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Athanasius, Life of Antony

David Young

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Puzzled. I've been dipping into "Spiritual Classics from the early Church" compiled by Robert Atwell, monk at the Benedictine monastery, Burford, and he gives extracts from Athanasius' Life of Antony.. What Antony did doesn't somehow seem right to me, if I have read the story aright. His parents died when he was a young man, leaving him in charge of a rather younger sister. In pursuit of his own religious desires, he gave away the inheritance, including all that would have supported his sister, packed her off to a nunnery, and went to live in the desert. What he did with his own life was between him and God, who alone is his Judge; but it doesn't seem a right way to treat a younger sibling entrusted to one's care. Maybe someone could enlighten me?
 

Ainnir

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Does it say she was opposed to that course of action?
 

Iconodule

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In the version I'm looking at, he sold the family land and gave most of the proceeds to the poor, but kept a little for his sister. He then put her into a convent for her upbringing- not necessarily to be a nun herself. In any case: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple."
 

RaphaCam

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Ainnir said:
Does it say she was opposed to that course of action?
Nope, she was an adult and did keep part of the inheritance.

Iconodule said:
He then put her into a convent for her upbringing- not necessarily to be a nun herself.
The text does say she grew old as a virgin and became the leader of others (IOW, an abbess).
 

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David Young said:
Puzzled. I've been dipping into "Spiritual Classics from the early Church" compiled by Robert Atwell, monk at the Benedictine monastery, Burford, and he gives extracts from Athanasius' Life of Antony.. What Antony did doesn't somehow seem right to me, if I have read the story aright. His parents died when he was a young man, leaving him in charge of a rather younger sister. In pursuit of his own religious desires, he gave away the inheritance, including all that would have supported his sister, packed her off to a nunnery, and went to live in the desert. What he did with his own life was between him and God, who alone is his Judge; but it doesn't seem a right way to treat a younger sibling entrusted to one's care. Maybe someone could enlighten me?
His other option probably would have been to arrange a marriage for her?
 

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Hinterlander said:
His other option probably would have been to arrange a marriage for her?
That's what I was thinking.  And I imagine property rights weren't what they are now.  :-X
 

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I vote for this answer.

Iconodule said:
In the version I'm looking at, he sold the family land and gave most of the proceeds to the poor, but kept a little for his sister. He then put her into a convent for her upbringing- not necessarily to be a nun herself. In any case: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple."
 

David Young

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RaphaCam said:
Ainnir said:
Does it say she was opposed to that course of action?
Nope, she was an adult and did keep part of the inheritance.
According to Robert Atwell (page 60) Antony was 18 or 20 and the sister was "quite young". When our Lord said we were to "hate" our blood relatives in comparison with our love for him, I do not somehow feel he meant we should deprive them of their means of support and pack them off to a nunnery or monastery, but rather that (if they are young and in our care) we should look after them till they are independent or married, before we are free to give everything away and pursue our own desires. It is like the son who says to his parents that what they had a right to from him was "corban", i.e. devoted to God - and therefore he ceased to give proper care to his parents.

In the end, of course, Antony, like the rest of us, must stand or fall on Judgement Day by his own Master; but in pondering the whole movement of monasticism - alien to us Baptists - some moral and spiritual questions do arise: which is not to say I think no one has ever been called to take the cowl.
 

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But he didn’t deprive her of her means of support. Presumably if he was forcing her to be a nun he wouldn’t bother leaving her any inheritance at all. And Saint Anthony wasn’t “pursuing his own desires”  anymore than the fishermen were when they left their father on the boat to follow Jesus, or when Isaiah gave his sons weird names that probably got them into trouble on the playground, or when Abraham agreed to sacrifice Isaac.
 

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David Young said:
RaphaCam said:
Ainnir said:
Does it say she was opposed to that course of action?
Nope, she was an adult and did keep part of the inheritance.
According to Robert Atwell (page 60) Antony was 18 or 20 and the sister was "quite young". When our Lord said we were to "hate" our blood relatives in comparison with our love for him, I do not somehow feel he meant we should deprive them of their means of support and pack them off to a nunnery or monastery, but rather that (if they are young and in our care) we should look after them till they are independent or married, before we are free to give everything away and pursue our own desires. It is like the son who says to his parents that what they had a right to from him was "corban", i.e. devoted to God - and therefore he ceased to give proper care to his parents.

In the end, of course, Antony, like the rest of us, must stand or fall on Judgement Day by his own Master; but in pondering the whole movement of monasticism - alien to us Baptists - some moral and spiritual questions do arise: which is not to say I think no one has ever been called to take the cowl.
Let's see: eating and breathing prayer and Scripture day and night, lifelong accountability partner(s), stewarding and using God-given talents to productive and godly ends, avoiding a whole slew of extra temptation, seeking to become more like Christ in the depths of one's being, often living close to nature....  So what exactly makes such a life morally and spiritually questionable?

As to the text...does this approximate what you've read?  If so, there's really almost nothing there with which to make the inferences you are.  The virgins were "known and faithful," the land was about 300 acres, and we have no idea how much younger than him the sister was, nor what the age of majority was, nor what her realistic options were apart from the one taken.  Perhaps to retain her independence, being raised with virgins/nuns would have been the best possible course.  The text doesn't tell us any of these things; extra-textual sources are needed to help fill these gaps.  :D
 

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Ainnir said:
As to the text...does this approximate what you've read?  If so, there's really almost nothing there with which to make the inferences you are.  The virgins were "known and faithful," the land was about 300 acres, and we have no idea how much younger than him the sister was, nor what the age of majority was, nor what her realistic options were apart from the one taken.  Perhaps to retain her independence, being raised with virgins/nuns would have been the best possible course.  The text doesn't tell us any of these things; extra-textual sources are needed to help fill these gaps.  :D
That's essentially the beginning of convent schools, that was a tradition of female education in Europe until quite recently, especially if the girl was orphaned and/or wealthy. :)

The family, given their background, are likely to have been Roman citizens, so here's a fascinating bit of reading on the legal and financial status of women in latter-day Rome.
 

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David Young said:
RaphaCam said:
Ainnir said:
Does it say she was opposed to that course of action?
Nope, she was an adult and did keep part of the inheritance.
According to Robert Atwell (page 60) Antony was 18 or 20 and the sister was "quite young". When our Lord said we were to "hate" our blood relatives in comparison with our love for him, I do not somehow feel he meant
Are we here to discuss how we feel about Christ word's or how they are understood by the Church since the Apostles?

we should deprive them of their means of support and pack them off to a nunnery or monastery, but rather that (if they are young and in our care) we should look after them till they are independent or married,
Is this the only possible option? Are you possibly looking at St Antony's actions through the sense of 21st century America? History tells us that the norm for children was to send them to the monastery around 10-12 years of age so they CAN depend on the monastery. This too is not the political and social milieu of St Antony's time. There is no logical justification to transpose our own modern understanding of child care onto the 3rd century monastic pioneer.

[quote before we are free to give everything away and pursue our own desires.[/quote]
Unless of course, that "own desire" is God. Matthew 6:33. In addition, the point St Athanasius was trying to portray in the Life of Antony was Antony's profound initiative to take action of the gospel's words in Matthew 19:21. It was not to question St Antony's morality.

In the end, of course, Antony, like the rest of us, must stand or fall on Judgement Day by his own Master;
Yes but you're implying St Antony did something wrong. All he did was live out his own Master's words.

but in pondering the whole movement of monasticism - alien to us Baptists
And there is the issue at hand. Given monasticism is 1800+ years young and still around, while the Baptist church is only 500 years or so, the alieness of monasticism is an indictment on Baptist Christianity, not monasticism.

some moral and spiritual questions do arise
You mean like "why is monasticism the fastest and most moral and spiritual way to heaven"? Those are the questions we should ask, not how can make monasticism conform to Baptist morality and spirituality.
 

David Young

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Remnkemi said:
... we should ask, not how can make monasticism conform to Baptist morality and spirituality.
I am not, of course, suggesting that monasticism should conform to Baptist morality and spirituality: I think you misunderstand me, and I take the point about "transpose our own modern understanding of child care onto the 3rd century monastic pioneer." My pondering was not about monasticism, which I made a point of saying I was not discounting as a possible divine calling; it was only ad hominem, namely referring to one man's way of dealing with his responsibility for sister's needs.

There is, or at least should be, no such thing as Baptist morality, only Christian morality, to which all professing Christians of whatever church should conform (with God's help). There is such a thing as Baptist spirituality, just as there are spiritualities characteristic of mediæval Catholicism, of Russian orthodoxy, of Pentecostals, of German Pietism, of Methodism, and so on. They do have different flavours, and monasticism does not find a place within Baptist spirituality - but that does not, in my view, mean it should have no place within the Christian world, nor was I implying that.

As I say, whilst dipping into the Life of Antony I was asking, in my post here, about one of his decisions as a young man aged about 20. I read a lot of Christian biography, certainly from the time of Aidan (seventh century) down to the twentieth century. It doesn't make me think that every servant of God has always got everything right in what he or she has done or has believed.
 

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Well, like Ainnir said they were well known proto-nuns, so I'm sure he knew that his sister would be well cared for (I'd wager better than Anthony himself thought that he could have done, given his obviously heavy sense of calling from God).

Not that I don't completely sympathize with having difficulty understanding the decisions of some monastic Saints (Sts. Arsenius the Great and Theodora of Alexandria are the tough ones for me, personally... and St. Symeon Stylites to an extent).
 
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