St. Anthony is one of those saints recognized by a wide range of honorifics, among them St. Anthony, Abbot, St. Anthony of Egypt, St. Anthony the Anchorite, St. Anthony, Father of Monasticism, and, of course, St. Anthony the Great. Though my favorite remains—and resonates with me particularly on this year’s celebration of his feast—St. Anthony of the Desert. He spent about 87 of his 105 years in increasingly remote stretches of desert, searching for—and finding— in its arid emptiness the superabundance of God.
Yet there are deserts and there are deserts. A couple blocks away from me is an open-air drug market running 24/7 without police interference (there’s no point arresting them since the Manhattan District Attorney doesn’t believe in prosecuting drug offenses). Half a block away a young man was killed last summer during a drug deal gone wrong; a few months ago another young man up the street from me died of a drug overdose.
Back in September four people were shot outside of a dance club at 4:00 in the morning. Just last week a couple of the church’s poor boxes were jimmied and robbed. The outdoor crêche was vandalized this Christmas. Choir rehearsals have been moved to the afternoon because people don’t want to go out after dark. Enrollment for the parish’s religious ed program (I’m catechist for the 2nd graders) was down this year because so many families had moved out of the neighborhood.
Me, I’m not going anywhere. Part of this is, I suppose, simple stubbornness: this is my city, this is my neighborhood, this is my parish. I love all three, especially my parish, and I’m not going to abandon them in their time of need. And the reason I love them—again, especially my parish—is because they each have changed my life in a profound way, a profoundly good way. And St. Anthony said there were three things necessary for the spiritual life, and specifically the monastic life: to keep God ever before one’s eyes; to let all your actions be guided by Scripture; and not to be in a hurry to move someplace else.
When I registered at my parish, I took that as my vow of stability. I resolved that, in good times or bad, it would be the place where I would work out my salvation. I didn’t choose it as my spiritual home because it felt safe; I chose it because I like praying with the people there, I like worshiping with them. And as the neighborhood becomes more desert-like (the country, the world…), I’m discovering more and more—as St. Anthony discovered, as St. Benedict, as any monastic—the sweetness of surrender, of obedience to the life I’ve been given, the piece of history in which I’ve been placed, and, yes, in the midst of it, the superabundance of God.