kind of life he lived, the villagers and all the good men he knew called him the friend of God, and they loved him as both son and brother.

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