Retreat to Recharge!
Whenever my thoughts turn to Father Paul Crane, S.J., monks and hermits spring to mind. My esteemed predecessor laid great store in the power of their prayers and witness. In the years before his death he mentioned them more and more. Typically, after a long night of swapping views on the downward spiral of Church and State and our diminishing options,he would often conclude by noting matter-of-factly, that, 'In the end, when there is nothing left for it, good men withdraw from the world, make their way to hills and deserts, and place all their trust in God.'
It was not that he had lost hope. Never! To his last breath, like his equally pugnacious and inspirational contemporary Vincent Miceli, S.J. (about whom more next month), Father stood firm in faith, prayer, and good works before the gathering storm. At the same time, he refused to bury his head and pretend things were other than they were. This was due to his acute understanding of the deeper, darker forces at play.
Our veteran readers know how thoroughly versed he was in the multiple strategies being enacted against the Church from myriad platforms: not least his knowledge of Communist history, policy and praxis, to include its active infiltration of the Church and pernicious influence, by way of Liberation Theology, on his beloved Jesuits. So he never doubted the inexorability of institutionalised atheism and Modernism in the West: the devilish twin trajectories within and without, and the hellish denouement that would finally test the absolute limits of our faith, perseverance, and courage.
If Father's hermitic ruminations captured the ominous tenor of his profound understanding back then, how they resonate today! Since his death in 1997, the godless descent to anarchy and chaos has moved at warp speed.
Spiritually and morally, the West has sunk like a stone; plumbing unprecedented depths of dysfunction. Worse still, significant elements of a degenerate and fatuous 'pop-culture' are openly promoted/facilitated by our own pontiff and his placemen. Not only does the Vatican now accommodate self-professed Marxists who flaunt their collaboration with our worst enemies, it has recently released in short order:
In this issue we consider the whys and wherefores of some of these recent scandals. Setting the plain Catholic truth beside them, we easily see the wholesale departure from Catholic teaching, and the inversion of Theological and Cardinal virtues. Meanwhile, priests lament the empty confessionals, as "Who am I to judge?" continues to eviscerate sin, repentance, and restitution, .
Amid this Endtime Insanity, the 17th of January came as both a blessed relief and a further opportunity to reflect on Father Crane's familiar refrain of monastic retreat. Rather than descend to the worldly sewer of current Curial antics and offerings, I paused awhile to ponder the saint of the day, whose hermitic withdrawal providentially prepared him to combat the madness of his own tumultuous epoch. The outset of Lent is an appropriate time for us all to draw inspiration from this life of self-sacrifice that yielded such joyful, robust defence of the Faith.
Saint Anthony passed to his well-earned eternal reward in AD 356. He was 105. For over eighty years he had persevered in prayer and penance, lived out in the isolation of the Egyptian wilderness. According to the Catholic Encyclopaedia, having already occupied one of the tombs near his native village for fifteen years,
at the age of thirty-five, Anthony determined to withdraw from the habitations of men and retire in absolute solitude. He crossed the Nile, and on a mountain near the east bank, then called Pispir, now Der el Memum, he found an old fort into which he shut himself, and lived there for twenty years without seeing the face of man, food being thrown to him over the wall. He was at times visited by pilgrims, whom he refused to see; but gradually a number of would-be disciples established themselves in caves and in huts around the mountain, Thus a colony of ascetics was formed, who begged Anthony to come forth and be their guide in the spiritual life. At length, about the year 305, he yielded to their importunities and emerged from his retreat, and, to the surprise of all, he appeared to be as when he had gone in, not emaciated, but vigorous in body and mind.
For five or six years thereafter, "he devoted himself to the instruction and organisation of the great body of monks that had grown up around him." (In this rudimentary sense, he is known as the Father of Monasticism, anticipating Saint Benedict by a few hundred years.) He then withdrew once again "into the inner desert that lay between the Nile and the Red Sea, near the shore of which he fixed his abode on a mountain where still stands the monastery that bears his name, Der Mar Antonios. Here he spent the last forty-five years of his life, in a seclusion, not so strict as Pispir, for he freely saw those who came to visit him, and he used to cross the desert to Pispir with considerable frequency."
By the perverse standards of the current pontificate, throughout this time Anthony displayed all the attributes of a mean, narrow-minded, dogma-fixated 'fundamentalist.' The idea that orthodox doctrine might not be, always and everywhere, the overriding concern of Holy Mother Church, or in some way peripheral to his own solitary existence, clearly never occurred to him. He was acutely aware of the bloodshed and heresies that threatened Christian faith and life. He prophesied about the guiding hand of the heretics in the coming persecution of the Church, as also the Church victory, and return to its former glory. Indeed, St. Athanasius says that on two occasions Anthony trekked all the way to Alexandria, once after he came forth from the fort at Pispir, to strengthen the Christian martyrs in the persecution of 311, and once at the close of his life (c.350), to preach against the Arians.
If we have thus far been spared the bloody persecutions of Anthony's era, the ecclesial chaos sounds very familiar; approximating our modern Church awash with Modernist heresies and material heretics, not least neo-Arians. Eschewing unmerciful non-judgementalism, God used His severe formation of Anthony to defend the irreformable dogmas of the Faith: extracting the saint from his solitude and pitting him against the liberal deconstructors du jour. Under two headings in his Life of Antony (c.360), his great contemporary and biographer, St. Athanasius, recounts this ardent defense:
How he rejected the schism of Meletius and
Tiring of the "good fight"? Tempted to go along to get along — to downplay doctrine and dismiss dogmatic theologians like the late Fr. John Hardon as tedious nit-pickers, instead of heralds from Heaven? Then simply recall Anthony's uncompromising attitude and combative disposition, and how it shames our current crop of smug and smiley hirelings, happily managing dissolution and decay. "I am so glad this is not the Church Military," writes self-satisfied Archbishop Vincent Nichols, in response to a recent letter pointing out the calamitous state of the local Church, "but a family of God trying to find its way to Jesus...."
Of course, unlike our worldly prelates, St Anthony spent his life combating the world, the flesh and the devil, not making endless concessions to them. His spiritual and physical battles with the demons, and his power over them, were first recorded by St. Athanasius. As with the Curé of Ars, through these frightening encounters God was pleased to grant Anthony the supernatural vision of reality that He withholds from our myopic hierarchy. One episode highlights the formative hand of Providence.
After numerous little demons had nearly beaten him to death, he had to be carried out of his cave. The hermits thought he was dead but he revived and asked to be taken back into the cave. When the demons came back as wild beasts to rip him to shreds, a bright light suddenly flashed and the demons ran away. St. Anthony knew the light must have come from God, and he asked God where He had been when the demons first attacked him. God replied: "I was here but I would see and abide to see thy battle, and because thou hast manly fought and well maintained thy battle, I shall make thy name to be spread through all the world."
Archbishop Nichols and his effete brethren worldwide would be well advised not to expect similar honours! With notable exceptions, "manliness" and "battle"' are simply not in them. They have neither conviction nor drive. That's the thing about St. Anthony, he is everything Catholic prelates and priests used to be admired for being: not just compassionate and wise but brave, pugnacious, and virile. Vincent & Co.? They're just ‘gay’.
Whenever the weight of our relentless contemporary battles becomes a burden, we do well to recall that, through all his manifold sufferings, Anthony radiated the appealing supernatural countenance of all earnest Christian life. As well as appearing strong and healthy despite decades of seclusion and self-denial, "Strangers knew him from among his disciples by the joy on his face." Athanasius informs us that Anthony "was never disturbed, for his soul was at peace; he was never downcast, for his mind was joyous." In the best study of his character, contained in Church of the Fathers, Blessed John Henry Newman elaborates:
His doctrine surely was pure and unimpeachable; and his temper is high and heavenly, without cowardice, without gloom, without formality, without self-complacency. Superstition is abject and crouching, it is full of thoughts of guilt; it distrusts God, and dreads the powers of evil. Anthony at least had nothing of this, being full of confidence, divine peace, cheerfulness, and valorousness, be he (as some men may judge) ever so much an enthusiast.
"Full of enthusiasm he was," notes the Encyclopaedia, "but it did not make him fanatical or morose; his urbanity and gentleness, his moderation and sense stand out in many of the stories related of him."
So much for the wild and spurious caricature Pope Francis continually paints of those who insist with St. Anthony that, for the Church, "orthodoxy is Her main concern" (as declared by Paul VI no less — Jorge's hero!). It could hardly be anything else, since orthodoxy, "right belief," is the foundation and sine qua non for all peace, justice, and concord.
Far from "fanatical," "rigid," "authoritarian," "pessimistic," "closed," "sad," "moralistic quibblers" whose "rigid attitude distances them from the Church," as our cranky pontiff insists, the derided 'Denzinger Catholics' also share St. Anthony's largesse and joy. For they, too, view Catholic dogmas not as chafing bonds but as demarcation lines at once protective and liberating: beyond which precise borders their salvation is imperilled; within which they can work out their salvation free from passing fads, fashions, and (nowadays) papal false dichotomies that separate the doctrinal from the pastoral; justice from mercy; faith from the assent of the intellect.
St. Anthony's life seems beyond the ability and strength of most. Yet he provides us with much food for thought, not least about the inscrutable ways in which Providence ever raises up saints and heroes to lead and inspire amid chaos in Church and State. Certainly, beset by hirelings and faced with a Vatican madhouse that increasingly mirrors the lunacy beyond its walls, we are in desperate need of manly shepherds like St. Anthony and St. Athanasius. While for our personal part, even a pale imitation of hermitic retreat will yield virile fruit. For a good 'interior' Lent — of prayer, meditation, spiritual reading, and fasting (especially from our sins) — will surely see us re-emerge like Anthony: reinvigorated, clear-eyed, ready to renew our "good fight" against the prevailing insanity (— of which delirium more next month).