17 January 2011

17 January - Saint Anthony, Abbot

Feast of Saint Anthony of Egypt, Abbot and Hermit. (born 251- died 356)

As a young man, Anthony took to heart the words of the gospel "Go, sell all that you have and give it to the poor".  He divided his inheritance with his sister, gave away his share of it to the poor, and retired to the outskirts of town to live the life of an ascetic.  Eventually, that wasn't enough, and he moved out into the desert, occasionally returning to live near other hermits, then moving farther away again.

At one point, he shut himself up in a ruined fortress for 20 years, only coming out at the end of that time to be a spiritual guide to the hermits who had taken up residence in the caves around his place of solitude.  After organizing them, he again withdrew to a solitary life, emerging to combat Arianism, and at one point paying a visit to Saint Paul the Hermit (see January 15).

He suffered much through the attentions of demons, whether by temptations to sensuality and gluttony, or by physical beatings and torments, but through all of it he emerged victorious, and died in an odor of sanctity at age 105.

Traditionally, animals are blessed today, particularly horses, mules, donkeys, and dogs.

A plague spread across Europe in 1089, which in this instance was probably ergotism.  Miraculous cures were reported of those who implored God's mercy through the intercession of Saint Anthony, especially those who prayed before his relics, and the inflammatory disease (and a couple of others) became known as Saint Anthony's Fire.

In art, he is often depicted with a pig nearby.  The reasons given for this bit of iconography are various: that (like Merlin) the pig was a pet; or that pork fat was used in the treatment of skin diseases, therefore, by association, Saint Anthony became the patron of swineherds; or that it is neither of the above - the hog represents the gluttony and sensuality over which he triumphed.

Whatever the reason, the old saying "to follow someone about like a tantony pig" means to stick as close to that person as St. Anthony's favorite is said to have done to the saint.

I found this in a book written in 1897: "He [Anthony] is the great misogynist of the Church. He regarded the whole sex with profound mistrust, a mistrust not untinged with fear; for, although always on the alert, he seems to have been never quite sure what trick they might be up to next. That they were, for the most part, the devil's closest and most unscrupulous allies was a point about which he personally had very little doubt... He was, in fact, the organizer and leader of the first anti-women crusade; and it was part of his regular propaganda to insist that there could be neither peace on earth nor good will among men unless the whole feminine tribe were boycotted. Evidently he had no great faith in the resisting powers of his fellows; for the lesson he most impressed upon them was that in dealing with women their only chance of safety lay in flight."

Interesting.  I wonder if he really did believe that women were "the devil's closest and most unscrupulous allies"?