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St. Antony and the New Monasticism

May 31st, 2004 by isaac · 9 Comments

This is something I wrote for our last newsletter. If you would like to recieve the Rutba House newsletter, email us at

At the beginning of the fourth century, the church saw the dawn of a new age. Constantine, the Roman Emperor, subjugated his enemies with a sword in one hand and a shield bearing the cross in the other. The church historian Eusebius wed the vocation of the church with the responsibility of civil order and told a new story of how God exercises sovereignty over the cosmos through Empire. Many church members, seduced by the hope of Christendom, abandoned their unique mission and assimilated into the Roman Empire’s way of life. The imperial church soon betrayed its mission of embodied proclamation of God’s Kingdom for the hope of an earthly kingdom where the Empire’s light would pierce the darkness of barbarism. In this new conception of God’s reign made manifest through the emperor’s lordship, the people of God no longer held kings and princes accountable to the Kingdom of the Son. The mainstream church shed its distinct way of life after the pattern of Jesus for the sake of relevance to the wider culture. What the mainstream didn’t realize was that by conforming to the patterns of the majority, it abandoned its service to the nations. In this compromised church, the world no longer had a visible alternative to its violent existence.

Following Constantine’s ‘conversion,’ a twilight settled over the land. Christians mingled the light of Christ with the darkness of the one who parades as the prince of light, turning their faces from the Son, though resisting whole-hearted complicity with darkness—living between light and dark, etherized by the deadening confusion of competing voices. God did not allow the seduction of the Prince of light to subsume the church. St. Antony of the Desert Fathers spoke God’s “NO!” to the way of Empire. He prophetically embodied an alternative to the Empire’s worldly power and wealth. Antony, having a large inheritance, heard Jesus’ call to the rich young ruler and gave everything he had to the poor. He chose to live in total dependence on God’s promised providential care. In a church wooed by Empire’s opulence, Antony emancipated his imagination and showed the church that it was ‘realistic’ to live apart from an economy sustained by violence. To a compromised church that explained away the commands of Jesus in order to provide a place for the ‘Christian’ use of violence and coercion, Antony exercised ambivalence toward the delusive imagination of worldly power. He went into the desert, the wastelands of the Empire, and established an alternative community. He offered the world a way of life devoted to a Holy-Spirit-infused community that testified to the hope of the Kingdom of God. Antony’s withdrawal from a violent society was not abandonment. Rather, in disciplined community God’s Spirit enabled him to combat the demonic powers that roamed the earth. In his Life of Antony, St. Athanasius showed how Antony faithfully returned to the towns where the Empire exercised dominion and exorcised demons and healed the people. Life-giving change, as Antony demonstrated, isn’t dependent on the Empire’s power brokers.

The North American church needs neo-monastic, prophetic communities informed by the life of Antony. We need Christians—devoted to the way of Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, directed by the will of the Father—to migrate to the deserts of this Empire and participate in the redemptive power of Christ’s resurrection. I am thinking of the deserts of urban ghettos where those on the underside of history live the nightmare of the American dream. We echo Antony’s “NO!” to a way of life sustained by unrighteous mammon when we invite all to join us in the peace of Christ’s Kingdom. Through solidarity with the oppressed, we seek our own salvation—the liberation of our imagination from the dominion of power politics that comes with surrendering the desire to save civilization. When Jesus faced the temptation of seeking ‘effective’ change according to the rules of the world’s game, he said, “Get behind me Satan!” and chose the way of the cross. We must remember that when we abandon the world’s game, we bear witness to the power of cross and resurrection, a gospel that is foolishness to the Greeks. The resurrected Jesus explodes the logic of ‘efficacy’ and ‘realism,’ and calls us to live in the reality of the Kingdom. In place of the ambiguous twilight of “Christian Realism,” we see by the piercing light of “Kingdom Realism.” As the New Monasticism seeks to awaken the North American church from her idolatrous slumber, we need saints to guide us. St. Antony, I think, is a prophet for our time.

UPDATE : 9.20.05
I wrote something with a Mikael Broadway, professor of theology and ethics at Shaw Divinity School, about the New Monasticism conference we at the Rutba House put together last year. The piece just appeared in volume 31, issue 4 of Radix Magazine. You can also check out the feature article Rob Moll wrote for the September issue of Christianity Today: New Monasticism. For more information about Christian communities exploring a New Monasticism, check out the “official” website Here. Also, there is a book that I worked on that outlines what this new monasticism is all about: School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism (order it from Cascade or Amazon ). If you want a short review of the book, check out this link to Sojourners Magazine. You can also read an excerpt from the book Here .

Tags: theology

9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 joe // Jun 1, 2005 at 7:01 pm


    An interesting history…did you write it yourself?

    Please get your facts straight about St. Antony:

    Life of St. Antony the Great by St. Athanasius

    I think you need to brush up on your Church History if you’re going to be cured of your libel against Constantine and the Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils.

    Might I suggest:

    The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine

    Vol. 1 The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600)

    Vol. 2 The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700)

    by Jaroslav Pelikan, Sterling Professor Emeritus of History at Yale University?

    I do understand the Protestant need to create “useful histories” to advance their various agendas.

    To quote John Henry Cardinal Newman:

    “History is not a creed or a catechism, it gives lessons rather than rules; still no one can mistake its general teaching in this matter, whether he accept it or stumble at it. Bold outlines and broad masses of colour rise out of the records of the past. They may be dim, they may be incomplete; but they are definite. And this one thing at least is certain; whatever history teaches, whatever it omits, whatever it exaggerates or extenuates, whatever it says and unsays, at least the Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this.

    And Protestantism has ever felt it so.

    This is shown in the determination already referred to of dispensing with historical Christianity altogether, and of forming a Christianity from the Bible alone: men never would have put it aside, unless they had despaired of it.

    To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.”

    Please cease your libel against the Orthodox Church and against St. Antony the Great and get another poster boy for your “new monasticism.” The “Old Monasticism” of St. Antony the Great is alive and well…just outside of Protestantism.

  • 2 joe // Jun 1, 2005 at 7:27 pm

    BTW, St. Antony was a solitary…

    Here’s another good read:

    SEEK FIRST THE KINGDOM: Orthodox Monasticism and Its Service to the World

    by Bishop Kallistos Ware

    Theology Today
    April 2004


    This essay examines the varied contributions to the wider church of Orthodox Christianity’s three kinds of monastics: solitaries, those living in community, and those of the middle path (partly in community and partly solitary). Unlike western monastics, eastern monks never specialized in intellectual pursuits, instead supporting themselves by manual labor and dedicating themselves to prayer and spiritual struggle, a struggle whose benefits extend not only to each individual monk but to the whole body of the church. While monastics seek to live out their baptismal covenants in an ultimate commitment to God, monastic spirituality nonetheless represents the same Christian life to which all the baptized are called.

  • 3 isaac // Jun 6, 2005 at 9:53 pm

    Joe, thanks for reading my post and thinking it worth while to respond. I have to admit I am not well versed in church history. I have read Vita Antoni and other stuff by Athanasius. But I have only dabbled in Pelikan’s wonderful scholarship. You are right, I probably got some of the history wrong. And I know that there is much debate around the figure of Constantine.

    But I wonder if you can say a little more about why and where you think I got the story wrong. And I wonder if you can spell out your defensiveness about your Greek Orthodox history. I mean, why can’t I (Mennonite, not Protestant) claim St. Antony as part of my tradition without joining your church?

  • 4 joe // Jun 7, 2005 at 9:22 pm

    From the Life of St. Antony:

    “And he was altogether wonderful in faith and religious, for he never held communion with the Meletian schismatics, knowing their wickedness and apostacy from the beginning; nor had he friendly dealings with the Manichaeans or any other heretics; or, if he had, only as far as advice that they should change to piety. For he thought and asserted that intercourse with these was harmful and destructive to the soul.”

    St. Antony cannot be part of of the Mennonite tradition because he was never a part of Mennonite tradition.

    The Christianity of St. Antony was sacramental, i.e. “baptismal regeneration” was a given. The literal Body and Blood in the Eucharist was a given.

    These two marks of the Christianity of St. Antony’s Church by themselves disqualify him from your tradition.

    Re-read your copy of the Life of St. Antony. Take special note of his wrath against the heretics who used his name to endorse their heresies.

    And yes, St. Antony would’ve considered the Mennonites to be heretics.

  • 5 joe // Jun 13, 2005 at 11:24 am

    Still, this doesn’t mean that Menno-staries cannot exist based on the foundations of Mennonite-style asceticism.

    Re: “I mean, why can’t I (Mennonite, not Protestant) claim St. Antony as part of my tradition without joining your church?”

    To the Orthodox, St. Antony is not some long dead legend, a book-saint who can be refashioned into a latter day Anabaptist. St. Antony is a living Saint, with whom we are joined in communion. We venerate him and he intercedes (prays) for us and helps in our journey.

    It is understandable why St. Antony is so attractive to non-Orthodox. After all, he is known as St. Antony the Great. The “Great” part of his title is as the fulfillment of the promise from the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, that He would make Antony’s fame known throughout the world and for future generations uncounted on account of Antony’s humility and victorious spiritual combat over his demonic foes.

    By all means, venerate him! Ask for his prayers! But please do not dishonor his name and title by attempting to cast him as a proto-anabaptist!

    I suggest that you research and write a piece based on the recasting of your own tradition. It would make more sense. Might I suggest a title: “Menno and the New Mennostacism?”

  • 6 joe // Jun 13, 2005 at 1:53 pm

    oops, meant to type “ST. Menno.”

    I’m assuming that Mennonites recognize capital “S” saints now and NO LONGER consider the veneration of said capital “S” Saints to be “popery” or “idolatry.” If not, then why even ask whether can “claim St. Antony as part of my [Mennonite]tradition?”

  • 7 Paul Rohde // Oct 12, 2005 at 7:43 am

    Not sure if anyone will see this, but I’ve been reading the 12 Marks book and a question has come to mind: Why use monasticism for the model?

    I’m very familiar with the monastic tradition; reading Thomas Merton led me to the mystics and desert fathers and to many retreats in monasteries and even to becoming a Dominican for three years. But part of my experience of the monastic tradition was exposure to the limitations and faults in it (Merton makes these very clear in his journals, and I personally ended up being excluded from the Dominican Order). And I’ve realized that the most exemplary monks/nuns were primarily concerned, not with following some monastic ideal, but with following Jesus himself. The important thing is the imitation of Christ. Isn’t it?

    So why not use Jesus’ life (and his community) as the model we’re striving for? Why define this way of life as a “new monasticism,” and compare it with prior monastic examples, rather than simply comparing our way of life with Jesus’ Way?

  • 8 isaac // Oct 21, 2005 at 4:18 am

    Paul, I see your comment. Thanks for wanting to begin a conversation, or heeding my desire for talking about this sort of thing. I have a lot I want to say about your question—it’s a great question that must involve a dialogue with Alasdair MacIntyre, but that is going to take me some more time to think. And that’s my problem right now: I am under the academic gun! I will have time after next thursday, and I promise I will engage your question then. I will use your comment as the impetus for a longer post. I can’t help but want to say something about these articles on the New Monasticism in recent issues of Christianity Today and The Christian Century! Thank you for your patience. Check the site late next week and hopefully I will have something posted. Peace.

  • 9 blip » a new monasticism: a question // Nov 1, 2005 at 8:59 am

    [...] Paul recently posted a comment on an ancient post (as far as blog history goes) about a new monasticism. I’ve been reticent to jump into that hot topic. There are plenty of other places to find that conversation. Those two Christian powerhouses, Christianity Today and The Christian Century, have definitely registered NM on most of our horizons. But Paul asks a good question, and I can’t help but being drawn in. Here’s the question: [...]