Monday, July 28, 2008

The Story of St. Antony.


To understand the story of St. Antony you must picture yourselves in the beautiful, sunny land of Portugal. Oranges and purple grapes and all kinds of lovely fruits ripen in the old gardens. Galleys full of rich merchandise come sailing across the blue, blue sea and touch at the port of Lisbon. All along the banks of the River Tagus are the big houses of the nobility. It is in one of these houses that there lives a boy called Fernando.

Fernando is one of those boys who will always have a good time. He is very clever and quick, handsome, and full of life. He gets on wonderfully well at school, and he has a fine time in the holidays, for his people lead a gay life—feasts, sports, the chase, grand parties of every sort. Fernando has the chance of seeing a good deal of life, for he is the kind of boy the grown-ups are always ready to take out. He gets a lot of admiration, and he enjoys everything to the full.

But, do you know, when he is alone there is a certain idea that often comes to him, and he sits on his window-sill and gazes away across the purple hills, and thinks and thinks and thinks. The idea is this: that, after all, this pleasure and gaiety is not worth much; it's all rather selfish and greedy and stupid. There must be something more worth while in life. For one thing, there's God. How little we know of God! And yet there is a lot to be learnt and understood about Him if only there was time and quiet and books, and not all this bustle of parties and grand people. Surely God wants men to get to know Him, and not be so busy pleasing themselves that they quite forget all about Him. Then, again, how rotten it would be to die and feel you had done nothing in life but please yourself! After all, there's no end of things to be done to make the world a better, holier, wiser place. Fancy going out of the world knowing you were leaving it no better than when you came—or perhaps a little worse. Surely a man must feel rather nervous about dying, and about the Judgment Day, when he knows he hasn't ever done anything useful or kind. Why should God give such men the reward of heaven? Rewards are for people who have worked hard; and so is rest. And then, again, when God came to earth and lived among men, He didn't just spend His time seeking for pleasures; in fact, He seemed never to think of Himself at all, but always of other people. That thought held the boy Fernando more than all the others—the thought of Christ, Who could have made Himself a King if He had liked, spending His days for others, preaching[86] and doing miracles, and the whole long night out under the stars, under the whispering olive-trees talking to God.

These thoughts used to come to Fernando when he was quite a little chap, and he had a kind of idea that when he was a man he would give himself to God. But when he began to grow up a bit, and got about thirteen or fourteen, he found that if he didn't look out he would get so keen on the life of pleasure that he would become like the gay young men about him, and quite forget all about God. He began to see that if he meant to stick to his good ideas he must do something about it before it was too late. So, after a very hard struggle, he promised God the whole of himself, with all his love and all the keen, strong desire within him to do great things. He knew it would mean giving up all the pleasures that filled his life, and all the riches and glory that would some day be his. But somehow nothing mattered so long as he obeyed this sense that God was calling.

Of course, his people told him he was a young fool, and did all they could to stop him; but he stuck to his idea, and at the age of fifteen he was admitted to a monastery of Canons, just outside the city, and exchanged his rich clothes for the white habit.

It was a beautiful monastery, full of holy men and hundreds of wonderful books, and in the quiet and peace young Fernando was very happy. He felt he had really got near to God. He worked so hard at his studies that by the time he had become a young man he was admired by all the Canons, who thought him very clever and gifted, and told each other that some day he would be a famous scholar and do great things. Fernando himself felt that God had given him the gift of preaching; and that if he went out and preached he would be able to attract great crowds to listen, and win souls for God; so he worked and worked to learn all he could, so as to be ready to stand up and defend the Christian Faith against heretics.[87]

Fernando had gone to another great monastery at Coimbra, and had been there eight years, when something happened which was the beginning of a great change in his life—the beginning of a great adventure.

One day five dusty wayfarers tramped into the town and stopped at the little house of the Franciscans, not far from the monastery of the White Canons. The five strangers were really five heroes, for they were five of St. Francis's Friars, bound on a quest so thrilling and so dangerous that they felt quite sure they would never come back. They were going to Morocco, in Africa, to preach to the heathen, and with shining eyes they spoke of dying there, for the love of Christ, and winning the martyr's crown! Full of joy they went on their way; but without knowing it they had set on fire the heart of the young Canon, Fernando. In the quiet of his peaceful monastery he could think of nothing but Africa, the heathen, the chance of sharing Christ's suffering, and dying for His sake. It was really the Holy Spirit Who was stirring up those thoughts in Fernando's heart.

Well, some months later news came that the five brave Friars had been put to a most horrible death by the Saracens. They were first scourged till the whiplashes had almost cut their bodies to pieces. Boiling oil and vinegar was then poured over them, and they were rolled on the ground, over fragments of broken glass and pottery. They were then promised their lives if they would give up Christ; but as, of course, they wouldn't, they were beheaded. These were the first martyrs of St. Francis's Order.

Can you imagine what Fernando felt when one day a solemn procession stopped outside the church of his own monastery, and the coffins containing the bodies of the martyrs were laid within it for a while on their way to Spain?

Fernando now felt more sure than ever that God was calling him to be a poor Friar, and to set out barefoot[88] for some hot, dusty land away beyond the seas, where cruel hands would torture him to death. Once again he offered himself to God, but this time it took an even harder struggle than it had before, for he loved his quiet life of prayer and study in the beautiful monastery even more than he had loved the gay life of his boyhood. Still, he did not give in to himself.

Next time the poor Friars came, in their old, patched habits, to beg at the rich monastery, can you imagine their surprise when one of the most learned and famous young Canons came out to them, in his stately white habit, his beautiful face lighted up with a great resolve, and asked them if they would give him a brown habit, and make him a Friar, and send him to the Saracen country to win a martyr's crown?

Of course, they were delighted, and promised to bring him a habit the very next day.

Fernando had a hard job to persuade the Canons to let him go. But at last they did; and once more he turned his back on a happy home and set out on an unknown adventure. As he left the monastery, one of the Canons, a great friend of his, called after him: "Go—go! You will doubtless become a Saint!" And Fernando called back to him: "When you hear that I am a Saint give glory to God!" for he knew very well that it is only God Who can make a man into a Saint, and that the man's own efforts can never do it.

It must have been a great change for Fernando to find himself in the poor little huts belonging to the Friars, and obliged to go barefoot, dressed in a rough habit and cord, with only scraps of food to eat, begged from the houses of the rich. These Friars were only poor, ignorant men—very holy, but with no learning or refinement. They did not know Fernando was a very clever man, a scholar. Of course, he did not tell them, but humbly took his place as the newest and least important of the brothers, never letting them see[89] that he missed the wonderful library, or the beautiful music of the monastery, or the quiet cell where he had been able to pray and work in peace. So as to start life quite fresh, he even gave up his noble name, Fernando, and took the name of "Antony." So now we will begin to call him St. Antony.
S. FRANCIS RECEIVES THE MARKS OF THE PASSION. S. FRANCIS RECEIVES THE MARKS OF THE PASSION.
See page 81.

Of course, the one thing he kept thinking about was the quest of the martyr's crown, and at last he got his Superiors to send him, with one companion, to the Saracen country. But now came the greatest disappointment of his life, for no sooner had he got there than he fell ill. All the winter he lay between life and death, with a terrible fever, so ill that he could do nothing. He knew that he was now so weak that he would never be able to go and preach to the Saracens and be martyred. He would have to go home again, a failure. This was much harder to him than any danger or suffering, and the way he bore it, cheerfully and patiently for the love of Christ, made him much more pleasing to God than anything else. For God loves humble people, who are willing to do His Will, instead of choosing for themselves.

Seeing that God wanted his life rather than his death, St. Antony decided to go back to his own country and become as strong and well as possible. So he set sail. But when God sees that a man has altogether given up his own will, He takes full control of his journey through life, and makes things happen to show the man what to do. In this case God made St. Antony's ship get driven ashore on the island of Sicily. Here there happened to be a small house belonging to the Franciscans. It was while St. Antony was resting there that he heard that there was going to be a great chapter (or general meeting) of the Friars, at Assisi, and that St. Francis would be there; so he asked leave to go, and then set forth. This was to be the beginning of a new adventure.

When he got to Assisi he found two thousand Friars[90] collected there for the chapter. The country people were providing all their food free.

You can imagine what St. Antony felt when he saw St. Francis! But when St. Francis called for volunteers to go on a dangerous mission to the fierce Germans, it must have cost him an awful lot to keep quiet. But he had learnt his lesson—God did not want of him a glorious death, only a patient life.

When the chapter came to an end all the Friars dispersed, some going gladly off on their dangerous quests, others collecting in little bands under their "ministers," as the head ones were called, and starting to tramp back to their friaries.

But St. Antony stood all alone. He had no brave quest to follow; no minister looked for him to go home with a party of cheerful Friars; no one cared what became of the young Portuguese stranger.

So St. Antony asked one of the ministers to take him and "form him in the practice of religious discipline." The minister little knew the wonderful gifts of this pale young stranger, with the beautiful, sad face, and sent him to a humble friary on the top of a steep, rocky mountain. There were only a few simple Friars there. One of them had hewed out a little cave in the rock. This he gave to St. Antony, who made it his cell. There he spent most of his day in prayer. But one job he specially made his own. What do you think it was? Why, washing up the plates and greasy dishes.

He didn't tell the Friars anything about himself, and of course they never guessed that their new brother, who always chose the meanest jobs, was a nobleman's son and a famous scholar of one of the greatest monasteries in Portugal.

For a whole year St. Antony lived like this. Do you think he wished himself back in the beautiful monastery in Portugal, with his books and his clever, interesting friends? No; for he loved what[91] was God's Will for him above all things. People should not pine for the past, nor be impatient for the future; they should live heart and soul in the present, because the present is always what has just been provided by God, and so it is the best possible thing.

But God meant His faithful servant to be made known, and I will tell you, now, the wonderful way in which He made it happen.

In the town, not far from St. Antony's little friary, there was one day a meeting of Franciscan and Dominican Friars for an important ceremony. After the service the Superior asked the Dominicans, who were clever men and good preachers, to preach a sermon. But they all said they were not prepared; and so did the Franciscans. So the Superior turned to St. Antony, who had come as a companion of his Minister, and ordered him to preach. St. Antony tried to get out of it, but, finding he must obey, he walked slowly up into the pulpit.

The Friars did not expect much of a sermon. This was only poor Brother Antony, whose chief job was washing dishes.

St. Antony, ready to do his best for God, did not think of himself a bit. He just turned over in his mind what would be the best thing to preach on so as to help his brothers and bring honour and glory to his God. By the time he was in the pulpit the Holy Spirit had put a text into his mind. He gave it out in his clear, ringing voice: "For us Christ became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross." Then he began to preach.

The Friars sat up and stared. The young, unknown Friar was pouring forth a wonderful flood of eloquence, full of the deepest thought, and showing such learning as none of them possessed. Only a scholar could preach like that; and only a scholar who was full of the fire of the Holy Ghost could move the hearts of his hearers as this man did![92]

The Friars and their Superiors sat spellbound. They quite forgot the preacher, and were carried away by his words into a greater love of God. When at last he ceased, and walked quietly down from the pulpit, his eyes on the ground, deep humility in his heart, his hearers turned to each other in wonder and delight, and all said they had never heard such a preacher in their lives.

Of course, the Superiors hurried off and told St. Francis all about it, and you can imagine how delighted St. Francis was to hear he had such a wonderful man among his Friars. It ended in St. Francis sending St. Antony to do what many years ago he had longed to do—that is, preach to the heretics who were teaching wrong things about the Christian Faith.

Still as humble as ever, St. Antony set out to tramp along the roads to the places at which he was to preach. Through Italy he went, and then France, and then Spain, and back to Italy, and on these journeys the most wonderful things happened. Not only did God give him the power of preaching such marvellous sermons that the people crowded in thousands to hear him, but He gave him the power to do miracles, like He once gave to His Apostles. As to the heretics, they simply couldn't stand up against St. Antony, and thousands of them either had to stop their false teaching and keep quiet, or else were converted and came over to St. Antony's side. Because of this he got the name, "Hammer of Heretics."

But it wasn't only to the heretics he preached. The ordinary people used to come in such crowds that there simply wasn't room in the churches for them, and St. Antony had to preach out in the fields and plains. Rich and poor used to come, clergy and ignorant peasants. The shopkeepers used to shut up their shops. The people were so much moved by his sermons that enemies forgave each other, men paid their debts, or creditors forgave their debtors; wicked[93] people gave up their sinful life, and started trying to do their best to become pleasing to God.

One day a band of twelve brigands who lived in the forest and robbed passers-by heard about the famous preacher. So they disguised themselves, and went to see if what was said of him was true. When he began to preach he completely won their hearts, and they repented of their sinful life. After the sermon they spoke to St. Antony, and confessed what wicked men they had been. He told them they must never go back to their robber life, and he said that those who gave it up would go some day to heaven, but that if any went back to it they would have miserable ends. And, sure enough, some who went back soon died horrible deaths. St. Antony told them to try and do something to make up for having been so wicked. One of them, he said, was to go twelve times in pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Peter and St. Paul at Rome. Years and years after, when this robber was an old, old man, he met a Friar on the road, and he told him how when he was young he had heard St. Antony preach, and how he had told him to go to Rome twelve times. "And now I am on my way back from Rome for the twelfth time," he said. That shows you what power St. Antony had.

There's no time now to tell you of all the miracles he did; but they were so wonderful that he came to be called the "Wonder-worker," and it showed everyone that God was with him.

And do you think all this honour and glory, and big crowds running after him, and great men praising him, made St. Antony proud or even the least bit pleased with himself? No; he stayed just as humble and retiring as he was in the days when he used to wash dishes in the mountain friary.

But St. Antony's hard life was beginning to tell on his health. For a long time he had secretly suffered from a very painful disease. It was now about nine[94] years since the day he preached his first sermon and was sent forth by St. Francis on his great mission. As the summer drew on St. Antony ceased to preach, so as not to hinder the people's work in the vineyards. Also, he knew the end of his life was near. He longed for a little peace and solitude and silence; he longed to be alone with God to prepare for his great journey into the next world.

There was a nobleman called Count Tiso, who had a beautiful estate not far from Padua, a city St. Antony loved very much. Here St. Antony went for a time of rest. There was no rocky hill-side to make a cave which he might use as his cell, so he got Count Tiso to make him a cell in the great branches of a walnut-tree. These branches spread out not far above the ground, and between them Count Tiso wove reeds and willow twigs, and made a lovely little house for St. Antony. The thick, leafy branches above sheltered him from the hot sun; a few rough steps led up to it; and here St. Antony could spend his days in complete solitude.

But one evening when he had come down to have his evening meal with his companions, in the little friary near by, he was taken very ill, and his pain was so great that he could no longer sit upright.

He knew he was soon to die, and he longed to die at his beloved city, Padua. He was really much too ill to be moved, but when his companions saw how much he wanted this, they fetched a rough ox-cart and laid St. Antony in it.

I told you how St. Antony had longed to share Christ's sufferings and die a martyr's death—well, now was his chance. He was in such frightful pain that any tiny movement hurt him, and now he had to go mile after mile in a rough cart with no springs, jolting over the stony roads, the broiling Italian sun beating down upon him, the thick white dust choking his parched throat, the flies tormenting him. You[95] can't imagine the agony he must have suffered. And yet he never grumbled—he was glad of this chance of suffering; he felt he was really taking up his cross and following his beloved Master along the painful way to Calvary.

When the cart had nearly reached Padua, a Friar who had been sent to inquire after St. Antony met the little procession. He saw at once that St. Antony would not live to reach the city, so he made the Friars lift him from the cart and carry him to a little house of the Friars near by. It had been St. Antony's last great wish to die at Padua; but even this he gave up patiently and gladly and without a murmur.

In the little cell he lay, his pain getting worse and worse, and his weakness greater and greater. The Friars gave him the last rites of religion. "Then, raising his eyes," the old book says, "he looked fixedly on high. As he continued to gaze steadfastly towards heaven, the Friars asked him what he saw. He answered: 'I see my Lord.'"

Not long after, like one falling quietly asleep, he breathed out his last breath. "His loving, holy soul quitted the body, and, conducted by the good Jesus, entered into the joy of his Lord."

The little cell where St. Antony died still stands, and people can go in and look on the very walls his eyes looked on, the very floor on which his body lay. It is such a holy spot that a church has been built over it, and the little square cell stands inside the church.

That is the story of one of the holiest and humblest men who ever lived.

1 comment:

Albert said...

Amazing! What strong men of god we had at that time! where have they gone now?