On January 17, 1871, Paris was besieged; two-thirds of the country was in the power of the Germans. The battle of Le Mans had laid Mayenne and Brittany open to the invaders. In this time of direst trouble, prayer was rising from different parts of France as from one heart and from one voice, most earnestly near that spot where the invader’s next attack was expected. This spot was Laval, chief town of Mayenne.
Then it was that Pontmain, a hamlet of some five hundred inhabitants, was to become for ever memorable, because of the heavenly favour bestowed upon it that night. Even its geographical position on the borderland between Brittany and Mayenne was to assume historical importance. Seen by the light of the celestial drama about to be enacted above it, it was to appear as a sentinel guarding Brittany.
Saint Anthony was born in the year 251, in Upper Egypt. Hearing at Mass the words, If you would be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, he gave away all his vast possessions — staying only to see that his sister’s education was completed — and retired into the desert. He then begged an aged hermit to teach him the spiritual life, and he also visited various solitaries, undertaking to copy the principal virtue of each.
To serve God more perfectly, Anthony immured himself in a ruin, building up the door so that none could enter. Here the devils assaulted him furiously, appearing as various monsters, and even wounding him severely; but his courage never failed, and he overcame them all by confidence in God and by the sign of the cross. One night, while Anthony was in his solitude, many devils scourged him so terribly that he lay as if dead. A friend found him in this condition, and believing him dead carried him home. But when Anthony came to himself he persuaded his friend to take him back, in spite of his wounds, to his solitude. Here, prostrate from weakness, he defied the devils, saying, I fear you not; you cannot separate me from the love of Christ. After more vain assaults the devils fled, and Christ appeared to Anthony in His glory.
Saint Anthony’s only food was bread and water, which he never tasted before sunset, and sometimes only once in two, three, or four days. He wore sackcloth and sheepskin, and he often knelt in prayer from sunset to sunrise.
His admirers became so many and so insistent that he was eventually persuaded to found two monasteries for them and to give them a rule of life. These were the first monasteries ever to be founded, and Saint Anthony is, therefore, the father of cenobites of monks. In 311 he went to Alexandria to take part in the Arian controversy and to comfort those who were being persecuted by Maximinus. This visit lasted for a few days only, after which he retired into a solitude even more remote so that he might cut himself off completely from his admirers. When he was over ninety, he was commanded by God in a vision to search the desert for Saint Paul the Hermit. He is said to have survived until the age of a hundred and five, when he died peacefully in a cave on Mount Kolzim near the Red Sea. Saint Athanasius, his biographer, says that the mere knowledge of how Saint Anthony lived is a good guide to virtue.
Reflection. The more violent the assaults of temptation suffered by Saint Anthony, the more firmly did he grasp his weapons, namely, mortification and prayer. Let us imitate him in this, if we wish to obtain victories like his.
Little Pictorial Lives of the Saints, a compilation based on Butler’s Lives of the Saints and other sources by John Gilmary Shea (Benziger Brothers: New York, 1894); Les Petits Bollandistes: Vies des Saints, by Msgr. Paul Guérin (Bloud et Barral: Paris, 1882), Vol. 1; The Saints, a Concise Biographical Dictionary, edited by John Coulson (Hawthorn Books, Inc.: New York, 1957).
During the third century paganism and Christianity vied for supremacy in the Roman Empire. Hoping to stifle the Church completely, the emperor Diocletian in 303 began the last and fiercest of the persecutions. In time, Christian charity conquered pagan brutality, and as the Church attracted more and more members, the Roman government would be compelled to recognize its existence, but it was only after almost three hundred years, during which persecutions had forced Christian worship underground, that the Church would finally come out into the open after the Edict of Nantes in 313. It was still young and disorganized, vulnerable to heresy and apostasy, and needed a strong leader to settle questions of doctrine and discipline.
AMONG the several noblemen who placed their sons under the care of St. Benedict, to be brought up in piety and learning, Equitius, one of that rank, left with him his son Maurus, then but twelve years old, in 522. The youth surpassed all his fellow monks in the discharge of monastic duties, and when he was grown up, St. Benedict made him his coadjutor in the government of Sublaco. Maurus, by his singleness of heart and profound humility, was a model of perfection to all the brethren, and was favoured by God with the gift of miracles. St. Placidus, a fellow monk, the son of the senator Tertullus, going one day to fetch water, fell into the lake, and was carried the distance of a bow-shot from the bank. St. Benedict saw this in spirit in his cell, and bid Maurus run and draw him out. Maurus obeyed, walked upon the waters without perceiving it, and dragged out Placidus by the hair, without sinking in the least himself. He attributed the miracle to the prayers of St. Benedict; but the holy abbot, to the obedience of the disciple. Soon after that holy patriarch had retired to Cassino, he called St. Maurus thither, in the year 528.