A message from Father Nick 46
“The Kingdom of God is close at hand…” (1)
Jesus’ words in last week’s gospel remind us of the transforming effect of that Kingdom. It brings us life and courage. It also gives us a new kind of hero: the martyr. Martyrs are literally “witnesses”: people prepared to seal their testimony by the shedding of their blood. Such people remind us that nothing is more important than the reign of God. As one early theologian put it, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
From the beginning, Christians lived in expectation of their Lord’s return. Even their enemies were amazed by the love they showed each other as they waited. And at an early stage some followers of Christ sought a kind of living martyrdom through mortification and prayer. This was very much their personal initiative. A monachos (from which our word monk comes) set out to live a solitary life. Such a life, however, was bound to fascinate other people.
It could take different and imaginative forms. There were dendrites, who lived in trees, and adamites, who lived without clothes, and stylites who lived on top of pillars. The most famous stylite was Simeon (390-459) – as described in the Oxford Dictionary of Saints his feats of asceticism are of an Olympic standard (and definitely in the not-to-be-tried-at-home category).
Simeon fasted to the point of unconsciousness and almost killed himself by wearing next to his skin a rope of twisted palm leaves which ate into his flesh. After living for a while chained to a rock, he moved to a pillar outside Syrian Antioch. Beginning at about nine feet, he increased its height over seventeen years until he was sixty feet above the ground. Here, on a platform only six feet wide, he spent the last twenty years of his life. People thronged to see him and listen to him, and – despite his own extreme self-discipline – he taught them with gentleness and moderation.
This was also true of another remarkable figure, often called the “father of monasticism”. Anthony of Egypt was born around 250, and his biography was written by St Athanasius who knew him. As a young man, Anthony was inspired by the Gospel to give away all his wealth. At first he found places near his home where he could be alone to study and pray, but others followed him, seeking his example and advice.
Anthony continued to move further away and found himself beset by severe temptations. “The Temptations of Saint Anthony” became a major, albeit rather lurid, theme of western art. (Salvador Dali too painted them.)
But Anthony continued to be followed by people who wished for him to lead them, and he came to accept that this was God’s will for him. He is also sometimes called “St Anthony the Abbot”. He taught his followers with great calmness and spiritual wisdom. This was the beginning of the monastic movement, later to be so well organised in the West by St Benedict and in the East by St Basil.