Here is a link to and English translation of Saint Athanasius' The Life of Saint Antony
1. Consider that, in his Life of Anthony, Athanasius portrays Anthony as a lad who didn't want an education and so never went to school. He was an illiterate country boy who showed up the professors from Athens: "Which is better, the mind that creates book learning or the book learning that reflects the mind? Well, I have a mind and don't need book learning." Consider also that among the various forms that the demons take are those of troops of soldiers and tax collectors, and that Anthony would have ignored the greetings of the Emperor Constantine if he had been left to himself. Athanasius's Anthony is not simply rejecting the world of the flesh, but is also anti-intellectual and anti-governmental. Anthony is a basically a village hero, opposing and ridiculing those whom the village folk of the time regarded as their oppressors. But simple rebellion is not sufficient to make a hero; heroes inevitably represent the realization of some model figure generally recognized and admired by the mass of the population.
2. What, then. was the model upon which Anthony fashioned his way of life? He claimed that he was training, learning discipline, developing skills, hardening himself, learning to take punishment and ignore pain. What does this training lead to? It culminated in physical wrestling matches with demons, followers of Satan. These demons took the form of wild beasts, soldiers, giants, and so forth. The image that Athanasius presented seems to have been that of a young man training to become a wrestler or boxer in the public games.
3. This imagery can be carried further. By this time, the great teams -- the Blues, Greens, Whites, and Reds into which sports in the Byzantine empire would eventually be organized -- were already taking shape. Athanasius portrays the world as a sports match between the Blacks, owned and managed by Satan, and the Whites of God, managed in the person of Jesus Christ. The rules are that the Whites try to win their way through to God and the Blacks try to stop them. In actuality, young village lads might aspire to become professional athletes, much like so many young Americans do even today. Even though their chances of success might be slight, the success of a few fueled the dreams and aspirations of many more. So, athletic training was something that the average man and woman of the Eastern Empire understood and provided the common vocabulary with which Athanasius was able to describe and, in some measure, explain the rejection by Anthony 9 and by many others who would follow after him) of the world and its ways.
4. This may be why the Eastern monks portrayed themselves as "Athletes of Christ" and often made public spectacles of the rigors of their "training." The aspect of monasticism has been regarded with humor even before Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court turned mortification of the flesh and many other aspects of medieval life (as it was pictured in the 19th century) into ridiculous fun.
5. One must understand, of course, that this was not what the people of the time believed or actually practiced, but it may have been one of the underlying images in Athanasius's mind when he was composing The Life of Saint Anthony. As an author, Athanasius had a problem in trying to portray Anthony as a hero and, perhaps unconsciously, drew upon a widely recognizable model. There were several literary types of hero that he might have employed, but not all were understandable to the village populations he was trying to influence. The hero-figure of the brave soldier was widely-known, it is true, but the fact that Athanasius portrays Anthony as struggling against soldiers as well as other devils and demons suggests that the common man and woman in fourth-century Egypt did not view the soldier as a courageous protector and model of good behavior. Athanasius' choice of sports hero as a model for his portrayal of Saint Anthony may have had much to do with the phenomenal popularity enjoyed by someone who might equally well have been regarded simply as an ignorant and dirty recluse.
THE RULE OF SAINT BENEDICT
1. The Rule of St. Benedict has a completely different feeling about it. There is no sense of excess here, no wrestling alone in the dark with shape-changing demons, no rejection of learning. Instead, the emphasis is upon balance, order, moderation, and collective action.
2. It is easy enough to see the model that Benedict had in mind. The monks live in a "fortified" camp under duly appointed officers; they wear a uniform drawn from a quartermaster, eat a set ration in a mess hall, and sleep in a barracks. Benedict refers to the congregation of monks as a "schola," a Latin word referring to an elite military unit, and the Western monks were often called "milites Christi," "Soldiers of Christ."
3. The monks might pursue individual prayer and meditation, but their function was to gather seven times daily to sing the "Holy Office," selected Psalms and prayers intended to praise God and plead for divine mercy, not for the individual monk, but, for the most part, for Christendom in general.
4. One could argue that The Rule of Saint Benedict is the most important single written work in the shaping of Western society, embodying, as it does, the ideas of a written constitution, authority limited by law and under the law, the right of the ruled to review the legality of the actions of their rulers, a society without distinctions of birth, and one in which manual labor is regarded as a dignified occupation rather than one that demeans the laborer.
Lynn Harry Nelson
Emeritus Professor of
The University of Kansas