May 2017 | Church Fathers

Letters of St. Anthony

Letter 1

First of all, I greet you in the Lord. I believe that the souls, whether male or female, whom God in His mercy has assembled by his own Word, are of three kinds.

Some were reached by the word of God through the law of promise and the discernment of the good inherent in them from their first formation. They did not hesitate but followed it readily as did Abraham, our father. Since he offered himself in love through law of promise, God appeared to him, saying: “Go from your country and your kindred and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” And he went without hesitating at all, but being ready for his calling. This is the model for the beginning of this way of life. It still persists in those who follow this pattern. Wherever and whenever souls endure and bow to it they easily attain the virtues, since their hearts are ready to be guided by the Spirit of God. This is the first kind.

The second kind we find in those who hear the written law testify of all pain and punishment prepared for the wicked and announce the blessed promises for those who progress. Through the testimonies of the written law their thoughts are aroused, and they try to enter into their calling. David, too, testifies of this, saying: “The law of the Lord is without blemish and vivifies the soul,” and elsewhere he says: “The revelation of Thy words gives light and makes children wise,” and of the same more than we are able to recount.

The third kind we find in those whose hearts are hard from the beginning and who persist in the works of sin. God the merciful sends afflictions and chastisement upon them, until through their afflictions they are made aware and repent and return. And if they repent with all their heart they enter into the calling and attain the virtues, like the others about whom I have already written.

These are the three gates for the souls who come to repent until they obtain grace, and the calling of the Son of God.

But I believe that those who have entered with all their heart, and have prepared themselves to endure all the trials of the enemy until they prevail, are first called by the Spirit, Who alleviates everything for them so that the work of repentance becomes sweet for them. He sets for them a rule for how to repent in their bodies and souls until He has taught them the way to return to God, their own Creator. He also gives them control over their souls and bodies in order that both may be sanctified and inherit together: First the body through many fast and vigils, through the exertion and the exercises of the body, cutting of all the fruits of the flesh. In this the Spirit of repentance is his guide, testing him through them, so that the enmity does not bring him back again. Then the guiding Spirit begins to open the eyes of the soul, to show it the way of repentance that it, too, may be purified.

The mind also starts to discriminate between them and begins to learn from the Spirit how to purify the body and the soul through repentance. The mind is taught by the Spirit and guides us in the actions of the body and soul, purifying both of them, separating the fruits of the flesh from what is natural to the body, in which they were mingled, and through which the transgression came to be, and leads each member of the body back to its original condition, free from everything alien that belongs to the spirit of the enemy.

The body is thus brought under the authority of the mind and it is taught by the Spirit, as the words of Paul testify: “I castigate my body and bring it into subjection.” Then mind sanctifies it in food and drink and sleep, and, in one word, in all its movements, even separating itself from the natural union through its own sanctity.

I believe that there are three movements in the body. There is a natural, inherent movement, which does not operate unless the soul consents, otherwise it remains still. Then there is another movement as a result of stuffing the body with a multitude of food and drink. The heat of the blood, caused by excessive eating, stirs up the body, which is now moved by gluttony. Because of this the apostle says, “Be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess.” And the Lord enjoined his disciples in the Gospel saying: “Take heed lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting and drunkenness,” and pleasures. Especially since they seek the level of sanctity they should say: “I castigate my body and bring it into subjection.” The third movement comes from the evil spirits, tempting us out of envy and seeking to divert those who attempt to sanctify themselves.

If the soul perseveres in these three ways and keeps to what the Spirit has taught the mind, it purifies both from the three types of affliction. But if the mind spurns the testimonies which the Spirit has given it, then evil spirits override the [natural] constitution of the body and stir up these movements, until the soul grows weary and asks from where it can receive help and converts and adheres to the testimony of the Spirit and is healed. Then it believes that this is its rest: to abide with God, who is its peace.

This I have said about repentance in the body and the soul, and how they are sanctified. And when the mind accepts this struggle, then it prays in the Spirit and begins to expel the afflictions of the soul which have come upon it through its own greed. The soul is then in communion with the Spirit, since it keeps the commandments it has received. And the Spirit teaches it how to heal all its afflictions, and how to expel them one by one, from head to foot, those mingled with what is natural to the body as well as those which are independent of the body, but have been mingled with it through the will.

It sets a rule for the eyes that they may see rightly and purely and never again have anything alien in them , and for the ears that they may hear in peace, and never again wish to hear anything evil or any slandering of men, but rather all kinds of benevolence and mercy towards all creation; for in[ both of] them it was once sick.

It also teaches that the tongue gets its own purity, since its affliction is great. For the one who speaks is sick and gives to the tongue his own works. Thus the afflictions are made abundant through this member, which is the tongue. This is confirmed by James, the apostle, who says: “If someone thinks that he serves God and does not control his tongue, but deceives his own heart; his worship is in vain.” Somewhere else he says that, the tongue is a small member, but it defiles the whole body. And there is more like this then we can quote. But if the mind is strengthened by the Spirit, it is first purified itself, then it examines the words and gives them to the tongue, so that they are free from hypocrisy and self-will. Thus the words of Solomon are fulfilled: “My words are spoken by God. There is nothing twisted or perverse in them,” and somewhere else he says, “The tongue of the wise heals,” and so on.

And also the movements of the hand, if they were moved disorderly by the will of the soul, are now made firm by the Spirit and destined to move towards purity by prayers and acts of mercy. And on them the word about prayer is fulfilled, stating, “Let the lifting up of my hands be as the evening sacrifice,” and also, “The hands of the diligent makes rich.”

Also the belly is purified in its eating and drinking, although it used to be insatiable in these matters, once it had been moved towards them by the will of the soul. Through desire and greed for food and drink not a few have fallen in with the demons, and of them it is said by David, “I do not dine with one who has a high look and an insatiable heart.”

To those, however, who seek purity, the Spirit assigns this rule of purification: moderation after the power of the body, devoid of any greed or desire. On them this word of Paul is fulfilled saying: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

Then, in regard to the sexual thoughts moved from below the belly, the mind is again taught by the Spirit how to distinguish between the three types of movements mentioned above, and how to strive for purification having the help of the Spirit. All the movements are then quenched by the power of the Spirit, pacifying the entire body and extinguishing the movements. This is the word given by Paul: “Mortify your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, and evil desires,” and so forth.

And then also the feet, which formerly did not walk soundly according to the will of God; the mind, being united under the authority of the Spirit, makes them walk according to the will of the Spirit, that they minister in good works so that the whole body may be changed and placed under the authority of the Spirit. And I think that [even] now this dwelling has taken on something of that other spiritual body which will be taken on at the resurrection of the just.

This I have said concerning the afflictions of the soul which have become mingled with what is natural to the body, in which the soul moves, so that it has become a guide to the evil spirits working in its members.

But I also say that the soul has some [movements] proper to it alone, which we will now examine: Pride is an affliction apart from the body, self-glorification another, as well as insolence, hatred, envy, wrath, pusillanimity, impatience and the rest. But if it gives itself to God wholeheartedly, God the merciful gives to it the Spirit of repentance and shows it how to repent in the case of each affliction, and also how the enemies prevent her and try to possess her, not allowing her to repent.

If the soul endures and obeys what the Spirit has taught it about repentance, then the Creator has mercy on the weariness of its repentance through the labors of the body, such as prolonged fasts, vigils, much study of the Word of God and many prayers, as well as the renunciation of the world and human things, humility, and contrition. And if it endures in all this, then God the merciful sees its patience in the temptations and has mercy and helps it.

The Seven Great Letters of Saint Antony the Great.



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