saint-bishoy2The next Desert Father, St. Pishoy, is a rather under-recognized saint, especially in the Western Church, but I find him to be one of the more inspiring and exemplary saints in this time period. St. Pishoy was born around 320 in Shansa, northern Egypt. He was the youngest of seven brothers, and was of very poor health as a child. The story goes that an angel appeared to his mother, asking her to dedicate one of her sons to the Lord. She tried to look past the weak and frail Pishoy to give the Lord one of her stronger sons, but the angel told her that the Lord had indeed chosen Pishoy to be his disciple.

Pishoy grew up a man of faith, and left to enter the wilderness around the age of twenty. She settled in Skete, which would become one of the centers of monastic life in the Nitrian Desert. It was there that he learned the ways of the monastic life under a man named Pambo (First Pishoy and now Pambo! And you thought Chrysogonus was a weird name!).

Pishoy became a hermit, and was famous for his spirituality, kindness, wisdom, and simplicity of life. Many of the hermits nearby would come to meet with him regularly for counsel, causing him to eventually form the Monastery of St. Pishoy (the name didn’t come until later, obviously), which still exists in Skete today.

As we will hear in the coming days after Easter, the disciples of Jesus encountered the Risen Jesus in a number of ordinary ways. St. Mary Magdalene encountered him in the garden outside his tomb, the two disciples met him on the road to Emmaus, and the Eleven encountered him cooking breakfast on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. St. Pishoy is also known for his encounters with the Risen Christ, again under ordinary circumstances.

On one occasion, as Pishoy’s fellow monks were going to prayer in the monastery, there was an old visiting monk who was calling for their help. All the monks ignored him on their way to prayer, but St. Pishoy saw him and generously helped him return to his room. He then washed the old man’s feet, imitating the gift of Christ to his apostles at the Last Supper. It was then that the old man revealed his true identity as the Risen Christ, filling St. Pishoy with the joy of the Resurrection.

I think the life of St. Pishoy is a reminder for us during the season of Easter. We recognize that although we formally celebrate Easter this Sunday, we are invited to welcome the Risen Christ into our midst every day, through prayer and acts of love, especially in our brothers and sisters who are weak, poor, or lonely. As we celebrate the joy of Easter, let us continue to celebrate by recognizing the presence of the Risen Christ in others!

Coptic Icon of St. Macarius

Coptic Icon of St. Macarius

As we’ve seen, this movement by St. Anthony and the monks had been very influential, and soon, a large number of men and women sought to imitate his life of simplicity and prayer. One of these men was St. Macarius of Egypt.

St. Macarius was born in Upper Egypt around 300 AD, and he would have been around 13 years old when St. Anthony retreated to the desert. He made his living as a smuggler of saltpeter, also known as niter in Egypt, which is where the Nitrian Desert gets its name. Saltpeter was used for many different things in the ancient world – for preservation, as a form of soap, and for various other health remedies.

As requested by his parents, he married, but shortly after the wedding, his wife passed away. Not long after that, his parents died as well, leaving Macarius completely alone. It was at this point that he decided to change his life, so he sold his inheritance and journeyed to the desert outside his town, where he studied under an anonymous hermit living just outside the city. Macarius learned the spiritual disciplines from this monk, as well as the spiritual merits of a life of fasting, prayer, and asceticism. He even learned the art of basket weaving (because why not?) in order to make some money to buy food and give to the poor. Not all of us can have ravens bring loaves of bread like St. Paul the Hermit, right?

St. Macarius became very highly regarded for his virtue, and the people of his village recommended him for ordination to the priesthood. But of course, with fame also come a lot of enemies. As he was ministering to his people in the village as a priest, a pregnant woman accused him of breaking his vows and committing adultery. Out of humility, Macarius refused to defend himself, and quickly became a hated man. When the woman’s pregnancy became difficult, however, she recognized that she had done wrong and confessed his innocence. When people came to Macarius to ask his forgiveness for their mistreatment of him, he fled into the desert to avoid the temptation to vanity.

St. Macarius spent the rest of his life in the desert, but this time, he did so presiding over a community of other monks. To give themselves a home, he and the monks built a huge monastery, which still exists today. The Monastery of St. Macarius the Great has been continually inhabited by monks since the 300’s, and is still operational today! People used to call Macarius “the glowing lantern” because he was radiant with the joy of a life with Christ, but this name was eventually transferred to the monastery, which has become known as “the glowing lantern in the wilderness.” So the next time you take a vacation to the Nitrian Desert of Egypt, be sure to stop by the monastery!

Coptic Icon of St. Anthony Meeting St. Paul the Hermit

Coptic Icon of St. Anthony Meeting St. Paul the Hermit

As we heard last week, St. Anthony of the Desert went off to live his radically counter-cultural life of simplicity and prayer in the Nitrian Desert. Interestingly, however, he was the not the first to do so. Although St. Anthony didn’t know it at the time, he was doing the same thing as St. Paul the Hermit had done twenty years before him!

Paul was born in the city of Thebes in Egypt around 228, and lived with his married sister. When they lost their parents around the age of 22, their lives were thrown into turmoil. Paul’s brother-in-law saw an opportunity to seize Paul’s inheritance, and reported him as a Christian to the Roman authorities in Thebes.

St. Paul fled into the desert outside Thebes, and found a place to live in an oasis, complete with a comfy cave, palm trees, and a spring. While his original departure from civilization seemed to be out of desperation to flee the persecution of Emperor Decius, he grew into his new life of simplicity and prayer. The leaves of the palms gave him some shade, and he even wore a tunic out of them, almost like Adam in the Garden. Legends tell us that he lived almost exclusively on coconuts until the age of 43, at which point a RAVEN started bringing bread to him each day! Now that’s service. It may seem a little far-fetched, but it certainly gets the point across that St. Paul depended entirely on God for his existence, both physically and spiritually.

Remember St. Anthony? Well, at one point in his life, he became tempted to vanity in taking pride that he was the first to live this way. Thankfully, God gave him the opportunity to grow in humility, when someone told him about St. Paul.

When St. Anthony heard about this other monk who had been living the same way, he sought out St. Paul, and the two Desert Fathers famously met around the year 342. As they came together, they took the time to share bread, just as Jesus had done with his friends. Each invited the other to bless it, then held on to each side of the bread, tearing it in half. It might seem like a strange ritual, but this meeting showed their mutual respect and honor for each other, as well as their brotherhood in Christ.

That was the last time St. Anthony saw St. Paul the Hermit alive. When he returned a few years later, St. Paul had died. St. Anthony buried him (supposedly with the help of two lions!) and took St. Paul’s palm leaf tunic. He chose to wear the tunic twice a year on Easter and Pentecost in honor of St. Paul’s example of humility and holiness.

st-anthony-the-greatToday’s saint is St. Anthony the Great/of Egypt/of the Desert/the Abbot.  No, this isn’t the St. Anthony you pray to in order to find your lost remote control.  If anything, I guess St. Anthony would be the one you pray to in order to become lost – lost in the love of Christ.

St. Anthony of the Desert was one of the most influential men in the early Church, but not for the typical reasons.  He wasn’t a great writer, a great speaker, or a martyr – he was the greatest of the Desert Fathers, a movement of people who sought solitude from the busy and corrupt life of the world to embrace simplicity and prayer.  Today, we would call this movement “monasticism” – monos is the Greek word for “alone.”  St. Anthony was far from alone; he just sought different company.

Most of what we know about St. Anthony comes from The Life of Anthony, a biography written by St. Athanasius, who knew and followed Anthony himself.  Anthony was born in Lower Egypt in 251 to wealthy landowners.  He was born and raised a Christian.  His parents died at an early age, and left him the wealth of the family, along with custody of his sister.

One day during Mass in 313, Anthony heard the famous quote of Christ speaking to the rich young man in the Gospel of Matthew: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The young man in the story turned away sad, but Anthony felt compelled to take his place and do as Christ asked. He gave away part of the family estate and sold the remaining 207 acres, donating the funds to his sister and to care for the poor.  He entrusted his sister to a community of Christian women, and went off to follow Christ in the solitude of the Nitrian Desert, where he spent the remainder of his life. Anthony wandered the deserts, living in an abandoned Egyptian fortress, absorbed in prayer and entirely dependent on God.  He spent his days practicing discipline (imagine a life-long Lent!), and with fasting and purity of heart, he faced his temptations.

Even though he longed to be alone, such an extreme example of asceticism, prayer, and dependence on God attracted a lot of followers.  People followed him out into the desert for a number of reasons. Some came to ask him questions and seek spiritual counsel.  Some sought to follow his example, and he encouraged others to form supportive monastic communities. Some travelled all the way out into the desert just to argue with him about the faith.  At one point, a group bishops even journeyed into the desert to summon him to the Council of Nicaea in 325 to give witness to his faith and inspire the Church.

St. Anthony, in drawing so close to Christ in solitude, chose to leave his earthly life the same way. He wanted to die alone – not out of a loneliness or depression, but to be in his uniquely intimate relationship with the one who created him.  Two other monks, Macarius and Amatas, were helping to take care of him by this point, and Anthony left what few belongings he had to them and his followers. He then gave them a blessing, they left him, and he died in 356 at the age of 105.

The truth is, not all of us are called to be monks – some are, but not all.  Still, there is something admirable and inspiring about St. Anthony’s radical dedication to prayer and love of Christ.

"The Crucifixion" by Andrea Mantegna

“The Crucifixion” by Andrea Mantegna

Sometimes when you read the Scripture or hear it at Mass, do you ever wonder about some of the characters’ back-stories, or what happened after the Gospels?  What happened to the woman at the well?  What was the man born blind’s life like before he met Jesus? Who were the two thieves crucified with Jesus, and what did they do?  Our curiosity wants to know more!

The same was true of the early Christians.  They heard the stories of the Gospels and wanted to learn more, so to satisfy their curiosity, authors would write legends or stories about the characters of the Bible, almost like early Church comic books.  Some of these, like the Gospel of Thomas, were written by people who had an obvious agenda contrary to the authentic teaching of the Church, but others, like the Acts of Pontius Pilate, also called the Gospel of Nicodemus, are, for the most part, harmless expansions and stories.  Elements of them have become parts of our larger Tradition, and have inspired beautiful artwork and even film, as seen in the Passion of the Christ movie by Mel Gibson.

That’s where St. Dysmas (or St. Dismas, if you want) comes in.  According to the Gospel of Nicodemus, “Dysmas” was the name of the repentant thief who died at the side of Christ on Good Friday.  It’s from that document that we also receive the name of the bad thief (Gestus), and the name of the soldier who drove his lance through Jesus’ side (St. Longinus).

Really, not much is known about St. Dismas.  St. John Chrysostom cites the tradition that he lived in the desert as a robber or bandit. Pope St. Gregory the Great wrote that “he was guilty of blood, even his brother’s blood.”  Who knows?  All we truly know about him for certain is what we read in the Gospel of Luke:

Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.’  The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, ‘Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation?  And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.’  Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’  He replied to him, ‘Amen I say to you today you will be with me in Paradise.’

There’s a lot we can learn from St. Dismas, especially during Lent, as we repent of our sins and grow closer to Christ.  This short conversation gives us the three steps to authentic conversion: 1) Awareness and acceptance of responsibility for our personal sins, 2) repentance of that sin and trying to the best of our abilities to turn away from it and avoid it in the future, 3) acceptance of Jesus’ promise of eternal life.  It also gives us three of the big steps for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, as we speak aloud our sins (confession), pray an act of repentance (contrition) and receive God’s forgiveness through the priest (absolution).

This week, as we celebrate the Commemoration of St. Dismas (March 25), let’s ask for his prayers to help us leave behind our weaknesses and sins and grow closer to Christ, even as we join him on the Cross!

aganastasiaromaiaToday we come to the last saint in the Roman Canon, St. Anastasia.  What’s that?  You’ve never heard of her?  Maybe that’s because her feast day on December 25, the same as Christmas Day!  Kind of a bummer for her, I guess, but she also gets to share her new birthday (her martyrdom day) with the birthday of Christ!

Very little is known factually about St. Anastasia.  She was the daughter of Praetextatus, a Roman citizen and nobleman, and Fausta, a Christian.  She was also the pupil of St. Chrysogonus (remember him?), from whom she learned to love and witness to her faith.  In the Eastern Church, she is called the “Deliverer from Potions” because of stories relating the healing miracle of a man who had been poisoned.

If you remember, St. Chrysogonus was summoned to Aquileia by the Emperor Diocletian to face martyrdom, so when her teacher was taken from her, legends tell us that St. Anastasia fled to Sirmium in present-day Serbia.  She stayed with and served the Christian communities there until she was captured by Roman authorities.  She was tortured, and then sentenced to death by the prefect of Illyricum (the Roman province in which Sirmium existed).  We aren’t really sure whether her death came by burning or by the sword.  In fact, the legend doesn’t really have much in the way of historical basis at all!  Still, we know that she died in Sirmium serving the people there, and that’s good enough for us!

Now remember, she died in Serbia, which is still quite a ways from Rome.  How did her name find such honor and veneration in Rome so as to be listed among the other saints in the Roman Canon?  Strangely, her devotion was introduced to Rome by means of a previously existing church!

Basilica di Sant'Anistasia al Palatino in Rome

Basilica di Sant’Anistasia al Palatino in Rome

There had been an old church on the Palatine Hill in Rome above the Circus Maximus, which had been elaborately decorated with huge mosaics by Pope Damasus, who was responsible for building many of the major churches in Rome.  The church was called the “titulus Anastasiae”, and was one of the original tituli parishes in Rome – but it wasn’t named after St. Anastasia…yet.  It’s possible that the foundation was donated to the Church by a Roman noblewoman named Anastasia (like St. John Lateran was donated by the Laterani family), or that it was an Anastasis church commemorating the Resurrection of Jesus on Easter (“Anastasis” is the Greek word for “Resurrection”).  Either way, it was already a popular church, situated near the heart of the ancient Roman government.

St. Anastasia had already become very popular in Constantinople, and as the city began to emerge as the new cultural and government capital of the Empire, some of the religious devotions filtered over to the city of Rome.  The saint’s name and intercession were then applied to the old church to make it Saint Anastasia church.  So there you go!

Well, this has been fun!  We’re finally finished with all the saints of the Roman Canon, but there are so many other interesting, important, and obscure saints to discuss!  Hopefully, I’ll be able to decide whom to write about next week!

Fish like hotdogs.  When I was younger, I learned to fish with my dad.  And although serious fisherman would probably dispute me on this, we found live bait too nasty and expensive, so we would use hotdogs.  I mean, if you throw a small piece of hotdog in a pond, the fish immediately go for it, so…  So the fish would find a delicious morsel of cooked hotdog on our line, but deep inside of that hotdog waited a razor sharp hook.  And of course, you know the rest.  I don’t know how good Satan is at fishing, but he sure does a good job with his bait.  He shows us things that look great to us, things that are very good things, but then uses them to hook us and drag us away from God.

Today we hear the story of the temptation of Christ in the desert.  Now this was the wilderness of Judea, and it’s not a nice place to go to.  And Jesus found himself having to deal with a few things: he was surrounded by harsh conditions of the dryness, the wind, and the sands.  He was also dealing with complete loneliness, with nobody around him for miles and miles.  He had the nagging discomfort of hunger, which is way worse than fasting on Ash Wednesday.  So he had to deal with all of these things.  But then he also has to face something much worse: the temptations of the devil.  The devil’s temptations are pretty subtle, and this guy is very smart.  He’s a fallen angel, and from our tradition, along the same lines as St. Michael the Archangel.  But the thing that makes him deadly is that he knows his victims.  He knew Jesus, and he tried to use good things to tempt Christ.

So the first temptation that Jesus is presented with is to command that the stones lying around him become bread.  Satan wants Jesus to perform a miracle, something that he’s done quite often.  Jesus had performed lots of miracles, all to heal and help people believe in God.  The miracles have to do a lot with the identity of Jesus – who he is an why he’s powerful.  And so, this temptation that he’s presented with here isn’t really about bread or about filling his hungry stomach.  It’s about turning Christ away from the difficult road that the Father has chosen for him.  It makes that mission easier.  There’s no suffering, no scourging, no cross.  What harm is a little bread if you’ve got the power?  But Christ turns the devil away, because he knows that the mission he’s been given isn’t about himself, but about serving others and heroic sacrifice for them.  And so he tells the devil that we can’t live on bread alone, but on dependence on God.  We have to put God and his vocation for us first.

So the devil says, “Ah, so you’re going to play it like that, are you?”  He sees that Jesus is using Scripture, so he throws a little in himself, telling Jesus to throw himself off the cliff because Psalm 91 tells us that God will send angels to rescue him.  That seems like a good thing, right?  Trusting that God will take care of us is something we hear all the time!  But that’s not what this is about.  No, actually, it’s an attempt to control God.  He’s ultimately asking Jesus to say, “Father, if you’re really there, you’ll save me.  But if I die on the rocks at the bottom of this cliff, I’m not going to believe that you’re good.”  He’s trying to manipulate Jesus into manipulating the Father!  But Jesus won’t allow the experience of suffering that he’s having in the desert to lead him to demand things from the Father.

So the devil turns to his last resort, getting less and less subtle along the way.  He tells Jesus that he’ll give Christ power over all the kingdoms of the world, as long as Jesus falls prostrate and worships him.  Jesus is going to be a king eventually, right?  He’s going to be Lord of heaven and earth, particularly as we will remember after Easter.  It’s a good thing, right?  So basically the devil is tempting him to just take a little shortcut in getting there, one without the humiliation and torment that he’ll experience on Good Friday.  But Christ knows something very important: Easter Sunday doesn’t come without Good Friday.  He knows that bowing before Satan would not only be idolatry, but would derail him from the very thing that gives Redemption – the Cross!  Well, the devil gets fed up and leaves, but you know he must have been thinking, “Well, if I can’t have you, I guess I’ll just have to go after your followers.”

You and I find ourselves surrounded by good things – food, wealth, cars, school, work, the Cardinals, the World Cup this summer…  The devil is a smart guy – he knows the things we like, he knows the good things that we surround ourselves with, and he uses them to try to get us to bit into that hook of sin.  Take gluttony for example.  Food is a good thing, and something we need!  But if we’re using it for a crutch, something to replace our intimate relationships, it turns into something sinful.  The same is true about things such as pornography.  It takes the beauty of our human body and sexuality, something very good and a gift from God, and corrupts it, making it to objectify others, draw us away from our spouse, and leading us away from God.  But the temptation of Jesus is very good news for us.  It’s more than a personal victory for Jesus, that now he can go and do what he needs to do.  Rather, it’s a victory for all of us – Jesus overcomes his temptation by his human will and the grace of God.  He could have just smacked the devil across the lip and walked away, but he chose to go through what we deal with and defeat it as a human being, without ceasing to be the Son of God at all.  We experience the same things in our daily lives, and most of the time, we try to go through it alone.  We have the idea that we’re all alone out there, and that we just have to grit our teeth and push on through.  But Christ shows us today that he knows what we’re going through, and he wants to be there for us.  He can empower us by his divine grace to overcome those temptations.  That is what this season of Lent is all about.  We’re going off to the desert for 40 days, and we know what awaits us out there – temptation, suffering, self-denial, and all that.  But it’s not a season to torment ourselves, but to grow in our dependence on God.  We don’t do our Lenten practices just to see how well we can do if we give up chocolate or whatever, but rather to grow closer to God.  We give up things that are good, like TV or soda or candy, things that are good, but which the devil is using to draw us away from the Father.  We try to pray more and keep ourselves focused on Christ.  And we try to give of ourselves to express our love of the Father.  So as we begin this journey through the desert, fully aware that the devil is right there alongside us trying to tempt us, let us remember that the Lord is also here, especially in the Holy Eucharist, to strengthen us, and to draw us closer to himself.


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