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My Brother is My Life

In a 2007 Commencement Address at St Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary, Fr Thomas Hopko said this:

I urge you, and, if I could, I would command you, to read St. Anthony’s thirty-eight sayings in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Everything we need to know in order to live is there for us in its simplest and clearest form.

As we commemorate St Anthony this Sunday, I thought it worthwhile to look at just one of these sayings. All 38 sayings can easily be found online, however, and I encourage you to read them all periodically.

How often do we think of our brothers and sisters as if our survival depended upon them - “our life and our death is with our neighbor”? We are much more likely to think of them as, at best, companions or fellow travelers, but more commonly as obligations and duties to which we must attend. Perhaps a few of us have been in situations such as warfare where your life truly depends upon the man on your right or left to “have your back”. But most of us, particularly today, live our lives as individuals and see our relationships with others as a sort of social contract entered into to promote social well-being. In this context, St Anthony's saying is jarring in its simplicity and in the power it has to shake us from the lie of individualism with its delusion of independence.

Not one of us is our own and belongs entirely to himself. God has created intentionally, not to be individuals, but to be persons in communion. We are the product of the union of man and woman. We grow and mature in the company of others. And ultimately the goal and meaning of our existence is found in that greatest of all social realities, the Church.

While it might seem ironic, it is not insignificant that the saying under consideration – “our life and death is with our neighbor” – comes from a man who spent years of his life as a hermit, a man who lived in seclusion, alone with God. And yet as we see in the Life of St Anthony, written by St Athanasius, this solitude - being alone with God - was not intended to create an individual saint who had a solitary experience of God all to himself and for himself. For after the years of solitude, intended for his purification and salvation, Anthony the hermit emerged from his cell to be the physician of the world, filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit for the healing of thousands. And thus did St Anthony know better than millions who have spent their life in society that we are not private individuals, islands unto ourselves, but that our lives are knit together inextricably, and that we tear at this fabric, teasing out our own individual threads, to our destruction.

And so, brothers and sisters, our life and death is with one another. The Church is not an accident nor is it a religious club, an optional “add-on” if we happen to prefer community. As the old saying goes, “A Christian alone is no Christian.” St Anthony and all the hermits have known this better than millions who have lived in the world but as individuals. We are created by God to be persons in communion, and we will not be saved otherwise. An individual cannot be saved. Only a person can be saved.

Let us live together, then, following the counsel of St Paul:

With love in Christ, Fr John

“Give me a word!”

From the sayings of St Anthony ~

Abba Anthony said to Abba Poemen, "This is the great work of man: always to take the blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath.”

He also said, "Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven." He even added, "Without temptations no-one can be saved."

Abba Pambo asked Abba Anthony, "What ought I to do?" and the old man said to him, "Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach."

Abba Anthony said, "I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, ‘What can get through from such snares?’ Then I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Humility.’"

He also said, "Some have afflicted their bodies by asceticism, but they lack discernment, and so they are far from God.”

A brother said to Abba Anthony, "Pray for me." The old man said to him, “I will have no mercy upon you, nor will God have any, if you yourself do not make an effort and if you do not pray to God.”


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