A homily given on the Feast of St. Antony of Egypt in the context of a retreat given on St. Clare of Assisi at the Community of St. John Baptist, Mendham, NJ.
A few weeks ago as I was carefully cleaning a country ham, washing off some of the salt, and getting it ready to be cooked for New Year’s Day, I burst out laughing. I laughed as I remembered an old preacher’s story.
The story is about a woman who wanted a ham, but had no money. She really wanted a ham to feed her family, to keep them going for a little while, to help them have something good to eat, which was rare—since they had no real money. And so the lady prayed.
“Lord Jesus, please send me a ham.” Every morning, she’d get on her knees in her kitchen and pray: “Lord Jesus, unworthy as I am, please help me feed my family. Please send us a ham.” Day after day, it was much the same prayer.
But one day, the town scoundrel happened to walk by her window just as she was praying. He heard her, “Lord Jesus, send me a ham…” and decided to play a trick. He went to the store, bought a ham and waited until she’d be praying the next morning. As soon as he saw her hit her knees, he threw the ham through the window. Boom! The ham made a dramatic landing.
“Thank you, Lord Jesus,” he could hear the woman say. “Thank you, thank you.” And out of the house she went, praising the Lord, giving thanks, and telling her neighbors about God’s goodness.
After a little bit of this, the scoundrel had heard enough, so he jumped at the chance to embarrass the lady. “She’s just a superstitious old so-and-so,” he said. “I bought the ham, not God, not Jesus, not anybody else—it was me, you silly old woman.”
The woman took a breath, looked at the crowd that had accumulated and then at the man, and she said very calmly: “The devil may have delivered it, but it was the Lord Jesus who sent me a ham.”
I like that story not only because it involves a ham—always a good thing, in my book. But also because the lady takes seriously the devil. Probably because of all her prayer, she knows a devil when she sees one.
Not long ago, at my parish’s Wednesday Eucharist, one of the scriptures included a word about Satan. Afterwards, someone teased the reader, saying that she sounded a little uncertain as she was reading that part. The reader said, “Well, I don’t really believe in Satan.” We talked a little about that, casually, and I think she meant to say she didn’t want to give too much credit to Satan, or take him too seriously. But that brief conversation reminded me of how the Church has perhaps left the concept of evil to vampire stories and horror movies. We’ve dropped Satan from our vocabulary, and so it’s no wonder that demons seem to sneak up to us so easily.
Today the church commemorates Antony of Egypt who in the 3rd century, heard the Gospel message about selling possessions and having treasure in heaven, and took it literally. He sold what he had, put his younger sister in the care of other people, and went into the desert pursuing a life of spiritual discipline and what turned out to be spiritual warfare.
While he went “away from” many things, he was also very much moving “towards.” He was moving towards God, towards a richer experience of Christ, and perhaps even towards a more meaningful understanding of himself. Though he aimed to be largely alone, and is known as the father of eremitical monasticism, once in the desert (like saints and holy ones through the ages) his single-mindedness and passion for Christ attracted other people.
While our Gospel today stresses the voluntary poverty of Antony, leaving possessions was the easy part. If we look at the life of Antony, especially as chronicled by Athanasius, we see that Antony’s real strength showed up when he became poor in spirit, poor in his ability to control his thoughts and feelings, poor in managing his hopes and fears, and poor in his own resourcefulness to confront evil. It was in THAT poverty, that he found power, which was the power of Christ. And the power of Christ is enough to dodge and disperse any demon.
But the demons still tried. Athanasius writes colorfully about this:
Once a very tall demon appeared in an apparition and had the daring to say, ‘I am the Power of God;” and “I am Providence; what do you wish that I would give you?’ But then, speaking the name of Christ, I spat at him with all my power, and attempted to strike him, and I really seemed to have hit home, and at once, with the mention of the name of Christ, this giant figure vanished, along with his demons. Once while I was fasting, the cunning one even came as a monk, having the semblance of loaves of bread, and he offered me counsel, saying, ‘Eat, and stop your many labors; you, too, are a man, and you are about to grow weak.’ But I perceived his deception and got up to say my prayers. This he could not bear, for he disappeared, and he looked like smoke as he went through the door. (The Life of Antony, 40).
The Life of Antony is so colorful and compelling that it’s easy to forgetit’s n ot a first-person account. It’s written, instead, by Athanasius, who was bishop of Alexandria for forty-six years. Exiled five times by four different Roman emperors, I think it’s fair to say Athanasius knew a thing or two about demons. When Antony begins to describe how he deals with demons, I think we’re really hearing how Bishop Athanasius deals with all the demons of his day—those not out in the desert caves, but in churches and buildings, in clergy, parishioners, and politicians; in cultural clashes, and all the various pressures of every day. Athanasius writes
For when [the demons] come they approach us in a form corresponding to the state in which they discover us, and adapt their delusions to the condition of mind in which they find us. If, therefore, they find us timid and confused, they forthwith beset the place, like robbers, having found it unguarded; and what we of ourselves are thinking, they do, and more also. For if they find us fainthearted and cowardly, they mightily increase our terror, by their delusions and threats; and with these the unhappy soul is thenceforth tormented. But if they see us rejoicing in the Lord, contemplating the bliss of the future, mindful of the Lord, deeming all things in His hand, and that no evil spirit has any strength against the Christian, nor any power at all over any one- when they behold the soul fortified with these thoughts – they are discomfited and turned backwards. Thus the enemy, seeing Job fenced round with them, withdrew from him; but finding Judas unguarded, him he took captive. Thus if we are wishful to despise the enemy, let us ever ponder over the things of the Lord, and let the soul ever rejoice in hope. (The Life of Antony 42)
As anyone who has found some strength in a Twelve Step Recovery program knows that the healing over demons begins with admitting powerlessness. “Admitted we were powerless over [fill in the blank: alcohol, drugs, food, sex, money, other people…]
Admitted we were powerless over demons, powerless over our future, powerless over our faith, powerless over our families, powerless over our health….
St. Clare writes about this in her First Letter to Agnes as she offers advice for dealing with the little demons as well as the large. She writes
You know, I believe that the kingdom is promised and given by the Lord only to the poor . . . for she who loves temporal things loses the fruit of love. Such a person cannot serve God and money, for either the one is loved and the other hated, or the one is served and the other despised . . . You also know that one who is clothed cannot fight another who is naked, because she is more quickly thrown who gives her adversary a chance to get hold of her; and that one who lives in the glory of earth cannot rule with Christ in heaven. (1 LAg 25-28).
May we give thanks for Antony of Egypt, for Clare, and for all those who lead us in the words of Peter, “to humble ourselves before God, cast anxiety on him, take up discipline, and stay awake. So that the God of all grace, who has called us to his eternal glory in Christ, might restore us, support us, strengthen us, and establish us.” (1 Peter 5:6-10)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.