Readings for the Memorial of Saint Anthony, Abbot

The story of David and Goliath is a classic Bible story — one that most anyone off the street would be familiar with.

But at a deep, allegorical level, the David and Goliath story illustrates the spiritual combat we are each called to engage in on a daily basis. Goliath embodies all the terrible arrogance and pride of Satan, the father of lies. The giant Philistine mocks God to David’s face and seems to get away with it at first. He is big, mean, and impossibly strong.

In contrast, David is absolutely tiny. He stands up to Goliath with what looks like pitiful weakness. He even refuses to wear the armor that Saul tries to give him, choosing instead to walk right up to Goliath with just a staff, a slingshot, and a few stones in hand. Did anyone honestly think David had a snowball’s chance? I seriously doubt it.

And yet David confidently confronts the evil that was before him — not because he trusted in his own ability to win, but because he knew that God was with him: “The LORD, who delivered me from the claws of the lion and the bear, will also keep me safe from the clutches of this Philistine.”

This heroic confidence in the Lord reminds me of an amazing episode from the life of St. Anthony of Egypt, the saint the Church celebrates today. St. Anthony is the most famous of the Desert Fathers and is commonly referred to as the “Father of All Monks.” After hearing Christ’s call to go sell all that he had and give it the poor, Anthony literally abandoned all his wealth and comforts to go live a life of extreme asceticism in the desert.

Similar to David, St. Anthony of Egypt entered into a great spiritual combat — only his trial was not allegorical. His was a direct and open attack by the Devil. While in his desert solitude, Anthony was frequently physically and mentally tormented by demons. On one occasion, the devils physically beat him up so badly that he was presumed dead by his companions. As they carried the saint’s lifeless body to safety, he miraculously revived. He immediately demanded that he be brought back to the same cave where all the demons first attacked him!

When he returned, the demons resumed their attach with horns, teeth, claws and insults — until finally, there appeared a blinding light. The demons ran off, terrified by the light. Pure light always exposes and blinds evil. Evil hates the light of God and cannot endure it.

After the devils ran off, Anthony famously asked the Lord — “Where were you, Lord? Why did you not help me in the beginning?” This is a fair question we might all find ourselves asking at times: Why does evil seem to have the upper-hand in our culture today? Why do hundreds of thousands of protestors need to go to Washington this Friday to defend the rights of the unborn — a right which ought to be so obvious? Why is it when we proclaim the absolute truth of the Gospel are we accused of being bigoted, superstitious, out-of-touch — archaic?

Let us listen to the Lord’s response to Anthony’s question: “I was here Anthony, but I wanted to watch your struggle. And now, since you persevered and were not defeated, I will be your helper forever.”

Wow. These words are hard, but encouraging for us: If we struggle, it doesn’t mean we are too weak or not good enough. To quote the kids these days, the struggle is real, but we can take heart because it is a fruitful struggle. By God’s grace, we have the opportunity struggle well and persevere.

Now, not all of us will be openly attacked by demons, but each one of us here this morning has a “Goliath” in our lives that taunts us, discourages us, and tries to force us to give up — to abandon the quest for virtue and holiness. We each have some daily struggle, some fault, some nagging thorn in our side that tempts us, accuses us, tries to derail us from conforming our lives to Christ’s love…

But as CS Lewis reminds us, “You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it not by lying down.” We’re meant to struggle against evil, in the world and in our own hearts. It was never supposed to be easy! When we fail, we turn to the Lord for mercy — and we get right back to the struggle. If St. Anthony of Egypt can teach us anything, it’s this: whenever heroic virtue is attempted, Satan is close at hand to confront and bully us — but this is never cause for alarm! Because Christ is even closer to us, and while He won’t take away our crosses or our struggles — He will give us strength to persevere. His blinding and beautiful light will ultimately dispel the darkness. He will deliver us and uphold us… if we hold fast to Him and struggle well.