St. Anthony on Discernment


A discourse of the blessed Antony on this subject

AND so I remember that while I was still a boy, in the region of
Thebaid, where the blessed Antony lived, the elders came to him to
inquire about perfection: and though the conference lasted from evening
till morning, the greatest part of the night was taken up with this
question. For it was discussed at great length what virtue or observance
could preserve a monk always unharmed by the snares and deceits of the
devil, and carry him forward on a sure and right path, and with firm
step to the heights of perfection. And each one gave his opinion
according to the bent of his own mind. Some made it consist in zeal in
fasting and vigils, because a soul that has been brought low by these,
and so obtained purity of heart and body will be the more easily united
to God. Others (made it consist) in despising all things, as, if the
mind were utterly deprived of them, it would come the more freely to
God, as if henceforth there were no snares to entangle it. Others
thought that withdrawal from the world was the thing needful, i.e.,
solitude and the secrecy of the hermits life; living in which a man may
more readily commune with God, and cling more especially to Him. Others
laid down that the duties of charity (i.e., of kindness) should be
practiced, because the Lord in the gospel promised more especially to
give the kingdom to these; when He said Come ye blessed of My Father,
inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world
For I was an hungry and ye gave Me to eat, I was thirsty and ye gave Me
to drink, etc.:[81] and when in this fashion they declared that by means
of different virtues a more certain approach to God could be secured,
the greater part of the night had been spent in this discussion. Then at
last the blessed Antony spoke and said: All these things which you have
mentioned are indeed needful, and helpful to those who are thirsting
for God, and desirous to approach Him. But countless accidents and the
experience of many people will not allow us to make the most important
of gifts consist in them. For often when men are most strict in fasting
or in vigils, and nobly withdraw into solitude, and aim at depriving
themselves of all their goods so absolutely that they do not suffer even
a days allowance of food or a single penny to remain to them, and when
they fulfill all the duties of kindness with the utmost devotion, yet
still we have seen them suddenly deceived, so that they could not bring
the work they had entered upon to a suitable close, but brought their
exalted fervor and praiseworthy manner of life to a terrible end.
Wherefore we shall be able clearly to recognize what it is which mainly
leads to God, if we trace out with greater care the reason of their
downfall and deception. For when the works of the above mentioned
virtues were abounding in them, discretion alone was wanting, and
allowed them not to continue even to the end. Nor can any other reason
for their falling off be discovered except that as they were not
sufficiently instructed by their elders they could not obtain judgment
and discretion, which passing by excess on either side, teaches a monk
always to walk along the royal road, and does not suffer him to be
puffed up on the right hand of virtue, i.e., from excess of zeal to
transgress the bounds of due moderation in foolish presumption, nor
allows him to be enamoured of slackness and turn aside to the vices on
the left hand, i.e., under pretext of controlling the body, to grow
slack with the opposite spirit of lukewarmness. For this is discretion,
which is termed in the gospel the eye, and light of the body, according
to the Saviors saying: The light of thy body is thine eye: but if thine
eye be single, thy whole body will be full of light, but if thine eye be
evil, thy whole body will be full of darkness:[82] because as it
discerns all the thoughts and actions of men, it sees and overlooks all
things which should be done. But if in any man this is evil, i.e., not
fortified by sound judgment and knowledge, or deceived by some error and
presumption, it will make our whole body full of darkness, i.e., it
will darken all our mental vision and our actions, as they will be
involved in the darkness of vices and the gloom of disturbances. For,
says He, if the light which is in thee be darkness, how great will that
darkness be![83] For no one can doubt that when the judgment of our
heart goes wrong, and is overwhelmed by the night of ignorance, our
thoughts and deeds, which are the result of deliberation and discretion,
must be involved in the darkness of still greater sins.