Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Into the Wilderness with Antony

Athanasius doesn’t tell us how both of Antony’s parents died. That’s the sort of trifling detail that I want to hear, but Athanasius can’t be bothered with my petty questions. Those words are a waste of breath when one aches to share the news of the extraordinary, miraculous, (possibly insane?), thing that happened when Antony was only eighteen

You see, just six months after the unexplained death of Antony’s unnamed parents, Antony went to church and encountered Jesus’ words to the rich man, “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” (Matthew 19:21). Antony responded in the wildest way. He didn’t think, “Wow! What a challenging meditation!” or “Gee! What a major bummer for that rich man!” or even, “Ah! I bet the pastor is prepping us for a capital campaign!” Instead Antony submitted to Jesus’ words as though they were a real command, as though they were something that Jesus actually meant, as though they were living words that applied to all who heard them! Antony gave away all of his land, all of his possessions.

Antony spent a lot of time in the desert fending off the p0wnage
of demons, but that hardly seems noteworthy compared to the
miraculous feat of surrendering all of his possessions to the poor.
Well, okay, he didn’t give away all of his possessions. Antony kept a small portion, a quite meager sum, a not unreasonable amount, just enough that he and his sister could live, for crying out loud! But then that fool went to church again and heard some more of the Gospel. This time it was that bit from Matthew 6 about not worrying about tomorrow, yada-yada-yada, and again, Antony acted. He gave his sister into the care of a convent, and he gave every last bit of that rainy day fund to the poor. He had nothing. He had no one. He was wholly dependent upon God. He was, well, he was like Jesus had said he ought to be.

That’s astonishing! In a world where we tend to read Jesus’ instruction on money as parable and Jesus’ parable on minas as savvy financial advice, there is something almost scandalous about Antony’s literal reaction to the Gospel. He doesn’t interpret that passage as a basic discourse on the importance of charity. He doesn’t scrutinize his accounts for the overage he can spare. He doesn’t pledge to set aside a nickel-a-meal to feed the hungry. No, Antony hears Jesus say, “Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor,” and Antony, this simple-minded saint, goes, sells his possessions and gives the money to the poor! Madness!

I find all of that just a wee bit unnerving, and I’m not alone. Antony’s story swept Augustine into a spiral of repentance that thrust him to the bottom of a baptismal pool. It’s stories like Antony’s that force me to admit that even at my best I’m simply playing at a piety that has as much to do with Jesus’ words as Bio-Dome has to do with 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’m just not doing it right, and with Augustine, I realize that I’ve been praying to lead a Christian life, to abandon myself to God, to act boldly in self-sacrificing love, but, but, but, but not yet, maybe tomorrow, but next year will probably suit me even better. Isn't that right, God?

And so here we are at Lent, and I feel like rubbing my nose in it. Join me as I spend the next forty days reading through some of the most challenging teachings the early church has to offer on wealth, poverty and social justice. Maybe our reflections will lead us to better practices or maybe they’ll just drive us to retail therapy. I make no promises there, but I do covet your insights as I trudge through this wilderness.

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