Archive for the ‘300s’ Category


teotihuacan1pTeotihuacan (fl. 300 to 700) was the ancient and holy city of Mexico, “the city where the gods were created”. At its height it had 160,000 people, making it the sixth largest city in the world at the time. In the centre of the city was the third largest pyramid of the world, the Pyramid of the Sun. Teotihuacan is about 40 km north-east of Mexico City.

We do not know what the city called itself. All we have is the Aztec name: Teotihuacan, “the city of the gods”. It was the seed of a civilization that had lasted more than a thousand years by the time the Spanish appeared. Only the Mayans were able to pass Teotihuacan in science and the arts.

The city fell in 700, destroyed by fire. Mexico fell into a dark age that lasted until the time of the Toltecs 250 years later.

In its day the city was the centre of religion and trade. It seemed to have been the centre of an empire too: it was rich yet had no walls and its gods demanded regular human sacrifice which meant fighting and ruling foreigners. Under one of their temples are 130 bodies.

We do not know what language the city spoke. It may have been Nahuatl, what the Aztecs spoke. None of its books have come down to our time.

Teotihuacan started out as a place where people journeyed to in order to worship the gods. In time it built huge pyramids to the gods and grew into a big city. It was ruled by priests who lived in palaces. On holidays the priests walked up the steps to the top of the pyramids and sacrificed humans to the gods.

The priests lived in the centre of the city. Further out were craftsmen and businessmen, who came from all over Mexico. About two-thirds of the people who lived in the city were farmers. They went out to work their fields in the morning and came back at night. Despite that the city did not grow enough food to feed itself but also needed trade and tribute to live.

The Street of the Dead is the main street. It is very wide and runs north to the holy mountain of Cerro Gordo. Along the street were the main temples, palaces and squares.  The two main temples were:

  • The Pyramid of the Sun at the centre of the city, the largest pyramid in Mexico and the third largest in the world. It is now 63 metres tall but once it was 73. The base 225 by 222 metres – about two Manhattan city blocks on a side.
  • The Pyramid of the Moon is to the north along the Street of the Dead. It is smaller, only 43 metres tall.

There is also the temple of Quetzalcoatl, a snake god with feathers seen in the sky as the morning star. The square in front of the temple can hold 100,000, more than half the city.

Under the city are caves and tunnels.

– Abagond, 2009.

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Ephesus is an ancient Greek city about halfway down the western coast of what is now called Turkey. It is where the Ephesians of the Bible lived. Paul preached there. It is where John wrote his gospel and they say that it is where the Virgin Mary went up to heaven. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus comes from Ephesus.

In our time Ephesus is just some broken-down remains of ancient buildings near the sea.

In Greek and Roman times, Ephesus was:

  • The centre of the Roman slave trade from -100 to +100;
  • The centre of the cult of Diana, the virgin goddess, known as Artemis to the Greeks;
  • One of the main ports of the Mediterranean Sea;
  • The main city in Ionia;
  • The capital of the Roman province of Asia.

It reached its height about -150 when it had 300,000 people – a giant city in those days, though not as big as Rome or Alexandria.

Giant is right: it had the largest theatre in the Roman empire, one with 50,000 seats. And its Temple of Diana was huge too. One visitor said it “mounted to the clouds”. It took 120 years to build.

The Temple of Diana was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was the centre of Diana’s worship. Inside the temple was a big black rock that fell from the sky. (The Kaaba, that square building in Mecca, also has such a rock.) The temple of Roman times was built in -550, but there had been a temple there since the days of Troy.

The temple is gone. In the 300s the Roman Empire became Christian, so the temple was shut down in 381 and destroyed in 405. And then, in 431, all the top bishops of the Church came to Ephesus for the famous Council of Ephesus. In order to stamp out Nestorian Christianity, they said that the Virgin Mary was the “Mother of God”. (The Nestorians said that made no sense, but that is another post.)

Not only is it strange how the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, took the place of Diana, a virgin goddess, but even the old name of the city, Apasas, means “city of the mother goddess.”

The Virgin Mary and Ephesus: When Jesus was on the cross he gave the care of his mother into the hands of John. That much is in the Bible. But there are old stories that go on to say that he went to Ephesus to live and brought Mary with him. And so there is a house on a hill near the city that they say was hers. It has become a place where both Christian and Muslim pilgrims go. August 15th is a special day there – the day they she went up to heaven.

Ephesus was killed by mud, malaria and Christianity: without the temple one of its main industries was lost. Then mud filled up the river on its way to the sea, creating a marsh that spread malaria. The rise of Constantinople to the north did not help either.

– Abagond, 2008.

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St Nicholas

Picture of St Nicholas from the early 1200s

Picture of St Nicholas from the early 1200s

Saint Nicholas (early 300s) was the Christian saint that Santa Claus comes from. He is one of the best loved saints, especially among the Eastern Orthodox. Because of him Nicholas is a common name. Because of him people get presents on Christmas.

Nicholas once knew a nobleman who was poor. He had three daughters but no money to marry them off. Nicholas could have just given him the money, but he was too proud to accept it.

Nicholas had an idea. In the middle of the night he secretly put gold into the daughters’ stockings that hung by the fire to dry. They all got married off.

This is where the idea of Christmas stockings come from. It is the one bit of Christmas that comes from the life of Nicholas.

The Dutch in New York gave their children gifts on St Nicholas’s Day, December 6th. The English liked the idea but did not believe in saints. So instead they gave their children presents three weeks later on Christmas. And over the years St Nicholas himself was changed from a Christian saint into a department store Santa.

St Nicholas was bishop of Myra in Lycia on the southern coast of what is now Turkey. In those days, before the Turks came, it was a Greek land ruled by Rome.

He was the only child of rich parents. They died when he was a boy. The ships that came from Egypt carrying grain to Rome stopped at Myra. One day they brought a terrible disease from Egypt. The plague killed his parents but not him. His uncle, the bishop, brought him up.

When he was a young man his uncle died too. The other bishops of the region came to Myra to choose a new bishop. One of them had a dream: God told him to choose the first man named Nicholas who came to church the next morning. That was how Nicholas became bishop even though he was so young.

In his day some still worshipped Diana, the old Greek goddess. They did it under a particular tree that was sacred to her. Nicholas had the tree cut down.

To get back at Nicholas, the story goes, Diana assumed the appearance of a holy woman and gave oil to some pilgrims on their way to his church. She told them to paint the walls of the church with it.

It was a trick. Just then a man who looked like Nicholas appeared and took the oil and threw it into the sea where it burst into flames, burning on the water for hours, saving the church and the lives of the pilgrims.

Most of his miracles were just like that: he appears at just the right time to save the day – to save men about to be lost at sea, to save princes about to have their heads cut off, and so on. But these appearances were just that: appearances. Nicholas himself was always far away at the time.

Feast day: December 6th.

– Abagond, 2007.

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Saint Catherine of Alexandria (early 300s) is a Christian saint who is not well-known these days, but she was during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Raphael painted her; she spoke to Joan of Arc.

Catherine said she was the daughter of King Costas. She was born rich and had a fine Greek education. She lived alone in palace with her servants.

This was in the time of emperor Maximinus, when the Roman Empire was still trying to wipe out the Christian faith. When Maximinus came to Alexandria he forced Christians to offer sacrifices to the gods. The old stories say it was emperor Maxentius, but it was Maximinus who ruled the east in those days. Since the names are so alike they were probably mixed up.

Many Christians offered sacrifice to the gods out of fear of the emperor.

When Catherine saw this she went to the emperor and tried to reason with him, even though she was only 18. Standing at the doors of a temple, she pointed out that as beautiful as the temple was, it was nothing compared to the beauty of the heavens and the earth. We should worship the god who created those things, not the gods inside a temple which will one day turn to dust.

The emperor could have killed her right there, but he took up her challenge. He would prove to her that Christianity was nothing but a pack of lies.

He tried to do it himself, but soon found that he could not match her education and wit. So he gathered together 50 of the most learned men in the empire and brought them to Alexandria to debate her.

They wondered why they were brought from so far away to do such a simple thing. But she wound up persuading them that she was right! She did it with their own books which they took to be true, like those of Plato and Sibyl.

The emperor threw Catherine into a dark cell for 12 days without food. The queen visited her secretly in the middle of the night. Catherine brought her and the guards over to Christ.

After 12 days the emperor brought Catherine before him. He gave her a simple choice: either offer sacrifice to the gods and be made a queen or be put to death. Her king and master was not the emperor nor the devils that he worshipped as gods, but Jesus Christ. She had no doubt what to do.

They were going to kill her on a breaking wheel, which would cut her to pieces. But she prayed to God and it fell apart. So they cut off her head instead.

They say that when she died milk, not blood, flowed from her body. Then angels carried her body to Mount Sinai, where Moses once talked to God. There is an ancient monastery in her name that stands there to this day.

Feast day: November 25th.

– Abagond, 2007.

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Roman Empire


The Roman Empire, circa +197.

The Roman Empire (-27 to +476) was the circle of lands round the Mediterranean Sea ruled by Rome. Its ideas about law, government, religion, language and writing became those of the West.

Before -27 Rome was called a republic because the Senate still had some power. But Rome had ruled lands outside of Italy since at least -220. Did it matter to those in Greece or Carthage whether they were ruled by one Roman (the emperor) or many (the Senate)?

And even after Rome fell in 476, the empire in the east continued, ruled from Constantinople, which did not fall to the Turks till 1453. We call it the Byzantine empire, but that is a name made up by French scholars in the 1800s. The empire called itself Roman. Even the Arabs and Turks called them Rumi.

In 117, Rome at its height ruled the lands from Scotland to Egypt, from Morocco to Mesopotamia. It was bound by the Rhine and Danube rivers in the north (except for Dacia, now Romania), the Atlantic Ocean in the west, the Sahara in the south and Persia in the east.

Rome brought peace to all the lands round the Mediterranean Sea for hundreds of years: the Pax Romana or Roman peace.

Rome took the best ideas of Egypt, Babylon and Greece and added ideas of its own about law and government.

Latin was the main language in the west, Greek in the east.

Some of the early emperors were cruel and sick men, like Caligula, Claudius and Nero. They ruled from 37 to 68. Later it was ruled by five good emperors, from 96 to 180: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius. They brought Rome to the height of its power and glory in the 100s.

In the 200s war was common: the empire had no peaceful, orderly way to hand power from one emperor to the next.

By the 200s the Christians were seen as a threat to the social order: they did not believe the emperor was a god. They would not even give the idea lip service. But by the 300s most people were Christians. They now became the social order, closing down the old temples and burning old books.

By the 300s the emperor rarely came to Rome. He spent most of his time in Milan and the new city of Constantinople, founded by Constantine. Sometimes the empire was ruled by two emperors, one in the west and one in the east. The last emperor to rule both halves together was Theodosius I from 379 to 395.

In the 400s the army in the west was mainly German defending the empire against other Germans! No surprise, then, when the west soon found itself cut up like a birthday cake among German generals, some of them from the Roman army itself. One of those generals, Odoacer, overthrew the last emperor in the west in 476.

In the 500s Justinian sent Belasarius to take back the west. He took much of Italy – by destroying its cities – but in time even Italy was lost.

– Abagond, 2007, 2016.


The Roman Republic / Empire from -510 to +530.

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Christmas (354- ), which falls on December 25th, is a holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. In America and in many Christian countries it is the most important holiday of the year.

Note: This post is about Christmas in America (the US).

Over the years Christmas has become something that has little to do with Christ. Many people celebrate it who have not been inside a church in years or who do not even call themselves Christians.

On Christmas Day almost everyone gets off work or school. They give gifts to each other and then at night have a large meal. For children it is the happiest day of the year.

In the north it comes a few days after the start of winter. Getting ready for Christmas and looking forward to it makes the coming of the cold seem not so bad.

American Christmas is really two Dutch holidays rolled into one: Saint Nicholas’ Day on December 6th and Christmas itself. The Dutch in New York gave their children gifts on St Nicholas’s Day and put treats in their stockings. Christmas, meanwhile, was a more serious church holiday, like Easter.

The English in New York copied the Dutch, but did all the St Nicholas’ Day things on Christmas.

Over time St Nicholas became what we now know as Santa Claus.

Santa Claus is a fat man with a long white beard who dresses in red and white. He laughs a lot and says “Ho, ho, ho.” He lives at the North Pole with his wife. He keeps a list of good children and bad children.

On Christmas Eve Santa Claus delivers gifts to good children all over the world. Bad children get coal. Or nothing. Santa is helped by flying reindeer. The most famous of these is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. His nose is so bright Santa can fly through any weather.

Children and shopkeepers love Santa. He has largely taken over Christmas from Baby Jesus. Many shops, and even some industries, would go broke if it were not for the Christmas that comes in a box.

There are special Christmas songs, food, television shows, films and so on. It is not just any day.

A few weeks before Christmas you put up a Christmas tree. There is even a song about that! The gifts go under the tree and wait there to be opened on Christmas Day (or Christmas Eve).

The gifts are put inside of boxes and covered with colourful paper so you cannot tell what they are. The expectation and surprise is part of the experience.

Children put up Christmas stockings, which get filled with treats overnight. This part goes back to a story about St Nicholas.

As a child I liked opening gifts best. Most of what I got as a child came on Christmas and my birthday.

Now that I am older I like the church part better. I go to mass on Christmas Eve. It is the only part of Christmas that has not been ruined by shopkeepers and in-laws.

– Abagond, 2006, 2015.

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Zero is the number that comes before one, the number that stands for “nothing”. For example, if I had three books and gave you two, then I would have one book left. But if I gave you all three books, then I would have none left – that is, I would have zero books left.

It might seem strange to have a number for nothing. That might be why it took so long to be invented. But zero makes arithmetic far easier. For example, before zero came to the West, multiplying numbers was something only experts in the field could do. But with zero even an eight year old can do it.

Today in the West we write the numbers from one to nine this way: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9. Zero is written this way: 0. Those are all the numbers we need.

But how, then, do you write ten or twelve or fifty-two or six hundred? Like this: 10 (ten), 12 (twelve), 52 (fify-two), 600 (six hundred).

Six hundred and fifty-two looks like this: 652. What does that mean? It means:

six (6) hundreds and

five (5) tens and

two (2).

The position of a number matters:

six: 6
sixty: 60
six hundred: 600
six thousand: 6000
six thousand and fifty-two: 6052

And that is the power of zero: it holds a place where there is nothing. 600 means six hundred and zero (0) tens and zero (0). Which might seem to be a strange way to think of it, but it makes the number much easier to handle.

We think of inventions as building on what came before and becoming more and more difficult to understand and make. Most are like that. But every now and then a true genius comes along and invents something that takes a hard thing – like arithmetic or reading – and makes it easier. The codex, the fork and letters are all examples of this.

Before zero people thought that multiplying numbers had to be hard – there was no way around it. Not so!

Zero was invented at least two times: first by the Olmecs in Mexico by 36 BC and again 400 to 500 years later in India. The Babylonians had something close to zero but it did not take hold – unless, of course, that is where India got it from.

The Greeks had a sign for zero but it was just something added to their number system. For all their genius they never got farther than that. No one knows why, but it is probably because they thought in geometry not in numbers. Geometry and number were not united into one solid system till the 1600s by Descartes.

The West got the zero and the new number system from the Arabs. We know because the word “zero” comes from Arabic. It came in the 1100s but it took centuries to really take hold. Even today you still see the old Roman numbers here and there.

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Written: late fourth century
Read: May 2006

In The Lord’s Prayer, St Gregory of Nyssa
explains the prayer Jesus taught:

Our Father which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

The prayer outlines what sort of men we should be. It is not about God, but about us: After each of the first lines the words “in us” is understood: Hallowed be Thy name in us, Thy kingdom come in us, Thy will be done in us. We do this by seeking virtue instead of wealth, by seeking to master ourselves instead of others.

We are to ask for our daily bread. Bread, not cake. And not silver plates to eat it on. We are to keep our needs and wants simple and few and trust in God to take care of the rest. To do otherwise is to be drawn away from God to serve not God but Money, to become a slave to our possessions.

The world trusts in money, we are to trust in God. He will not give us what we want, but He will give us what we need. Seek ye first the kingdom of God.

This day: just today, not for tomorrow or thirty years from now when we stop working. This world and our lives here will pass away. What really matters, what we must do is to keep our mind and our heart on heaven, our true country, the thing that will last forever.

We are in a war of the flesh against the spirit. We live in a body and so we have needs. God knows that. But we also have a fallen nature: our passions make us want more than we need. They are not the road to our higher nature – quite the contrary. Money and sex rule us because we are ruled by our passions, not because we have to be or need to be.

God will give us the grace to live another way. That is why we pray, lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

If we live as if God did not matter, then God will not hear our prayers – only the Devil will. So we must obey God, seek virtue and show mercy to others. God will be as merciful to us as we are to others. He will take us as seriously as we take Him.

Why pray the very same words day after day? Because by saying the same words over and over again, they sink into our heart and teach us the things we need to know. They help to cure our sick souls.

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St Augustine

St Augustine (354-430) was a Christian philosopher, the first to succeed in applying the thought of Plato to the Christian faith. Many attempted it before, such as Origen, Tertulian and the Gnostics, but they all came up with something that was not the true faith. Muslim philosophers later ran into the very same trouble.

Instead of treating Christian and Platonic ideas on equal terms, Augustine interpreted the Christian faith through Plato.

He is famous for two books especially:

  • “Confessions” (398) tells about his search for the truth, which finally brought him to Christ.
  • “City of God” (426) lays out his ideas about history as the Roman Empire was falling apart in the west. He saw history as the story of two cities: the City of God and the City of Man.

We have 4 million of his words (meaning he wrote at least 330 words a day), much of it written against the heretics of his day.

When Augustine was nineteen he read Cicero and burned for the truth (he loved both Cicero and Virgil). He kept searching for the truth till he found it.

His mother was a Christian, so he knew all the Christian answers to his questions. They did not persuade:

  • Question: How could evil exist in a world created by a good and perfect God?
  • Question: If Holy Scripture came from God, why was it not as beautifully written as Cicero?
  • He could neither marry nor leave his live-in girlfriend. “Give me chastity, but not just yet”.
  • He was afraid to trust in God.

His mother was a pious, holy Berber woman who prayed every day for twenty years for his soul. But she was no intellectual like her son. He would have to go out and find the answers for himself. It took him 13 years, from 373 to 386.

First he came to the Manichaeans. According to Mani, a prophet from Babylon, the world was created by a good god and an evil god and we are in the battle between them. This made sense to Augustine. But the more he learned, the more questions he had.

In time when he finally got a chance to ask one of the top Manichaeans his questions, he found that there were no answers — just a lot of fine words.

So he left the Manichaeans. Next he read philosophy, especially Porphyry, a follower of Plotinus, the founder of what we call Neoplatonism. It helped him to understand God. The reason Augustine was able to bring Plato and Christ together was because he came to Christ through Plato. It was not something he thought up one afternoon — it was his life.

When he moved to Milan he met the bishop, St Ambrose. His mother made sure of it. He admired Ambrose and Ambrose, as busy as he was, helped Augustine work through his difficulties and brought him to Christ. His mother’s prayers were answered at last! We know her as St Monica, the namesake of Santa Monica, California.

Augustine has a gift for words and a passion for the truth. Even when he writes about something hard like the Trinity, this shines through and makes him a joy to read.

– Abagond, 2006.

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St Ambrose: De fide

Written: 380
Read: May 2006

De fide (“Of Faith”) by St Ambrose is his
defence of the Catholic faith against the Arians. He wrote it for
Gratian, a Catholic, who ruled the western Roman Empire in those days.

The Arians quoted Scripture to prove that Jesus was
neither God nor man but something in between
. Unlike God
Jesus had a beginning, he served God, he was not all-knowing, and
so on. But Ambrose took those very same passages, and
others, to show that Jesus was both God and
. This is what most Christians believe to this day.

This was the great dispute of those times. While all
Christians agreed that Jesus was not just a man, for centuries
they argued over his true nature — a subject called
Christology: Was he really God? Was he really a man? If
he were both, then did he have two wills or two natures? Was he a
hollowed out man with God inside? And so on.

This book and others like at the time helped to answer these

When you read the gospels it sometimes seems that Jesus is just a
man. Yet
at other times he seems to assume he is God somehow
that is what got him into so much trouble with the Jews. What is
going on?

The Arians answered this by saying that Jesus was something
in between. Ambrose shows that this makes sense of some
passages but at the cost of others. A better way to make sense of
Scripture is to say that that sometimes Jesus speaks as the
Son of God and sometimes as the Son of Man
— because he
is both. Augustine uses this
very same idea in his book on the Trinity.

Even this answer is not perfect — there are still some
passages that still do not make complete and easy sense. But
these are the exception rather than the rule.

But the real fault of the Arians according to Ambrose was
not misunderstanding Scripture: it was their pride. In
their pride they thought they could be like God and understand
everything. Instead they only wound up making God something
common, something less than divine.

We might think the Arians are called “heretics” only
because they did not get to write the history books. Ambrose says
it goes much deeper than that: when presented with God in Jesus,
they refused to accept Him. Instead they thought of a hundred and
one reasons to explain him away as something else.

Points: 96

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Nag-Hammadi Library

The Nag-Hammadi Library has fourteen leather-bound books from the late fourth century containing Gnostic writings. It was found in Egypt in 1945. The books contain 52 works, including the only known complete copy of the gospel of Thomas. The books are in Coptic but seem to be translated from Greek.

Among other things they say:

  • God is male and female.
  • In the Garden of Eden, the serpent was right, God lied.
  • Life is a battle not agains sin but against ignorance.
  • Jesus kissed Mary Magdalene mouth to mouth
  • Jesus preferred Mary Magdalene to Peter as the head of the church
  • Jesus laughed on the cross and danced the night before.
  • The God of Moses is a tin-pot god who could not even create the world right. He even attempted to seduce Eve.

In the library are Christian writings that do not appear in Scripture. Among others:

  • The gospel of Thomas
  • The gospel of Philip
  • The gospel of Truth
  • The apocryphon of James
  • The apocryphon of John (three different ones)
  • The apocalypse of Paul
  • The acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles
  • The treatise on the Resurrection
  • The three-part treatise

There are also three pages of Plato’s Republic (588a-589b).

The books do not belong to just one sect of Gnosticism, but include writings from the Valentinians, Sethians and even the Neoplatonists.

The books were hidden near the monastery of St Pachomius in the late fourth century by a monk. He saw the (Gnostic) faith disappearing from the world and so he hid these books for the end of the world.

The library is named after the nearby town of Nag-Hammadi. The Gospel of Judas, which has also come to light, was hidden nearby at about the same time.

The mother of the two brothers who discovered the books burnt up most of one of the 14 books in her oven. The books gave her a bad feeling.

Before we found these books, most of what we knew about Gnosticism came from what St Irenaeus wrote against it in the late second century. The real surprise, it turns out, is that even though Irenaeus was against Gnosticism, he gave us a true picture of it. So even though the Nag-Hammadi books are a wonderful find, they do not reveal any deep dark secret that had laid hidden through the ages.

The secret is that there is no secret.

Reading them now most of them seem half mad, but the religion that made sense of these books is gone.

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St Antony of Egypt

St Anthony of Egypt (251-356) was the first Christian monk. There is not just one famous St Anthony, but two: the one from Egypt who lived in the fourth century and became the first Christian monk and the other, who lived almost a thousand years later in Padua, Italy. It is the second St Antony that is well known in Catholic circles. Most of the Tonys of the world owe their name to him. But here I am speaking of the St Antony from Egypt. Most Christian monks of the world owe their way of life to him.

St Antony of Egypt lived in the mountains of eastern Egypt. He had no money (having sold his father’s estate to give the money to the poor), little schooling and when he died all he had were two changes of clothing. Yet he had an absolute faith in God, a deep knowledge of Holy Scripture and could work miracles. The high and mighty sought him out. By the power of his simple example he changed the world.

Before Antony there were men and women who gave their lives completely to God, giving up any idea of wealth, family or even self-will. But it was the example of Antony that made such a life something to be admired and followed by the many. More than that, he made it an established way of life by founding the first monasteries.

For Antony life was a ceaseless battle against the Devil and his demons. The Greeks feared them as gods and even for serious Christians they made following a holy life difficult. Antony found that not only prayer, good works, faith in Christ and the sign of the cross were good ways to resist them, but so was avoiding luxury and denying the body.

While most lived for family or wealth, he had neither, living only for God. He had no money, no sex and lived on very little food. Often he stayed up all night praying. He spent his days praying, reading Scripture and working in the fields.

We live in luxury in the name of good health. Antony took the opposite path and still lived to be a hundred. We value the health of the body, but Antony saw that what matters more is the health of the soul. And a soul that is a slave to the body’s desires is not a healthy soul.

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Athanasius: Life of St Antony

Written: 357
Read: March 2006

One of the most admired men of the fourth century never washed his feet: St Antony of Egypt. When you get to the end of this book you will see why.

It is written by one Christian saint about another. When Athanasius met him, Antony was already an old man. In fact Athanasius sometimes calls him simply “the old man”. Athanasius wrote the book to hold up Antony before us as an example of a holy life.

Every day you hear about how important money is, how important getting ahead is. People will lie to get into a good school or to make a lot of money. After reading about Antony you see how very sad that is. Deep down we all know how we should live, but what do we do instead? It makes you sick. But Antony not only knew, he did. His feet may have been dirty, but he is one of the most beautiful human beings who ever lived.

Like his book about the Incarnation, Athanasius expresses himself in simple words that makes the Christian faith seem like the simple truth. No one in our time, aside from CS Lewis, even thinks to argue the faith this way.

Athanasius has written long books arguing Scripture against the Arian heretics of his day, but this little book, with its holy example of Antony, is a far better argument. Antony saw the Arians and anyone who separated themselves from the Church as little better than devils. And if someone as holy as Antony believed that then, by the time you get to the end of this book, you will believe it too.

If you are not a Christian, however, you might think Antony is a madman and that his feelings about the Arians is just another sad example of narrow-minded religious hatred that is all too common in our day. I read the book as a believing Christian, so it is hard for me to tell. If you are not a Christian but have read the book, I would be interested in hearing what you thought.

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Ammianus Marcellinus (330-391) was a Greek from the fourth century who wrote a history of the Roman Empire in Latin. He picked up where Tacitus left off, but all that we have are the final books where he writes about his own time – roughly 350 to 375, when Augustine was a boy. What stands out most in his account are the Goths (who are strangely like Anglo-Americans in the 1800s, with covered wagons and everything), that horrible battle against them at Adrianople and his picture of Julian, the last man to rule the empire who believed in the old gods.

Ammianus himself was not a Christian, so what is striking is how much he has in common with Augustine, who was raised a generation later by a Christian mother.

For example:

  • “The end is near.” Both believed that it was the virtue of the early Romans that made Rome great and that, for the same reason, the vice of the present generation will bring it to ruin.
  • “This is the way things are meant to be.” Both believed in providence: that events are guided by God or gods and therefore are for the best.
  • Both see sorcery as both real and evil.
  • Both love Cicero and Virgil.

It is surprising how much of what seems “Christian” in Augustine’s world view really was not: it was just the received wisdom of the age. Yes, to a degree Christianity helped to form and inform the age (the “culture” as we would call it now), but I think there is more to it than that.

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