17 January 2009

'Patron saint' of latecomers at Mass?

Temptation of St Anthony (detail), Annibale Carracci (1597-98)

Some good people who go to Mass every day are inveterate latecomers. They shouldn’t lose heart, as the Church honours their ‘patron saint’ today, St Anthony the Abbot, or St Anthony of Egypt (251-256). The Second Reading in the Office of Readings for his feast day is from the biography written by St Athanasius, who knew him. It contains these words: Entering the church just as the Gospel was being read, he heard the Lord’s words to the rich man: If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor - you will have riches in heaven. Then come and follow me.

So that particular day, whether it was a Sunday or weekday I don’t know, the 20-year-old orphaned Anthony was late for Mass!

He took the words of the gospel literally and for the next 85 years was to serve the Lord in quite an extraordinary way as a hermit, drawing others without intending it to follow him. While he didn’t start monasticism or the eremitical life in the Church his life had a huge impact on the subsequent development of both.

The reading concludes with these words: Seeing the kind of life he lived, the villagers and all the good men he knew called him the friend of God, and they loved him as both son and brother.

It’s a cliché to say of a holy man that he was ‘lie a brother’, ‘like a father’. But there must have been some special quality in the young Anthony that led people to love him as a son.

You can access the full reading here on the website of Dr Marcellino D’Ambrosio.

I must confess that I hate being (s)mothered. It doesn’t happen so often now, as I’m getting on, but it can be a kind of purgatory at times when persons of good will try to impose their choices on you when you may have different ideas yourself. St Anthony was an ascetic and maybe it’s not right to be speaking of buffets on his feast day. But one of the delights of a buffet is that you can choose. If someone else puts food on your plate because she – it’s usually ‘she’! –thinks you’ll like it, your ability to choose is somewhat hampered (another food-connected word! I’ve been a bit under the weather the last few days and not eating as much as usual). I remember years ago, when I was still new here in the Philippines, being at a celebration and saw a wife choosing everything for her husband to eat. I turned to my Columban priest-companion and said, ‘There’s something to be said for celibacy!’ However, I’m sure that on the wife’s part it was an act of love and accepted as such by her husband.

Christ healing the blind, El Greco, 1570s

On a more serious level, I once heard a Columban working in Japan telling how a blind parishioner of his shared in a group that one of his favourite gospel passages was that of the healing of Bartimaeus, the blind man, in St Mark 10:46-52. And they came to Jericho; and as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great multitude, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside. And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent; but he cried out all the more, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" And Jesus stopped and said, "Call him." And they called the blind man, saying to him, "Take heart; rise, he is calling you." And throwing off his mantle he sprang up and came to Jesus. And Jesus said to him, "What do you want me to do for you?" And the blind man said to him, "Master, let me receive my sight." And Jesus said to him, "Go your way; your faith has made you well." And immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way.

What touched the blind Japanese man was the fact that Jesus didn’t presume to know what Bartimaeus wanted but asked him ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ I know that, especially when I was younger, I tended to think that I knew what others ‘needed’.

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