We’re so used to praying through St Anthony to God, asking him to intercede for us for various things we need. But of course, we mustn’t forget the other important dimension of saints, which is that we’re supposed to, in some sense, imitate them, or at least, learn from their holy lives.
And so today I want to focus a little bit on the life of Saint Anthony, especially the contrast between the first part of his life and the second part. And I want to relate that, in a way, to the issue about our students doing exams. And maybe also to ourselves when we look at our lives.
It’s good to remind ourselves of the life of Saint Anthony. It falls into two main parts; he lived a very short life as you know – he died in his early thirties. The first twenty-five years of his life he spent in Portugal and then the last eleven or twelve years in Italy.
It is those years years that are the most dramatic and the ones we think of most, and we we forget those early years in Portugal. He was born Fernando in Lisbon, quite close to the city centre, where there’s a great cathedral. At a young age he went to the cathedral school. He seems to have been a very good religious child and we are told that at the age of fifteen he decided he was going to be a priest in the Augustinian order
So, he was clearly quite a mature young man with definite ideas in his head as to what he wanted to do. We are told that he was in Lisbon for a couple of years but then he found himself being distracted by his old friends, who were always visiting him, and so he went to his superiors, and he asked them, maybe demanded of them, that he go to another place where he could be in peace and wouldn’t have those distractions.
And so, he ends up in a place called Coimbra. Again, we see a very strong-willed young man here. He knows what he wants to do and of course he believes that God is on his side. The story goes that he met the first Franciscans on their way to Morocco to preach the Gospel to the Muslims there and then, he sees them coming back as martyrs; their remains are brought back with great fanfare in Coimbra, and this leads to a kind of conversion in his life.
He wants to be a Franciscan. After years in the Augustinian order, he goes along to the Franciscans who have a small place in Coimbra and he says: “I’d like to join you but on condition that you allow me to go to Morocco to preach to the heathens and to be a martyr there.”
You see, in those days a lot of people wanted to be martyrs because they felt it was the best way to imitate Christ who tells us in the Gospel that “to follow me you must take up your cross.” So people like Anthony and Saint Francis often wanted to be martyrs to show their full love of Christ.
Anthony is accepted by the Franciscans. They notice how strong-willed he is; no one would join a religious order today and lay down conditions! But this is Saint Anthony. He knows what he wants, which is t to go to Morocco to preach the Gospel. He wants to be a martyr.
And then of course God disturbs his plans – as he often does! Anthony goes to Morocco, and he becomes very ill so he can’t preach the word and you can imagine how broken-hearted he is at this apparent failure, this frustration of his plans, which he thinks are God’s plans for him.
He gets on a ship to go home to Portugal but of course God leads him in another direction. He lands in the south of Italy. The Franciscans there take him in and look after him, this foreigner, so sick, with little Italian so he couldn’t say a word to them. And yet, here he seems to change.
He’s learned the lesson that his plans have to give way to God’s plans. And so, he doesn’t really demand anything of his superiors in Italy. He is making meals for the Friars and praying, and of course, he is studying. And he must be very frustrated wondering what God wants of him. He must know what great talents and gifts he has as a scholar and a preacher but no, he’s not going to follow his own plans. He’s going to wait and eventually of course there’s this famous story of him being forced, ordered in fact, to preach at an ordination ceremony when he was unprepared. Of course, that was his discovery, and the Friars began to use him as a preacher.
This is where the second part of his life really takes off. He becomes world famous. But notice the difference between the two sides of his life; that first side where he is following his own plans, and then suddenly realises no! I must go the way that God wants me to go. This can happen so often in our lives especially for younger people, and that’s why I’m thinking especially of young people who are doing their Leaving Certificate [examination] this year. They have great plans to go to university. They hope to get all of those points they need in order to embrace this great plan.
I imagine in another month’s time or whenever those results come out that there might be many young people bitterly broken-hearted, just like Saint Anthony, and I hope and pray that those who live with them like yourselves, people of faith, will encourage them and help them to realise that we can’t plan out our life in that way. We have to be open to different possibilities.
Isn’t it one of the Jewish rabbis who said famously that if you want to make God laugh just tell him about your plans! Because God isn’t impressed with our plans; he has plans for us and that’s all part of what we call the great Providence of God, which of course St Anthony learns the hard way by the disappointment of his ambitions and his recognition that he must go the road less travelled, the road that God wants him to go.
And this can happen not only to young people but to any of us in life. In so many ways the best laid plans are disrupted by the circumstances of life, and it is often God wanting to lead us into something different. For St Anthony it was something absolutely brilliant, becoming this great missionary preacher, the great miracles that he performed, and it’s all to do with this wonderful doctrine of the Providence of God that in God’s eyes, there’s no such thing as failure for those who love him.
It’s put brilliantly by Saint Paul, isn’t it? Paul says that all things work for their good for those who love God. That’s what Saint Anthony learned early on in his career, that’s what changed him, that that’s what made him a magnificent saint. He put his complete trust in in God.
The scripture says that all things work for the good of those who love God. Even our sins can lead us to seek forgiveness from God, making something wonderful out of our lives. After all, Saint Peter denied the Lord three times and Saint Paul persecuted Christians. And yet, that didn’t stop them from becoming great saints! They were stopped in their tracks somehow, to go another way. But it was the way that God was leading them.
Jesus Christ, himself the son of God, spent thirty years of his life in absolute hiddenness as a carpenter’s son. We know little or nothing about it, but it was not a waste of time. Like St Anthony in the hermitage back there in Portugal and studying, it was all in preparation for what God wanted. If Jesus can spend thirty years preparing for a three year ministry, cannot a student repeat a year if disappointed with Leaving [certificate] results. Could that not be God’s plan for them? Could God be leading them in a new way? We still have all the options to abandon ourselves to God’s love and in loving Him He will look after us. He will bring us through the ups and downs.
As we reflect on the life of Saint Anthony, this dramatic life holds quite a message. It has it all there, for all of us to see. God’s Providence in the ups and downs, the triumphs and the failure. In God’s eyes there is no failure if we put our trust in him.
I imagine at the end of his life, on his death bed, Saint Anthony, looking back, said: “Thank God I didn’t die a martyr in Morocco.” He saw that God wasn’t asking him to die for him, he saw that God was asking him to live for him and that’s what God is asking us to do.