Dictionary and Thesaurus
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
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
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
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.