"OH THAT TODAY YOU WOULD HEAR HIS VOICE: HARDEN NOT YOUR HEARTS." These words of Psalm 91 that we heard in the first reading a few minutes ago, are most fitting as an introduction to this Eucharist commemorating saint Antony of Egypt, for they summarize effectively the program Antony set for himself at the beginning of his monastic life. They also remind us that Antony's monastic vocation took its origins precisely when in the course of hearing God's voice in the Gospel read at a mass he was attending, he heard with the ears of his heart in the text a message directed to him. He straightaway acted upon the message it contained and took the first step on the path that soon led him into the desert where he spent the next 85 years of his life striving for that purity of heart, as Jesus had taught, characterizes those found worthy to behold God. "Blessed are the pure of heart" he declared at the beginning of his public ministry, : for they shall see God.

Fortunately, Saint Athanasius was the most prominent churchman in Egypt actively representing the Catholic Church during the later years of this holy monk whose graces and gifts had caused him to be recognized as embodying what came to be considered the monastic vocation. Antony was not the first to live the ascetic life, as Athanasius points out. He had been able to live with a succession of hermits who trained him in the various disciplines required for persevering in the solitary life of prayer. By virtue of his personal gifts of nature and grace, however, he was able to assimilate the different practices he encountered in the various ascetics and integrated them over the years into a firmly outlined manner of living centered on the search for union with God. And so he became known as the Father of all monks. Considerable numbers of monks in Egypt entered into relations with him, as did certain individuals from distant lands who came to profit from his personal presence. Athanasius commenting on his character observed that he was a man of grace and urbanity. Antony, he goes on to add, was endowed with a ready wit and understanding so that even sophisticated philosophers who came to test his knowledge soon discovered that they were no match for his superior insight and ready answers. In fact, one of the more striking features of Antony's experience is that his early years of the most rigorous solitude, immured in an old fort situated in the desert, resulted in his spiritual and psychological integration. As a consequence he was able to deal with a wide variety of persons who came to visit him in his desert retreat. Athanasius informs us that his knowledge of Scripture was such that "he became the teacher (didaskalos) of many." He adds that not only his learning but his very appearance was such that upon beholding his countenance resulted new appreciation of the spiritual life. (6.6 and 6.7) He was quick to point out that it is not by "persuasive words of Greek wisdom" but by faith in Jesus Christ. In explaining the meaning and significance of Antony's gift of healing, the Bishop of Alexandria points out that it was, as Antony himself insisted, "the Lord showing His loving-kindness to men and curing while using Antony as his instrument." (84)

By way of summing up the meaning and significance of this "Father of Monks" Saint Athanasius has this to say: "Antony had only to do with prayer and the practice of asceticism for the sake of which he lived his mountain life, happy in the contemplation of the divine, and grieving that many disturbed him and forced him to the Outer Mountain." Such is the example by which the patron of all monks teaches us the true meaning not only of monastic life, but also of the significance of every human existence. At this Eucharistic commemoration of this simple, holy monk we thank God for giving his Church such a model of a life based on faith in Jesus who, by word and example, by his death and resurrection, gives us access to the Father in his mercy for us all.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger