A Homily for Holy Communion on
Tuesday 17th Friday, 2012, 9 a.m.
Feast Day of Saint Antony of Egypt
for the Sisters of the Love of God
Fairacres Priory, Oxford
Galatians 6:14-16 & Matthew 19:16-26
Pleasing God, By Living Well
+ May I speak in the name of the Divine Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen.
There is a story - I can’t remember where I read it, but I think it might have been something to do with this place - of a Reverend Mother who greeted a young priest on retreat for the first time after taking up his post as chaplain to a very rich college in a small borstal in The Fens, that shall remain nameless (but which I think I may also know quite well), famous for the sumptuous luxury of its high table. Reverend Mothers being blunt sort of persons, she looked him up and down, eyeing the evidence of his having partaken of that luxury “not wisely but too well”, and said “Father, I think perhaps a little more of the desert is in order, and a little less of the dessert”.
Saint Antony is famous for having made that choice, exchanging a comfortable bourgeois life for further and further solitude; hearing the Gospel reading we have heard today, and taking it quite literally, before following the promptings of his heart, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, edging out of his town to the tombs, and finally deeper and deeper into the desert, to fend for himself as a hermit and to be alone with God. They say the Sinai desert is a place of awesome silence, but also of great beauty, and by all accounts, he did indeed find God there.
It is difficult to hear his story without a pang of envy alongside the awe. After all, isn’t it easy enough to be good when you’re in a desert, miles away from the distractions of the world, the flesh, and the devil? No parents, partner, progeny, pets or pubs; no shopping to do nor things to covet, because there are no shops; nor public transport to drive you mad with fury, because you aren’t going anywhere; no bills, no plans, no social life, because no one knows where you are; no books to feel guilty about not reading, because God and his wild creatures do not write books. Sometimes it can sound like bliss. But then the awe comes in. With no distractions, you have no excuses. With no occasions for sin, you become the more deeply aware of the sin within. And so it seems to have been for Saint Antony, as he wrestled with demons he didn’t previously know he had, and shared his wisdom from the fight with those who came to seek his advice.
Above all, the desert provides an opportunity for paying attention, which is all you can do when you have no distractions. And this is something we can all do in the brief desert moments which are given to us. Here’s a little Epiphany from yesterday. I was sitting in a field – Oxford is very well-served for fields and parks, and many have not entirely uncomfortable benches for us to sit and think, and sitting and thinking is one of the unsung luxuries of underemployment. My eye was caught by something glinting in the grass. As I moved my head, it seemed to shine with different coloured lights, like the facets of a good quality diamond. I confess, I got off the bench and went to see if by any happy chance it really was a good quality diamond. But no – and for once I will not say “alas”! – it was the melting frost, like dew, on the grass, caught by that bright, low, fierce winter sun, and the light reflected and refracted in those glorious ways. Was it any less beautiful for not being a really good quality diamond? Of course not; for it had been, I’d have scooped it up (to find its rightful owner, naturally), and no one else could have shared it. So there it stays, in the desert, until the next person is lucky enough to see and enjoy it, and thank God for the beauty that is all around us.
Antony said we should “please God by living well”, because God furnishes us with still better things than port and stilton, if we but learn to pay attention. Amen.