St Anthony the Abbot and St Augustine

Gregory DiPippo

Yesterday, for the feast of St Anthony the Abbot, we noted that the Latin translation of his biography by St Athanasius of Alexandria made him one of the most popular and influential Saints in the West throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. The most famous example of this influence comes from the autobiography of St Augustine, the Confessions. In book 8, 15 he writes that two officials of the imperial court (then at Trier, where Athanasius passed the first of his five exiles), on reading the life of Anthony, renounced their position and worldly ambitions to become monks, the one saying to the other,

“ ‘ego iam abrupi me ab illa spe nostra et Deo servire statui, et hoc ex hac hora, in hoc loco aggredior. Te si piget imitari, noli adversari.’ Respondit ille adhaerere se socium tantae mercedis tantaeque militiae.

‘Now I have broken loose from that hope of ours (for preferment in the court), and am resolved to serve God; and this I undertake from this hour, in this place. If thou like not to imitate me, do not oppose me.’ The other answered that he would cleave to him, and be his fellow in so great a reward and service.”

Not long after comes the crucial moment of Augustine’s own conversion (8.29).

“… flebam amarissima contritione cordis mei. et ecce audio vocem de vicina domo cum cantu dicentis et crebro repetentis, quasi pueri an puellae, nescio, “Tolle lege, tolle lege.’ Statimque mutato vultu intentissimus cogitare coepi utrumnam solerent pueri in aliquo genere ludendi cantitare tale aliquid. nec occurrebat omnino audisse me uspiam, repressoque impetu lacrimarum surrexi, nihil aliud interpretans divinitus mihi iuberi nisi ut aperirem codicem et legerem quod primum caput invenissem. Audieram enim de Antonio quod ex evangelica lectione cui forte supervenerat admonitus fuerit, tamquam sibi diceretur quod legebatur, ‘vade, vende omnia quae habes, et da pauperibus et habebis thesaurum in caelis; et veni, sequere me,’ et tali oraculo confestim ad te esse conversum. Itaque concitus redii in eum locum ubi sedebat Alypius: ibi enim posueram codicem apostoli cum inde surrexeram. arripui, aperui, et legi in silentio capitulum quo primum coniecti sunt oculi mei: ‘Non in comessationibus et ebrietatibus, non in cubilibus et impudicitiis, non in contentione et aemulatione, sed induite Dominum Iesum Christum, et carnis providentiam ne feceritis in concupiscentiis.’ Nec ultra volui legere nec opus erat, statim quippe cum fine huiusce sententiae quasi luce securitatis infusa cordi meo omnes dubitationis tenebrae diffugerunt.

(The “Tolle, lege” episode, 1463, by Benozzo Gozzoli; part of a cycle of the major episodes of St Augustine’s life in the choir chapel of the church dedicated to him in the town of San Gimignano, Italy. The man to the right is his boyhood friend St Alypius, who ended his days as bishop of their native place, the town of Tagaste in north Africa. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

… I was weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, and lo, I heard the voice as of a boy or girl, I know not which, coming from a neighboring house, chanting, and oft repeating, ‘Take up and read; take up and read.’ Immediately my countenance was changed, and I began most earnestly to consider whether it was usual for children in any kind of game to sing such a thing; nor could I remember ever having heard the like, and restraining the rush of tears, I rose up, interpreting it as nothing other than a command to me from Heaven to open the book, and to read the first chapter I should come upon. For I had heard of Anthony, that, from a reading of the Gospel which he had come upon by chance, he received the admonition as if what was read were addressed to him, ‘Go, sell all that you have, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven, and come follow me.’ (Matt 19, 2l) And by such oracle was he immediately converted unto You. (The addressee of the Confessions throughout is God.) So quickly I returned to the place where Alypius was sitting; for there had I put down the volume of the Apostle (Paul) when I got up from there. I took it, opened, and read in silence that chapter on which my eyes first fell: ‘Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in its lusts.’ (Rom. 13, 13-14) And I would not read further, nor did I need to, for immediately, with the end of this sentence, a light, as it were, of surety was infused into my heart, and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.” (Confessions 8.29)

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