top of page

What can a dead Egyptian teach us about Spiritual Direction today?

By Bishop Chandler Jones

Editor's Note: In our continuing series on Spiritual Direction, Bp. Chad Jones writes about St. Anthony as a model for Spiritual Direction. We posted this reflection this week because St. Anthony's feast day is on Friday, January 17th. Enjoy!

Giovanni di ser Giovanni Guidi -- Saint Anthony Abbot Tempted by Gold

Saint Anthony of Egypt, the Father of Monasticism, reveals to us the supreme paradigm of the spiritual director in the saga of his life as recorded in The Life of Anthony by Saint Athanasius of Alexandria. The vocation of Saint Anthony to be a spiritual director, a guide for souls, was generated out of Anthony’s own call to live a life of holiness and ascetic discipline. The awareness of his vocation to the ascetical life of virtue eventually compelled him by necessity to minister to others as a companion and spiritual friend. It was, in essence, Anthony’s own ascetic struggle which attracted other Christians to him. Anthony, solitary in prayer and alone in the desert fortress of his own choosing, soon draws faithful Christians to him as a result of his own consecration of service to God and his own battles against the devil.

Saint Anthony did not seek to encourage a following: by his holiness, perseverance, suffering, struggle, and ultimate advancement in the way that leads to life eternal, Anthony became a beacon of spiritual light to others who desired his help and guidance. In chapter 14 of the Life of Anthony, we read that many Christians were so moved by the spiritual power and holiness of Anthony that they literally invaded his home, tearing down the door to get to him. For twenty years before, he had lived in absolute solitude, praying, fasting, and wrestling with demons. Anthony began to give instruction to the people, to minister to the sick, and to educate monks in the path of the ascetic life, only after he was compelled to do so by the people who sought after him. Again and again, Saint Anthony attempts to get away, later in life escaping to a monastic home in the ‘inner mountain’ far away from civilization.

Still, however, he is pursued by faithful Christians seeking healing, knowledge, and help. Inevitably, it seems, Anthony’s holiness and advancement in the spiritual life were simply irresistible - and the demands and needs of the people continually pulled the Saint away from his solitude to serve and assist others, a sign of Anthony’s charity, his love for God and neighbour. Interestingly, Anthony’s original sojourn into the wilderness in order to remove himself from the population for prayer and ascetic life will be so completely reversed because of the spiritual power God grants to him in his effort that, at the end of his life, he serves as an intermediary and mediator for the judges and legal courts of his day. People with grievances in the court system come to him for help, advice, and representation. By going out and away from the world, Anthony impacts and transforms the world through his own transformation.

Image from Wellcome Library no. 3214i

Anthony never really escapes other people, nor does he entirely desire to do so. He retires away from society so that his spiritual war may be enacted and that he may be forged in the conflict of the ascetic life; as he struggles and grows, he becomes so changed by grace that he develops a stronger pull on others, whom he does assist. The more Saint Anthony struggles, co-operating with the divine grace of Christ, the more he is changed, and the more effective he becomes. One can clearly see the model implied here for all Christians who would be led to serve as spiritual directors.

Initially, that which called Anthony to the life of Christian asceticism is that which both started and nurtured his vocation as a spiritual director: the Apostolic life of self-sacrifice and total unabashed service of Christ. ‘He considered how the Apostles, forsaking everything, followed the Saviour...and what great hope is stored up for such people in heaven’. This awareness of the high calling of the Apostolic life is also Anthony’s awareness of the ultimate vocation he possesses for leading others into and through this life as well. Throughout, that which prepared and sustained Saint Anthony for his mission of teaching, prayer, instruction, and healing was his prayer and his strict life of ascetic discipline. He resisted the devil through prayer; he healed the sick through prayer; he cast out demons through prayer; he inspired others to follow his example through prayer; he sustained his incredibly rigorous life of sacrifice, modesty, and struggle through prayer; he encouraged his disciples to be vigilant and persevering through prayer; he interceded and obtained miracles through prayer; he prayed the Holy Scriptures constantly and unwaveringly; he experienced a bloodless martyrdom of spiritual suffering and offering through prayer: prayer was the beginning and ending of his life - it was his food, his stay, his essence. Communion with God through prayer was the hallmark of Anthony’s spiritual pilgrimage.

The Egyptian Saint’s prayers, it is important to note, were always fortified and strengthened by his ascetic practices: his fasting and abstinence, his lack of food and sleep, his persistence in meditation and contemplation, his recourse to Scripture, his combat with the demons who assailed him, his constant focus on his soul instead of on his body, his taking of only that which he need to sustain physical life without indulgence and self-satisfaction. Anthony experienced a shocking awareness of the reality of the supernatural world, and especially of the demonic, and this no doubt led him to a deeper awareness of his own call to be a Christian ascetic and monk and a director of other Christians.

James Ensor -- Tribulations of Saint Anthony, 1909

In horrifying detail, Anthony records for posterity his own combat with the devil and with demonic forces, teaching us how to withstand their assaults and temptations (chapters 22-43). In fact, victory over the demons proves that, on the one hand, monastic life is not escapism but warfare, and on the other, that rigour and strife in the spiritual life are key to defeating evil and overcoming wickedness in oneself and the world. Askesis, ascetic practice, undergirds and reinforces Anthony’s life as a Christian and a spiritual director. The Saint of Egypt teaches us the need, through his own combat, for continual and unrelenting self-examination and self-scrutinising. We are told to watch ourselves, our every act and motive, to be on alert for sin and for desires that enter in. We are reminded of the need for honest work, the regular use and reading of Scripture, and the need for self-donating, self-humiliating disciplines. All in all, Anthony shines forth as a wondrous example of Christ’s divinizing grace, one who realized and then fulfilled his call to be a monk and spiritual director because of his openness to the reality of life in Jesus Christ.

If we would be spiritual directors, we must follow the same path that illuminated the life of Anthony. Saint Anthony of Egypt embodies the requisite qualities which are essential for the ministry of an effective and good director of souls. Anthony is presented as the great pioneer, the veritable founder of spiritual direction. Commending his teaching to others, he observes the life of discipline himself. He renders his direction effective because he practices his own advice: ‘he practices what he preaches.’ ‘The Discipline’ as it is simply called, serves as the heart of Anthony’s entire life, physical and spiritual. Utterly consecrated to Jesus Christ and committed to fulfil the will and commandments of God, Anthony exercises the life of Christian virtue through a deep and profound asceticism.

The asceticism of Saint Anthony is the pursuit of and the perseverance in the life of excellence, the cultivation of virtue to the glory of God and the salvation of souls. Anthony seeks to live in God and fulfill the human vocation by recovering the full likeness to God. ‘We need therefore to fear God alone, holding the demons in contempt and fearing them not all. The demons are afraid of the ascetics on several counts -- for their fasting, the vigils, the prayers, the meekness and gentleness, the contempt of money, the lack of vanity, the humility, the love of the poor, the almsgiving, the freedom from wrath, and most of all for their devotion to Christ’. These are the qualities postulated by Anthony the ascetic as requisite to the heavenly life of Jesus, a life to which all must aspire and for which all have the capacity to live.

Master of the Osservanza -- St. Anthony Tempted by a Heap of Gold, c. 1435.

The qualities which are to be instilled in the client must be present and active in the teacher. Such is certainly the case with Anthony. ‘Why not rather own those things that we are able to take away with us [to heaven] -- such things as prudence, justice, temperance, courage, understanding, love, concern for the poor, faith in Christ, freedom from anger, hospitality? If we possess these, we shall discover them running before, preparing hospitality for us there in the land of the meek’. Anthony is able to give to others what he already possesses.

According to S. Athanasius’ text, various elements unite to make Saint Anthony the spiritual giant that he is. First and foremost, Anthony believes and enacts in love the Orthodox Catholic Faith of the Church. ‘In all things having to do with belief, he was truly wonderful and orthodox’. In all things, Anthony obeyed the teaching of the Church Catholic and submitted himself to the doctrinal and moral judgements of the Orthodox Church and her Tradition. ‘Rather, keep yourselves pure from contact with [heretics] and guard both the tradition of our fathers and especially the holy faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, which you have learned from the Scriptures and have often had recalled to you by me’.

As noted by S. Athanasius’ record of the regular and frequent invocation of Scriptural passages on Anthony’s part, the Antonian tradition is thoroughly immersed in Scripture. Saint Anthony’s doctrine and teaching, as well as his spiritual direction, come directly through a comprehensive knowledge and love of Scripture. He bases and grounds all of his work in direction on the Word of God as received and interpreted through the orthodox Fathers. Anthony loves and knows the Bible by heart. He thus utilizes it in every aspect of his life and ministry. Anthony is a ‘Bible-believing Christian,’ a Bibliocentric man, a man of the Scriptures. Also, he honours the Sacred Ministers of the Church, Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, and reveres the sanctity and goodness of the Church’s corporate life expressed through prayer and sacrament. Saint Anthony is equally a ‘man of the Church,’ wholly, entirely, and unreservedly.

In particular we witness the bold zeal of Anthony as a man of the Orthodox Faith in relation to his teaching regarding both the Meletian schismatics and the Arian heretics. The Saint loved the orthodox patristic Tradition and despised and abhorred all heresies and false doctrines. This fundamental quality of faithfulness to the Catholic Faith assures the fidelity of Anthony as a teacher and a spiritual director.

The New Life of Christ, a wholeheartedly Christocentric vision, leads Anthony to worship and glorify Jesus Christ as the Word and Wisdom of God, one in Essence with the Father (homoousios). ‘He taught the people that the Son of God is not a creature, and that he did not come into existence from nonbeing, but rather He is eternal Word and Wisdom from the Essence of the Father.... ‘it is sacrilegious to say, ‘there was when he was not’...’. Devotion to Jesus Christ as God and Lord of all Creation is an indispensable trait in the life that makes a Anthony a Saint and director of souls. The Egyptian Saint encounters, in the midst of his demon-induced torments, a Beam of light, which comes to save and release him from demonic oppression. The Ray of Light is Christ, who is Only-begotten of the Father, deriving from One Essence with the Father. The eternal Word says to Saint Anthony, ‘I was here, Anthony, but I waited to watch your struggle. And now since you persevered and were not defeated, I will be your helper forever, and I will make you famous everywhere.’

Anthony, summoned by Christ Himself, defends the Orthodox and Catholic Religion; he prevails to become such a teacher through his ascetical warfare. It is through the power of Christ alone, Christ the True God, and by His grace, Anthony manifests, that mankind attains to the life of virtue and excels in holiness and God-likeness. The Nicene Faith of the Orthodox Catholic Church, belief in the Deity of Jesus Christ as the Second Person of the Godhead, produces the fruit of Anthony’s spiritual journey. Anthony’s life radiates the power of Jesus Christ as God: through Christ, with Christ, in Christ. ‘Draw inspiration from Christ always’. ‘You will realize that faith in Christ is sufficient in itself. ‘We possess the mystery in the power supplied to us by God through Jesus Christ’. ‘We rely on the trust that is in Christ... by teaching faith in Christ’. ‘It is not we who do it but Christ....’. ‘Christ is God and Son of God’.

Clearly, Anthony not only believes, but experiences, the divine Nature of Our Lord Jesus Christ as the uncreated and only-begotten Word of God, who divinizes us and transfigures us by the operation of His uncreated grace as we correspond with it by our faith working by love, good works. Theology and prayer, orthodox theology and spiritual disciplines and prayer, are absolutely inseparable. Two other characteristics substantially define the good qualities of Anthony as a director: ‘Competition with the Saints’ and ‘Daily Dying.’ ‘Let the contest be ours...'. Saint Anthony teaches us that to excel in the life of virtue we must engage in a good, wholesome, holy competition with the Saints of God in heaven: we should be prepared to out-do them in achieving the life of ascetic perfection and grace. We are called to join with the Saints in ‘running the race that is set before us, surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses’ (Hebrews 12).

As Anthony instructs his disciples before his death: ‘Strive always to be bound to each other as allies, first of all in the Lord, and then in the Saints, so that after death they may receive you into the eternal habitations as friends and companions’. Again and again, Anthony challenges Christians to struggle and not be weary, to persevere and not give up on practicing the disciplines of the Faith. He encourages those who follow in his path to live up to the standard established by the Saints - so that in following their way of holiness, we may join them in heaven. This ‘competition with the Saints’ is nothing less than the ever-continuing effort to be faithful to the discipline of the ascetic life, to refuse the temptation to abandon the practice of virtue. In doing so himself, Anthony serves as the example for those who follow him.

It is yet again a matter not only of practicing what one preaches, but finishing what one started. ‘He who perseveres unto the end shall be saved.’ Finally, Anthony teaches us to practice the art of ‘Dying Daily.’ ‘I die daily: For if we live as people dying daily, we will not commit sin... if we think this way, and in this way live -daily- we will not sin, nor will we crave anything, not bear a grudge against anyone, nor will we lay up treasures on earth, but as people who anticipate dying each day we shall be free of possessions, and we shall forgive all things to all people... we shall turn away from it as something transitory, forever doing battle and looking toward the day of judgement’. ‘And live as though dying daily, paying heed to yourselves and remembering what you heard from my preaching’.

Saint Anthony admonishes us to live each day as though it were our last on earth, so that, concentrated in body and spirit on that which is most important, we will live a heavenly life, sinless and consecrated to God, here, and, in the world to come, a life of glory in heaven. The Egyptian Saint instructs us to keep our priorities in the correct order, and to live for God at every moment of life, not falling into the trap of desiring the things of the world, but seeking the perfect love and peace of God. The Apostolic and biblical principle of ‘dying daily’ is given a new, brighter intensity by Anthony. These are among the many characteristics that make Anthony a spiritual director par excellence.

Saint Anthony of Egypt serves as the model Christian, the archetype of the believer in Jesus Christ, radically obedient to Christ in the call of the Holy Gospel. He appears before us in the Life of Anthony as a deified human person, the Image and Likeness of God transfigured by divine grace to be ‘by grace what God is by nature.’ Anthony’s ascetic struggle, or Askesis, makes him the object and product of Theosis, divinization. Anthony holds out for us what it is to be a Christian; he functions as an Ikon of Christ in man, demonstrating in vivid detail the identity, purpose, and calling of a member of the One Holy Catholic Church. Totally opposed to the world-system, Anthony lives the life of heaven on earth, and becomes the prototype of every one who desires to be ‘transformed by the renewing of the mind’ in Christ. Saint Anthony of Egypt, pray for us. Amen.

Bishop Chandler Jones, SSC is Bishop Coadjutor of the Diocese of the Eastern United States in the Anglican Province of America and Rector of St. Barnabas Anglican Church in Dunwoody, GA.


bottom of page