We are featuring a series of nine Faith Sharing of Virtues of St. Anthony of Padua that were presented during the fiesta 9-day novena masses. This will temporarily replace the Sunday Gospel Reflections; after which the Gospel Reflections will return.
The Triumph of St. Anthony
by Winnie Monsod
“The saints are like the stars. In his providence Christ conceals them in a hidden place that they may not shine before others when they might wish to do so. Yet they are always ready to exchange the quiet of contemplation for the works of mercy as soon as they perceive in their heart the invitation of Christ.”
From St. Anthony’s Sermons
To start our sharing, may I invite you to look closely at our patron St. Anthony, who is the main figure in our altarpiece. This is a depiction of what I consider the main event in Anthony’s life as recounted to us by Count Tiso who was witness to it. We see Anthony, face to face with, and embracing the Christ Child. He has reached the pinnacle of living prayerfully – because if prayer is communicating with God – there he is, with God in his arms. You can’t get any closer than that. This is his triumph.
What path did he take to get there? To find out, we have to read not only the stories about Anthony, but also between the lines because we are trying to peep into the internal spiritual life of Anthony – his struggles, his victories, his defeats. Join me in this fascinating endeavor.
He was, for the first twenty-five years of his 36 year life, Fernando Martins de Bulhoes (Bulyois).He was born (on August 15, 1195) one block away from the Cathedral at Lisbon, almost under its shadow, and studied in the cathedral school. This tells us that his family,which belonged to the nobility, was also wealthy. Why? Because one does not live near the cathedral and one does not go to school in the middle age sunless one is financially blessed.
What Fernando Wanted, Fernando Got
At age 15 he entered the Augustinian Monastery at San Vicente, also in Lisbon. That tells us that he was attracted to a life of prayer. But there may be another story. The age of adulthood in the middle ages was 14. Why didn’t he enter then? Combine this with the fact that he was firstborn son of a noble family, which means, in those days, that he was to inherit everything. The second son usually entered the military, and the third son becomes a member of the clergy. So Fernando’s decision went against that, and must have met with a lot of objections, obstacles and grief, that’s why it took longer to enter the monastery. However, what Fernando wanted, Fernando got.
After two years in San Vicente, Fernando asked to be transferred to Santa Cruz monastery in Coimbra, the capital of Portugal, 200 km. away. Again there is another story. Why?It would seem that his parents had not given up on the idea that Fernando would change his mind about the clergy, because family and friends would constantly visit Fernando at San Vicente. And Fernando did not like the distraction.Moving to Coimbra meant effectively a break with his family – because that 200 km distance meant that his family would have to travel 4 to 5 days one way – at tremendous cost – to visit him. It shows us that Fernando was very serious about his life of prayer and contemplation, and he was willing to put his family behind him completely in order to achieve it.
And what Fernando wanted, Fernando got. So he spent the next eight years in Santa Cruz, which was famous for its teachers, its library and as a center for learning, At some point, he must have been ordained, we don’t know when. He could immerse himself in the scriptures and prayer.He was 25 years old, and he must have been pleased with life.
Then the game changed. In 1219 he met five Franciscans who were on their way to Morocco to preach and convert the Muslims, and less than a year later, in 1220, he saw them again: beheaded and mutilated. Fernando was very affected by this, and felt that he too should be martyred in the same manner. He talked to the Franciscans at Coimbra,and told them he wanted to be a Franciscan – if they could send him to Morocco. He was assured that this could be done, and so he asked for permission to leave the Augustinians. You can understand the consternation that this caused. His prior objected at first, but again,Fernando wanted, and Fernando got.
So Fernando became Antonio(named after St.Anthony the Great, which was the name of the church the Franciscans lived in)and shortly after that, he set sail for Morocco and his expected martyrdom. Everything according to plan.
And then, wham! God slammed the door.
He had barely landed in Morocco when he was struck down by an unidentified illness which left him fevered, semi-comatose and hardly in any position to preach to the Muslims, much less get himself martyred. The illness was too much, and he decided to go back to Lisbon. But as if adding insult to injury, his homeward-bound ship was struck by a storm and borne eastward instead ofnorthward, and it finally landed in Sicily. If you want to know how far off-course this was, look at a map.
These setbacks were tremendous to Antonio who for the past ten years of his prayer life had always gotten what he wanted. Look at it from his point of view: He had lost control, and he didn’t even know why.He had given up his fortune, a life of ease, his family and friends, with cheer, for the love of God. And all he had wanted to do was preach to the Muslims and die for the glory of God, and he ended up sick as a dog and in Italy. What had he done wrong? Why was he being punished? This was a whole new experience for Antonio, and he needed time to deal with it.
And God gave him all the time he needed. It took two years, in fact, of prayer and contemplation, which was only interrupted when he attended the chapter meeting in Assisi in 1221, still sickly. I mention this only because Francis was also there, and there was no Aha! meeting between the two great saints, at least none on record. After that meeting it took him another eleven months, to come to terms with his Lord, to fully humble himself, to accept that he was not running the show, and to offer himself wholly to God’s will. Thus did the aristocrat’s son who always got what he wanted, become truly God’s son, who wanted only what God gave him.
Door Closed – Window Opens
Obviously God was pleased with Antonio’s transformation, because as quickly as He slammed the door in Morocco, he opened wide the window to the new Anthony—in Forli, Italy.
In his sharing, Randy Limjoco told us about what happened there. To remind: In Forli, an ordination was to be held and the Franciscan friars in neighboring Monte Paolo including Anthony,were invited. The story goes that the Dominicans were not prepared to give the homily, because they were the guests. And the Franciscans were not prepared to give the homily, because they thought the Dominicans would give it. Anthony was oblivious to it all because he was helping in the kitchen. The Franciscan superior ordered the kitchen worker to do it. And Anthony obliged. Rather, God obliged.
Probably the only ones who were not stunned by the homily was Anthony, who knew he was only God’s instrument, and God himself. I say this, because there is no way that Anthony could deliver such a potent extemporaneous homily after two years of no practice, with no preparation, unless the Holy Spirit was with him.
And that was the start of this new phase of Anthony’s living prayerfully. In the next eight years, he was like a dynamo. He traveled all over, criss-crossing Italy and France, preaching, teaching, proselytizing, helping the poor, the oppressed, the prisoners, fighting corruption, and greed, and usury ,and hearing confessions in between. He was called the Hammer of the Heretics because his knowledge of scripture confounded them, and his evident sincerity convinced them to change. He was called the Ark of the Testament by Pope Gregory IX because he was like a strongbox who kept the faith safe from danger. He was fearless in facing tyrants, wrongdoers. No one was too small or too big for him to chastise or praise, as the case may be.
Does this mean that he gave up living prayerfully? No. I think what happened was that his complete and abject surrender to the Lord’s will, transformed him from a man who said prayers and engaged in contemplation,to a man who was himself the prayer.
And there can be no doubt that the Father in heaven was pleased. That image of St. Anthony in front of us, is practically in all churches in the world today in one form or another. It depicts an event that occurred literally just days before Anthony’s death. As the hymn goes, God was so pleased with St. Anthony that he sent him a foretaste of his own reward. He probably also wanted to ease the physical pain Anthony was enduring, from his edema and ergotism.
We are told that He was so pleased with St. Anthony that He Himself was on hand to personally welcome him into heaven. The last words of St. Anthony before he died, was, “I see the Lord.”
And it is obvious that He still is very pleased with our patron saint, judging by the success of Anthony’s intercessions, almost 800 years after his death.
Can we learn anything from tracing the path of St. Anthony’s quest for living prayerfully? Yes.First, we must learn that our will is not always God’s will.Sounds easy? In Anthony’s case he learned this the hard way. Second, I think living prayerfully requires that every action we make, every breath we take,has to be dedicated to God. Sounds hard, but God is willing to help us, if we just let him take over: Let Go, Let God. And third, we learn that God always answers our prayers – although sometimes in unexpected ways: Anthony wanted to convert the Muslims. He did convert — he converted heretics and unbelievers galore.
Thank you. St. Anthony. I hope I told your story accurately. Amen.