From Anthony in the Desert to Elizabeth on Wall Street: Saints Lead the Church

The lives of St. Anthony of Egypt and Mother Seton show us that even when saints work in obscurity, God will shine their light across space and time, to inspire the faithful on their journey to holiness.

In each age, saints tell the true story of the Church. Will we join them?

Anthony Abbot, Anthony the Great, Anthony of the Desert, Anthony of Egypt: Whatever you call him, his legacy is enormous. Born in Egypt nearly two centuries after the resurrection, he became the Father of Western Monasticism, and established a way of holy living for monks, abbots, contemplatives and saints of all kinds. 

Elizabeth Ann Bayley, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Mother Seton — her legacy is big too: born in New York, nearly two millennia after the resurrection, she inspired the Catholic parochial school system in America, creating an educational template for Catholic teachers to come. 

These two saints are as different as an ancient-world North African hermit and an early American Wall Street lady can be, and yet, in Christ, they share so much in common.

Anthony was from a moderately wealthy background, orphaned as a young man and forced to put all of his trust in God as he faced life alone as the caretaker of his sister. 

Elizabeth was from a moderately wealthy background, widowed as a young woman and forced to put all her trust in God as she cared for her five children.

It is this heroic trust in God despite the tragedies of their lives that unites them in spirit and makes them eternally relevant. 

Importantly, Anthony and Elizabeth show how much the Church needs not just saints, but popular saints.

It didn’t take long for the Church to understand that the lives of committed Christian men and women uniquely capture the imagination of the faithful. After all, the Gospel stories about Jesus in the New Testament are immediately followed by stories of the early saints in the Acts of the Apostles. 

Popular saints continued to lead the Church in the centuries afterward. An early example might be when St. Anthony of Egypt (251-356) helped the Bishop of Alexandria in his fight against the heresy of Arius (256–336).

Arius claimed that Jesus was not co-equal with God the Father and his false doctrine spread like wildfire through the early Church. The works of St. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, refuted Arius — but his most effective blow against the heresy came, not from these books, but from a biography. Athanasius’s book The Life of St. Anthony was the bestseller of early Christian literature, “going viral” as it was translated into several languages, spreading far and wide.

It’s not hard to see why. The story reads like a superhero saga, with Anthony fighting epic battles with Satan and gaining remarkable victories. In his Confessions, St. Augustine describes how two officials he knew read the book and were moved immediately to become Christians. 

This is exactly the kind of reaction Athanasius hoped for the book. “I feel that, once you have heard the story, you will not merely admire the man but will wish to emulate his commitment as well,” he writes in an early chapter.

People were captivated by the story of God calling St. Anthony in the middle of his ordinary circumstances.

The story begins when Anthony was orphaned as a young man and was left in charge of his sister. 

“Now it was not six months after the death of his parents, and going according to custom into the Lord’s House,” Athanasius recounts, “he communed with himself and reflected as he walked about how the Apostles left all and followed the savior.”

As he was thinking these things, he entered the Church and heard the Gospel story of the Rich Young Man.

In the story, Jesus tells his would-be follower, “If you would be perfect, go and sell what you have and give to the poor; and come, follow me and you shall have treasure in heaven.” 

Anthony experienced the words as a personal invitation from God, and responded by distributing his property, finding a new caretaker for his sister, and going out into the desert to live in a cave and battle with the devil through fasting and prayer.

Anthony’s life  shows how attractive fidelity to Christ is.

As Anthony lived alone in the desert, a strange thing began to happen.

First, pilgrims began to visit him and bring him their sufferings. “Anthony healed not by commanding, but by prayer and speaking the name of Christ,” wrote Athanasius, “so that it was clear to all that it was not he himself who worked, but the Lord who showed mercy by his means and healed the sufferers.”

Anthony tried his best to avoid people in the desert, “rejoicing in the contemplation of divine things, but grieving when troubled by much people.” But soon, other hermits began to gather with him and, almost unwittingly, he became an abbot.

“By frequent conversation he increased the eagerness of those already monks, stirred up in most of the rest the love of the discipline,” writes Athanasius, “and speedily by the attraction of his words cells multiplied, and he directed them all as a father.”

In a time before mass communication, people came from far away to visit Anthony, and Athanasius thinks he knows why. “For from whence into Spain and into Gaul, how into Rome and Africa, was the man heard of who dwelt hidden in a mountain, unless it was God who makes his own known everywhere?”

Athanasius says of saints, “Even if they work secretly, even if they wish to remain in obscurity, yet the Lord shows them as lamps to lighten all, that those who hear may thus know that the precepts of God are able to make men prosper and thus be zealous in the path of virtue.”

The news even reached Elizabeth Ann Seton in 1800s America.

These images of befriending God, fighting the devil, and blessing others, were so powerful they reached even across space and time to Elizabeth Ann Seton. She would have exactly the reaction that so many Christians had to the early heroes of the faith. 

“It appears to me,” wrote Elizabeth, “that a cave or a desert would best satisfy my natural desire. But God has given me a great deal to do.” Her own life mirrored that of  Anthony’s. Sisters gathered around her as well as those seeking healing or learning. 

If Bishop Athanasius saw the importance of Anthony in his time, so too did Cardinal Francis Spellman of  Elizabeth for America. 

“Americans, and American Catholics in particular, should be proud of this jewel at the very center of their crown,” he said. “She was a down-to-earth woman who breathed American air, loved American town and countryside, enjoyed American pastimes, followed American social conventions.”

Her life shaped the course of the Church in America long before Cardinal Spellman and his brother bishops did.

“And it is especially to be noted that heroic sanctity like the venerable Mother Seton’s did not have to wait until Catholicism had made its mark on the United States in impressive numbers of communicants and flourishing institutions,” he said. “Such holiness appeared in the days of the American Church’s infancy, even as such holiness was a mark of Christ’s Church in the days immediately following his ascension into heaven.”

St. Anthony of Egypt’s life inspired many to say “I can do that, too.”

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s life tells us the same thing. No matter our life circumstances or the time that we live in, we too can surrender ourselves to God. We too can be saints. 

TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.

Image: CC BY-SA 4.0

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