Reflection on a Saying of a Desert Christian: Abba Anthony the Great

“It once passed through the mind of Antonios the Great to wonder what measure of holiness he had attained. God, however, Who wished to humble his mind, showed him in a dream one night that a certain cobbler, who had a shop on one of the out-of-the-way streets of Alexandria, was better than he.

“As soon as day broke, the Saint took his staff and set out for the city. He wanted to meet this renown cobbler himself and to see his virtues. With great difficulty, he found his shop, went inside, sat down beside him on his bench, and began to ask about his life.

“The simple man, who could not figure out who this old monk who came so suddenly to interrogate him was, answered him ever so slowly and calmly, without taking his eyes from the shoe that he was mending.

“I do not know, Abba, if I have ever done any good. Every morning I get up and do my prayers and then I begin my work. However, I first say to myself that all the people in this city, from the very least to the very greatest, will be saved, and only I will be condemned for my many sins. And in the evening when I lie down, again I think about the same thing.”

“The Saint stood up in wonderment, embraced the cobbler, kissed him, and said to him with emotion: “You, my brother, like a good merchant, have easily gained the precious pearl. I have grown old in the desert, toiling and sweating, but I have not attained to your humility.”

Anthony the Great, aka Anthony of Egypt, aka Anthony of the Desert was undeniably a holy man.  We can read all about it in the Life of Anthony by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria.  I like the Paulist Press version, personally.

He was a holy man yet he was also human and vulnerable to the temptations all humans are subject to, such as curiosity about just how holy he might be.  While it may be natural enough to have it cross one’s mind, it is really isn’t something we should dwell upon because answering the question can only lead to comparisons, judgmentalness, pride, etc, all very unholy things. God did not want Anthony to fall prey to such things and revealed to Anthony that there was a cobbler in the city, not a monk in the desert, who was holier than Anthony. Anthony walks to Alexandria to learn from him.

Puzzled that a monk would wish to learn from him, the shoemaker says all he does is pray and reflect that his own sins will keep him from salvation while all others are saved.  The cobbler doesn’t compare himself to anyone, he merely reflects upon his own stuff. Anthony is greatly impressed by such humility.

In our day, we might say that the cobbler suffers from a lack of self-esteem. Were we theologians, we might say that the shoemaker doesn’t have a proper understanding of God’s grace. Both could well be true. What he does demonstrate is that sin must be taken seriously.

We don’t like to talk about sin because, I think, we don’t want to admit that we might be sinners. Such a thing would imply there might be something wrong with us. Which there is.  We are sinners.  All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. All of us, as did Anthony, need to seek to live holy lives. To challenge ourselves to choose holiness every moment of every day.

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