For most monks and nuns, if not necessarily for everyone, there is something immensely attractive about Antony’s reaction to hearing the gospel of the rich young man (Matt 19. 16–30). Antony was struck to the heart, so, unlike the rich young man himself, gave away all that he had and was joyful evermore.* To give up everything for Christ in one great act of surrender is a fine thing, but if my old junior mistress is to be believed, the smaller renunciations of every day are finer still. I’m not entirely sure about that, since the one tends to lead to the other, but I do know that the Church as a whole has a problem with poverty and wealth and lives in constant tension between the two. She is perceived as a rich institution, yet she is committed to serving the poor and alleviating poverty. In Rome itself, the contrast is stark. The basilicas and other great churches are crammed with priceless works of art but just round the corner from the Vatican, and beside many of the churches, you will find the homeless huddled up against the cold and wet of January. The same scene can be found in many an American or European town. Sometimes the poverty is less visible, but it is there nonetheless, hidden away in the room without heating or the cupboard empty of food.
For some, the answer is a rather callous repeating of Jesus’ words ‘The poor you have always with you,’ a reminder about ‘using money, that tainted thing, to win yourself friends’ and an exposition of their own view of the capitalism versus socialism debate. For others, there is wholesale condemnation of wealth in all its forms, some muttering about camels and the eyes of needles and a heavy reliance on the more severe passages of the Letter of St James. In both cases, fear and hatred are often as prominent as love. Rash indeed is the questioner who dares to ask what each risks losing by adopting, or at least seeking to understand, the stance of the other. For a Catholic, there is the added complication of a long tradition of Catholic social teaching which attempts to do justice to the complexity of the issues involved while never forgetting that abstractions like wealth and poverty are incarnated in the flesh of rich and poor human beings.
Admirers of the work of Thomas Picketty will be aware of his thesis that it is not wealth or poverty as such but inequality and its causes that poses the greatest problem these days. I find myself more and more in agreement with him. The gap between rich and poor is growing, even in the UK, and while part of me applauds those who do well for themselves, especially when, as in the case of some of the rich people I know, there is a wonderful generosity about the sharing their good fortune, I am uncomfortable about the way in which excess is becoming more and more the norm among others e.g. the level of reward given to the CEOs of some British companies, compared with the remuneration of their staff, is troubling.
We know that St Antony was frequently consulted by those who valued his wisdom, even in practical matters which, at first sight, seem to be well beyond the scope of the monk. However, Athanasius’s Life gives no inkling of what he might have thought about the situation I have described — and that is an advantage. It is a reminder that we cannot settle every question by simply rehearsing the arguments of the past. We have to think and pray anew. We are not living in the third/fourth century, and while we may draw parallels with a former age, we cannot, and should not, pretend that it provides an adequate solution to the challenges of our own times. When St Antony lived, for instance, slavery was an important element in economic and social life. In covert form, it still is today, but it is not so readily acknowledged. Migration from south to north is not something he encountered but is today having an impact on northern societies and their planning for the future. These are matters in which we are all involved by virtue of our living now as distinct from then. We cannot shrug them off by claiming that we are (literally) living a cloistered life. We all require goods and services which have to be bought and paid for. Like it or not, the problem of inequality is one we must all deal with.
So, should we give away everything we have and rush off to become hermits? St Benedict was decidedly ambivalent on that question. I think all we can safely say is that, whatever our calling in life, we can learn from Antony.Whether we be rich or poor, our charity should be great because it is not dependent on how much we have but on how we use what we have. Our readiness to help others should mark us out as true disciples of the Lord. And in our hearts there should be always be a desert place, where Christ may pray unceasingly to the Father.
*Antony did make provision for his sister before going into the desert.