As we commemorated St Anthony this past week I thought it worthwhile to look at one of his sayings:
Our life and our death is with our neighbor.
If we gain our brother, we have gained God,
but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.
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 us 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, 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 billions 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 all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering,
bearing with one another in love,
endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
There is one body and one Spirit,
just as you were called in one hope of your calling;
one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all,
who is above all, and through all, and in you all.
With love in Christ,