January 17th is the commemoration of Saint Anthony of Egypt. He is known and remembered as one of the first hermits, from whom the monastic tradition would grow and develop. His Life, or biography, was written by Saint Athanasius and is one of the first of its kind in Christian literature. In that document we read that he was not seeking to “escape the world” for the sake of solitude and peace, but to do battle with the devil (or demons, at any rate) in his own soul. Cloistered monastic or parish priest, lay person or ordained, we all face against the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Nevertheless, it may feel a bit odd to commemorate a man like Saint Anthony during the Epiphany season. At least in the modern calendar tradition, Epiphanytide is missionally focused, and the life of solitude exemplified in today’s commemoration is decidedly inward-focused, not outward. As it happens, there are at least two ways that we can link this commemoration to the Epiphany season’s mission theme.
First, we see in the life of Anthony the reminder that no matter where we go geographically, the same spiritual forces of darkness will be waiting for us. In the mission field (be it on a distant continent or your around your neighbor’s grill in the back yard) we will find opposition. There is an enemy to contend with, we will be wrestling with beings not of flesh and blood. The example of Saint Anthony reminds us that we must be ready for battle, especially as we seek to increase our service to God’s kingdom.
Second, history shows us that, paradoxically, the seemingly-inward-focused monastic tradition has greatly benefited the missional movement of the Church. Much of Northern Europe was evangelized by monks! In Anthony’s case, he sought solitude in the desert to fight against evil alone, and other would-be hermits came to live nearby caves so they could benefit from his wisdom. He soon had a community of hermits – monks – and ordinary people from the cities soon started visiting this monastic community for spiritual guidance, insight, and advice. This pattern has repeated all over the world: an intentional community of worship, fellowship, and solidarity is established, people “come and see,” often a whole village or town arises next door, and the Gospel advances into that region. We are thus reminded, at least, that there is more than one way to go about mission and evangelism.