By Subhasis Chattopadhyay –
समदु:खसुख: स्वस्थ: समलोष्टाश्मकाञ्चन: |
तुल्यप्रियाप्रियो धीरस्तुल्यनिन्दात्मसंस्तुति: || 24||
मानापमानयोस्तुल्यस्तुल्यो मित्रारिपक्षयो: |
सर्वारम्भपरित्यागी गुणातीत: स उच्यते || 25||
(Bhagavad Gita Chapter 14, Verses 24-25)
Those who are alike in happiness and distress; who are established in the self; who look upon a clod, a stone, and a piece of gold as of equal value; who remain the same amidst pleasant and unpleasant events; who are intelligent; who accept both blame and praise with equanimity; who remain the same in honor and dishonor; who treat both friend and foe alike; and who have abandoned all enterprises – they are said to have risen above the three guṇas. (Taken from https://goo.gl/cgPXBD accessed at 4:27 pm on 16th January 2018. The Hindu cognates mentioned in this post came out of a discussion with the editor of this website.)
According to St. Athanasius, the biographer of Abba Anthony the Great (his feast day is celebrated on January 17 among the Orthodox and Catholic churches), this Desert Father achieved the equanimity of spirit found in the Bhagavad Gita. This sanctity could not have been possible had not Abba Anthony mortified his senses in the Egyptian desert of his own free will; following Christ who went to the Judaean Desert to combat Satan one to one of His own free will. We are reminded of our freedom as autonomous beings with full agency when we remember the life of the Desert Fathers, especially when we remember the life of Abba Anthony. St. Athanasius does not detail Abba Anthony’s fight against temptations for cinematic effect; he wants us to remember that spiritual life is one of continuous struggle against demonic powers.
We need not bother here about the relationships between St. Pachomius’s contribution to cenobiticism or Abba Anthony’s stress on eremiticism or their combined influence on St. Benedict of Nursia. Or, the facts that Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara monasticism owe more to Abba Anthony of Egypt and to the Maronite Saint Nimatullah Kassab than to Saint Benedict of Nursia. These facts are of interest to scholars and monks. We shall concentrate how we can enrich our lives through recollecting the life of Abba Anthony. It suffices to know that through the efforts of Abba Anthony there developed a distinct spirituality of the desert.
It is this desert spirituality that inspired Blessed Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916) to live in the Sahara among Bedouins. Blessed Charles de Foucauld revived Abba Anthony’s desert spirituality for those searching for God in the midst of factories, production lines and heartless stock exchanges where capitalism constantly fuels greed and ensnares us with promises of sensory excesses. Blessed de Foucauld’s example has led many married men and women to find God in the contemporary deserts which are our modern metropolises. Through Blessed de Foucauld, Saints Anthony and Athanasius have brought asceticism to the common man. ‘Let us mortify ourselves right now’ became the rallying cry of Abba Anthony and the Desert Fathers. We may not live to read the next line.
St. Anthony lived all alone and fought himself (sic) as Gautama, the Buddha fought the Maras. When most of us crib about being lonely, why not follow Abba Anthony and try once more to perfect ourselves in solitude? Why do we fail to see our loneliness, whether we are young or old, as an opportunity gifted us by Almighty God to mortify ourselves and become like unto Christ who cried out in loneliness from his hard Cross? When loneliness terrifies us, we must turn to Abba Anthony.
Learning From Abba Anthony
Abba Anthony has much to teach us who are trapped within solipsism and samsara. To begin with, we must fight impurity as Abba Anthony did 24*7. In this day and age, we take online obscenity as a fact of life and nothing extraordinary. Each of us, whether Hindu or Christian, married or celibate needs to fight against the evil of (internet) sex addiction. While we are busy saving the world, and fighting against social injustices, we have been tricked into losing our own souls by Satan who wants us to forget the urgent task of mortifying our own flesh first before we remove the moats in the eyes of others. Abba Anthony wants us to save our own souls first before we dive into samsara. Christ could have plunged into His Ministry whenever He wanted, but to teach us by example, the Son of God waited thirty years before teaching others. Abba Anthony too reminds us that fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
The Hindu Shastras show the vita contemplativa as more fundamental to social engineering than any vita activa. No matter where we are or in which state of life we are we in, we must guard against sins against chastity. Often the most exteriorly perfect amongst us may be the most unchaste in thoughts and life choices enacted in secrecy. Incidentally, nothing is secret for YHWH sees in secret and all things will be known to all when the Prince of Peace Judges us in His Second Coming.
Howsoever easy the opportunities are, all of us irrespective of our religions are called to chastity. Abba Anthony’s struggles were all too human — he had to fight with himself because he could not sleep due to the natural demands of the flesh. But he did not give in to his passions unlike most of us who are quick to wallow in sense pleasures for they bring us transitory joy and seem the easy way out.
Whereas Sigmund Freud saw everything in terms of the libidinal and stressed on the irrepression of desires; Abba Anthony of Egypt rightly judges the soul-killing nature of sexual sin. The sarx, the Pauline flesh, is corrupted through hedonism and the more we feed our animal instincts, the more debased we become. Let no one fool himself that if only our one momentary desire in the here and the now is gratified, all will be well with us. The moment that one desire is accommodated invariably hundred other sins will certainly throttle us in their death grip.
The Hindu Vairagya Satakam warns against this very reasoning of Freud: unlike Freud, the Hindu Scriptures and the Desert Fathers do not want us to sin mortally even once. The camel from the fable first puts its head in and then we all know what it does. Beware of Freud’s hedonistic theories. By no stretch of the imagination are we sexual beings; we are embodied souls made in the image of God. Abba Anthony’s path is the path of re-cognition of this fact: that we are like unto God, that we are children of Light and capable of great holiness. Immorality is not a flexible category; sin is real and only if we freely cooperate with God’s Grace can we break the loop of sin and repentance that many of us are in. Preparation for receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation will be fuller if we study the life of Abba Anthony and think why the Desert Fathers were very vigilant about the sins of the flesh.
The Russian Holy Fools were influenced by Abba Anthony since the Abba like the Hindu King Jada Bharata kept up a veneer of idiocy to keep the world away. Intellectual histrionics is the precursor to pride, the greatest sin among all known evils. Abba Anthony’s Feast Day reminds us of the need to be alone, to be chaste and to pray lest Satan has our souls.
Subhasis Chattopadhyay is a blogger and an Assistant Professor in English (UG & PG Departments of English) at Narasinha Dutt College affiliated to the University of Calcutta. He has additional qualifications in Biblical Studies and separately, Spiritual Psychology. He also studied the Minor Upanishads separately. He remains a staunch Hindu. He had written extensively for the Catholic Herald published from Calcutta. From 2010 he reviews books for the Ramakrishna Mission and his reviews have been showcased in Ivy League Press-websites.