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Sunday, July 8, 2012

Anthony of the Desert: Life as Fiction

"Not all true things are the truth" cautioned [1]Clement of Alexandria. He had in mind those writings which he considered to be heretical, but which are now perceived as orthodox. His very orthodox fellow Alexandrian, the bishop Athanasius, earned his own place in history by ordering the destruction of all texts which he personally considered fell outside what was right and proper for Christians to accept as The Truth.

History, as we know, is full of grand ironies. It was the fear of Athanasius' destructive edicts which led a group of unknown monks to remove over fifty volumes from their precious library in the nearby monastery and seal them in a large earthenware jar. The jar they then buried in the Egyptian desert sands. That jar would lay silent and undiscovered for the following sixteen centuries, its contents safely preserved within. When it was rediscovered in 1945 those contents would become known as the Gnostic gospels, and would at last give the writers of these early texts their own place in history. Some voices, it seems, are just not meant to be silenced.

The secrets which those recovered texts tell is a post on this blog for another time. What is relevant here is another claim to fame by Athanasius (the engraving, below): as the author of what became a hugely popular biography of Saint Anthony - Anthony of the Desert, as he became known. One Christian history [2]website which I am currently viewing claims that Athanasius is "ranked, even today, among the greatest exponents of Christian doctrine". The article unsurprisingly fails to mention the bishop's destructive zeal, which went beyond the burning of books to include his annexing of the churches and monasteries where these books were accepted spiritual texts.

But in Athanasius' drive to silence any dissenting voices, the widely-popular Anthony (Albrecht Dürer's engraving, below) presented the bishop with a problem. Anthony's whole life had been an expression of all which the bishop disagreed with: an intensely personal quest for an experience of the divine, which was itself an expression of gnostic values which involved the sidelining of any hierarchical Church authority - including that of a bishop. Ah, what to do, then, about Anthony?

The canny bishop seems to have approached the problem of Anthony with the shrewdness of a spin doctor. Instead of attacking the popular visionary, and so risking disfavour among the populace, Athanasius decided to reinvent him. In the supposedly biographical 'Life of Anthony', the articulate and erudite saint is transformed into an illiterate and humble monk, who rejects the personal values which the real Anthony held, and whose life is the very paragon of all the doctrines which the bishop advocated. Athanasius even tacked on a wholly fictitious ending to his story, in which the saint bequeaths his humble hermit's cloak to the author as his worthy successor. Perhaps predictably, the so-called biography was a huge and influential success. More than that, it came to be viewed as a true account of the saint's life, and the effectiveness of Athanasius' rewriting of reality is seen even today in the catholic acceptance of this most gnostic of visionaries as one of their own.

It is only through the discovered letters, now accepted by scholars as being written by Anthony himself, that we know the true picture. And it seems that without any gainsaying documents, history - even someone's life - can be turned into a work of fiction.

This post is complementary to my current post about Anthony of the Desert on my other blog, which portrays Anthony's visions. You are welcome to visit and read my post Temptations.

[1] Clement would himself suffer the same fictionalizing process as Anthony: a Gnostic who was reinvented by the church as a pillar of Catholic orthodoxy - as also was Paul. In his own lifetime a Gnostic, Paul's writings were later amended to give them an orthodox bias, and several of his letters were forged by other hands to become the scriptural writings now in the New Testament. 'Saint Paul' is therefore also an invention of the Church of Rome.
[2] Athanasius: Pugnacious Defender of Orthodoxy

Elaine Pagels: 'Revelations: Visions, Prophesy and Politics in the Book of Revelation'
Samuel Rubenson: 'The Letters of Anthony: Monasticism and the Making of a Saint'

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