“St. Anthony and the Heart” (1/17/12)
Fr. Ignatius John Schweitzer, OP
In the 1st Reading the Lord says, “Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the Lord looks into the heart.” The Lord looks into the heart. The Lord chooses David to be king because of what he sees in his heart. We know from another Scripture that God says, “I have found David, son of Jesse, a man after my own heart” (Acts 13:22). A man after God’s own heart.
This theme allows us to understand our Saint today, St Anthony of the desert, the father of monasticism. What led St Anthony out into the desert of Egypt to focus on prayer and the ascetical life? What led many others to follow him out there to form a community of solitaries? It was this: he sought to develop a heart after God’s own a heart. He sought to develop a deep interior life that God could always rejoice in.
This early Eastern monasticism of the desert focused on purity of heart. This idea of purity of heart involved not only sexual purity, but a purity from all misguided movements. A pure heart that is always directed to God and what is right. These monks spoke of guarding the heart, of watching the mind and heart’s activity closely. So if their thoughts began to veer off-course, they could immediately stomp out the bad thoughts and replace them with wholesome thoughts of God.
For instance consider this example. Let’s say someone is a thief. He habitually takes things that don’t belong to him. Let’s say he’s at his neighbor’s place for a party and sees a diamond ring sitting on the table next to him. He wants the ring. First, the glitter of the diamond attracts him. Second, he thinks how nice it would be to possess it for himself. Third, he thinks of how much money he could sell it for. Fourth, he begins to plan how he can snatch the ring away when no one is looking. Fifth, the prime opportunity comes and he looks at the diamond ring again, grabs it, and puts it into his pocket.
You see: there was a whole process of thoughts and movements of the heart that preceded him actually taking the ring. A lot of sin is like this. The thought first crosses our mind, we entertain it, think it through, and then come to act on it. This is where the monastic practice of guarding the heart helps. What if the thief would have been guarding his heart? What if he noticed the first wayward movement of his heart toward this diamond ring? And what if he stomped out the thought right away, before it took hold of him? Well he would have guarded his heart and kept it pure. He would have controlled himself and not stolen the ring.
And what if we were to do the same thing for all the wayward thoughts that pass through our hearts? Resentment toward others, rash judgments, useless fear and anxiety, thoughts of low self-esteem, anger towards others, bitterness, vanity, pride, and so forth. What if we were to guard our hearts against all these things and keep them pleasing before God’s eyes? We’d be like David, a man after God’s own heart.
And this is what St Anthony and the other monks were after: to have a heart like God’s own: holy, pure, loving. With the help of grace, prayer, and asceticism, they sought to guard their hearts and keep them entirely pleasing in God’s eyes. To keep the thoughts of their hearts always directed to God.
The desert fathers developed a whole spirituality and helpful aids that help one to do this. For, in practice, it is not easy to do. In fact, it may be the hardest thing to do, to keep one’s heart always directed to God and free of all wayward thoughts. For, a heart of pure gold and free of all dross comes only through the refining fire.
In the famous collection of the Sayings of the desert fathers, St Anthony appears frequently. One quote states, “Anthony said, ‘He who sits alone and is quiet has escaped from three wars: hearing, speaking, seeing: but there is one thing against which he must continually fight: that is, his own heart.’”
So today on the Memorial of St Anthony we are encouraged to take up the battle of guarding the heart. To ward off all wayward thoughts and replace them with thoughts of God. The desert fathers had a wise practice that helped them. They would repeat a short prayer over and over again to refocus themselves. Something like “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me,” or we might say, “Jesus, I trust in you.” The desert fathers prayed like this to help them to stay focused.
In the end, it’s a lifelong battle. But the example of St Anthony shows us that it is possible. Through the long struggle one can attain the goal: to have a heart like God’s own.