- The Life of Antony: The Greek Life of Antony and the Coptic Life of Antony, and an Encomium on Saint Antony by John of Shmûn, and a Letter to the Disciples of Antony by Serapion of Thmuis
A true masterpiece of Christian literature and the model for all subsequent Christian hagiography, Athanasius of Alexandria's Life of Antonynonetheless has not had a prominent role in shaping contemporary Christian spirituality. Its striking account of the heroic Antony's resistance to the ferocious demons of the Egyptian desert possesses the undeniable power to convert and inspire, but it lacks the interior mystical element of Gregory of Nyssa's Life of Mosesor Augustine's Trinity, the direct and penetrating wisdom of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, or the careful plotting of one's spiritual progress found in the works of Evagrius Ponticus and John Cassian or in the Rule of St. Benedict. Students and lay people often tell me that the Sayingsor Evagrius have affected their own spiritual lives, but few ever speak of the Life of Antonyin this way. One goal of this volume, edited by and mostly the work of Tim Vivian, is to make this work more accessible to modern readers as a work of spirituality (xx).
That alone justifies a new English translation of the Lifeeven though several already exist, above all Robert Gregg's contribution to the Classics of Western Spirituality (Paulist Press, 1980). But previous translations, including Gregg's, also were based on the unsatisfactory edition of the text in Migne, while Vivian and his co-translator Apostolos N. Athanassakis use the outstanding critical edition of G. J. M. Bartelink, Vie d'Antoine(Sources chrétiennes 400; Éditions du Cerf, 1994). Like a DVD, this translation comes with "bonus material": an introduction, notes, and index, plus translations of the Coptic version of the Life(facing that of the Greek), John of Shmûn's late sixth-century Coptic encomium On Antony of Egypt, [End Page 247]and Serapion of Thmuis's Letter to the Disciples of Antony, written shortly after Antony's death in 356. The result is a sometimes confusing volume that raises questions for the scholar, yet nonetheless meets its goal of giving modern readers better access to the Life's spirituality.
The Lifeis such a rich and complex work that any introduction, even of the length here (xxiii-lxvi), must be selective in its coverage. Gregg, writing in the wake of Peter Brown's seminal work on the late ancient holy man, and as he and Dennis Groh were developing their groundbreaking monograph on early Arianism, studied Athanasius's portrait of the saint against its literary and social background and in terms of Athanasius's anti-Arian theology. Vivian, writing after several studies that emphasized the social and political dimensions of the Life, focuses on the work's biblicism, Antony's conflicts with demons and pagan philosophers, and the metaphor of journeying to one's home. Vivian's discussion of the work's indebtedness to biblical models (xxvi-xxxv) is particularly good, and he is probably right in identifying its biblicism as the element that makes it hagiographic rather than historical (xxviii). Drawing on Brown (and the American experience), he insightfully calls this story of a monk blazing a new trail into the desert a "frontier work" (gracefully picked up by Rowan Williams in his foreword) and rightly draws attention to the centrality of its anti-pagan, even apologetic agenda (xlv). The metaphor of the "way home" provides a fitting way to connect the modern Christian to Antony's extraordinary career (lvii-lxvi). In these ways Vivian helps the reader to see the potential relevance of this work to Christian life today.