Learning How to Be “Missional” From Saint Antony
The title of this article may sound quite oxymoronic to some. If you are someone like I used to be, you may find yourself wondering what an ancient Saint, a monastic one at that, would have to teach us about being missional today. Those who pursue the study of missional theology often do not place reading books about the reclusive lives of the monastic saints too highly on the priority list. Missiologists, from my experience, are quite fixated on learning those things that are practical to the mission as they see it—church planting, social justice, evangelism, etc—and the initial thought is that the venerated monastics of Church history probably won’t have much to teach us in this department. There is a common theme in the lives of such saints, that of running away from worldly culture, whereas missiologists are constantly seeking to figure out how to better and more wisely engage the culture.
On the other hand, others who highly favor the longstanding monastic tradition within Christendom may find themselves a bit repelled by my pairing together of Saint Antony’s life with more Evangelical cultural terminology (being “missional”) and with one of the most ambiguous of all the ambiguous words in that particular culture today. Those who fear where I may be going with this will most likely rue the thought of me potentially seeking to define this great Saint’s life by modern, predominantly Evangelical, agendas.
Let me assure you, this is not my intention. In fact, I do not want to define Saint Antony’s life by modern missional sentimentalities and ideals at all. Rather, I want to reverse this. I want to take a step, albeit a succinct one, towards seeking to redefine modern missiology by what we glean from orthodox monasticism, particularly by honing in on a few brief excerpts from the “Life of St. Antony” written by Saint Athanasius. For, I truly believe that Saint Antony’s life has much to teach us in this area. And, given that no one seems to really know how to give an adequate definition for what it means to be “missional” these days anyway—I mean, the missional conversation has been going on for at least a decade now and I have yet to hear a catholic (emphasis on the little “c”) definition of the term that works across the board—why not explore something that is a bit off of the missiological trodden path? I think we would be served well by embracing the picture that Saint Athanasius paints for us of Saint Antony’s life. Dare I even say that we who are more missionally minded might also be wise to seek the prayers of this great Saint in our own endeavors?
Much can be said and has been said of Saint Antony’s life, and I do not wish to recount it here. It would be to your wisdom to look into his life on your own if you are unfamiliar. While his story truly is great and while I wish that I could do more with it, such focused attention on his story is not necessary for our purposes. It is also good for people to know that Saint Antony is recognized as the father of monasticism and one of the greatest of the Desert Fathers. Again, however, such information is not necessary. Simply understanding what Saint Athanasius had to say in terms of summing up the man will do and understanding that Saint Antony diligently pursued Christ as a monastic and occasional hermit in the wilderness is enough to suffice.
The excerpts that I do want to quote, though, come from Saint Athanasius’ biography, towards the very end of the work. Here is one:
“The fact that he [Antony] became famous everywhere and that he found universal admiration and his loss is felt even by people who have never seen him, betokens his virtue and a soul beloved of God. For Antony gained renown not for his writings, nor for worldly wisdom, nor for any art, but solely for his service for God.1”
There is some irony here. How many of us today desperately desire to make an impact on the world all around us? How many of us yearn to see the kingdom come and lives changed by the gospel? How many of us earnestly desire to trigger some sort of evangelical ripple effect in our own little worlds? How many of us are doing our utmost to live intentionally missional lives? Yet, how many of us who try so desperately to live out the ethos of such a conviction end up feeling like things happen to no avail, and that at the end of the day all we are doing is spinning our wheels?
Why is all of this ironic? Because here we are reading about a man who did all that he could to flee from the world, to live a truly eremitic life in prayer, and he couldn’t help but to stir up a chain reaction all around him. He did all that he could to keep away from the people but he couldn’t keep the people away from him. For us wheel spinners, there is wisdom here that needs to be heeded.
What was the attraction of Saint. Antony? Why did so many flock to him and hear of him when all he sought to do was flee from the culture?
Well, surely several of his writings were circulating about, right? Not according to Saint Athanasius.
“For Antony gained renown not for his writings…”
Well, surely he was recognized and celebrated as a popular thinker and speaker, one who could draw the masses with his eloquent thoughts. “No again,” says Saint Athanasius.
“…nor for worldly wisdom…”
Well, perhaps he was able to put on really inspiring and relevant worship services, with the hippest praise bands and most aesthetically pleasing of buildings, in such a way that enabled his ministry to connect with everyone.
Yes, I know, that last one was testing the liberties of the paraphrase, but I still think it falls within the confines of “nor for any art.”
What “won” the masses to Saint Antony’s ministry? What made his ministry known on a “universal” level? Saint Athanasius tells us that it was his “service to God.” Another translation says “piety to God.2” It was the life change that came about through his pursuit of Christ. It was his sanctification. It was the holiness that blossomed out of his virtuous and prayerful striving after the kingdom of God. This and this alone was Saint Antony’s attraction.
In speaking of him, Saint Athanasius also realized that he was speaking of all true monastics. In his narration of this great Saint’s life, he pans out a bit, enveloping others who had given themselves over to the monastic vocation and attributing the same impactful quality to them as well.
“For though they do their work in secret and though they wish to remain obscure, yet the Lord shows them forth as lamps to all men…3”
Elsewhere, he says:
“He not only leads to the Kingdom of Heaven those who serve Him to the end, but even here He makes them, though they hide themselves and strive to live away from the world, known and spoken of everywhere because of their own goodness and because of the help they give to others.4”
Though they try to hide themselves from the world in their pursuit of God, there is something about their lives that the world cannot deny nor stay away from.
Those who so ardently sought to be unknown, God made known.
Those who sought so hard to retreat from the world found that the world came retreating to them.
To those of us who have been rigorously involved in the missional conversation and its practical applications: we try so hard to reach the world, do we not? Yet the world all around continues to evade us more times than not. Again, it is truly ironic, the world flocked to those who sought interaction with the world the least and the world is quite standoffish with us today who want to directly impact it the most.
As I said before, I do not wish to define Saint Antony’s life by modern missional standards and impulses. I hope this is becoming evident enough. Rather, my hope is that he can help us to reframe our thinking in what it means to be “missional” to begin with. After all, Saint Antony did absolutely nothing in what would qualify as any sort missional ministry criteria today. He would fail the standards of all of the missional theology books I have read. Yet, people flocked to him while alive and strangers wept for him when he died. His ministry, according to Saint Athanasius, was “universally” impactful and “admired.”
How many of us are utterly burnt out, exhausted, and in despair because we and our churches are doing our utmost to embody all of the attributes of a missional ethos and the culture around us continues to go unreached and unchanged? Or, if we do happen to reach the people around us (and this can discourage us even more), it is evident enough that oftentimes their hearts are unaffected by the gospel we are seeking to exemplify? We have been able to get them into the doors of our churches but they have yet to open the doors of their hearts to the power of the Holy Spirit and the presence of Christ.
Thus, we have missional methods, missional conferences, missional books, and missional events to try to solve these issues. We renovate our church buildings just so more people will come to them. We create new outreach programs to reach the masses. We update our websites and our music for the same reason. In the midst of all the newness we still find it difficult to reach more people and often things don’t quite pan out as we expected them to. We find out the hard way that the motto, “If you build it, they will come,” isn’t very effective in terms of evangelism. If you read about Saint Antony you will find that he had none of these things going for him and yet people still came from all over just to see him. People came to experience his ministry even though it was in the most inhospitable of places, the desert.
How many people from the world around us, because they hear of our goodness, go out of their way to experience our ministries? How many people see our lives and are convicted by our holiness that they can’t help but come to our churches?
What can Saint Antony teach us about being missional today?
That to be sanctified is to be missional.
That, in pursuing Christ, people will be drawn to the holiness in our own lives.
That it is truly right and necessary to preach the gospel with our mouths but we shouldn’t downplay the iconic power of a life transformed.
That the ascetical life is the missionally powerful one.
The question need not be, “how do we get people into our pews again,” but rather, “how do we get Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit into our lives again?” The question is not, “how do we help change the lives of those around us?” as much as it is, “how are we to be completely transformed, completely sanctified?” We learn from Saint Antony that this, indeed, is one of those themes where in seeking the kingdom of heaven first, all else will be given.
In pursuing Christ and his kingdom with all of his might, the whole world was brought to Saint Antony’s doorstep.
May we learn from Saint. Antony’s life and imitate the movements of Christ in him.
Saint Antony, pray for us.“View
- Athanasius, The Life of Saint Antony. Ramsey: Paulist Press. 97
- Athanasius, The Life of Saint Antony. Ramsey: Paulist Press. 97
- Athanasius, The Life of Saint Antony. Ramsey: Paulist Press. 98