I made my first confession about 10 years ago when I was received into the Catholic Church. It was a revelatory experience. I felt so relieved when it was over, so forgiven. I probably could have walked on water as I left the confessional.
But that was then and this is now. Ten years later, I’m still battling the same sins. My flaws are still with me. Slightly improved, maybe, but still very much a daily struggle. For a decade now I’ve been confessing the same sins over and over again. It’s embarrassing.
This seems to be a common frustration. All of us battle our individual demons to a greater or lesser degree, but they’re always there, waiting to pounce.
Perhaps this is why I find the story of St. Anthony of Egypt (also called St. Anthony the Great and Anthony of the Desert) so impressive. This is a man who dedicated his entire existence to overcoming his flaws. It wasn’t a half-hearted effort. He was willing to make absolutely any sacrifice for the sake of leaving behind his habitual temptations.
Anthony was born into a wealthy Egyptian family in the year 251. When he was still a young man, his parents died, leaving him a large inheritance. He felt his possessions were distracting him from living a virtuous life so he gave away most of his wealth, keeping only enough to provide for himself and his sister.
That wasn’t enough. Anthony still felt his flaws were in control so he gave away the rest of his money, placed his sister in a convent, and departed the city for a life of prayer and penance. He went to stay near an old hermit outside of town and quickly gained a reputation for holiness.
You might think his sacrifices finally helped him overcome his temptations. His renown as a holy man would indicate as much. But St. Athanasius relates that Anthony continued to struggle with, “Remembrance of his wealth, care for his sister, claims of kindred, love of money, love of glory, the various pleasures of the table and the other relaxations of life, and at last the difficulty of virtue and the labor of it.”
Anthony remained adamant that he would do anything to overcome his demons. He took even more drastic steps, moving to the desert and locking himself inside a small chamber on top of a mountain in complete solitude. Here, he left behind all worldly cares to do battle with his temptations. Athanasius says that those temptations, even after 20 years in the desert, haunted Anthony. He never gave in, though. He never retreated to his old life. For him, the only direction was forward.
My experience is different. It feels far more akin to stubbornly spinning the wheels of a car in a mud pit. I routinely doubt and give in to my worst instincts.
So what did Anthony figure out that we can imitate?
He followed through
When I read about his life, it seems to me that he had a gift of determination to action. He envisioned the kind of man he wanted to become and immediately set himself upon that vision with no further arguments, doubts, or equivocation. He never made excuses and never dismissed any of the steps on the journey as too difficult. He did what needed to be done, and if what he did wasn’t enough, he did more, or he changed tact, or he re-thought his plan.
Most of us, I suspect, desire to leave our flaws behind but aren’t willing to take the necessary action to do so. Anthony is a model of follow-through.
He imitated the good
He also spent time searching out goodness so he could imitate it. He didn’t act without a plan in mind. He attended Mass, learned from people he admired, and imitated other holy people. He once said to pilgrims who’d come to see him in the desert, “If you think me wise, become what I am, for we ought to imitate the good. Had I gone to you, I should have imitated you, but, since you have come to me, become what I am, for I am a Christian.”
He never gave up
In the end, his big secret was the simple refusal to ever give up. There were times he looked half-dead with spiritual struggle or penances. His friends worried about him, but he always persevered and emerged stronger than ever. Even though he became famous as a holy desert hermit, he never ceased being tempted by his flaws and was never able to escape them entirely. For him — just as for you and me — I’m sure this was wearying.
The amazing thing about Anthony is that, technically, he never made it. To the bitter end, he battled his demons. There’s a lesson in there for us. Not that spiritual progress is hopeless, but that we can always make further progress. There’s something better waiting right around the corner if we’re courageous enough to seize it. Our demons are always there — we’re flawed human beings who will never be perfect — but every day we can challenge ourselves.
Anthony died when he was one 105 years old. When he looked back on his long life, I wonder if he could appreciate just how far he’d traveled.