January 17 – Anthony the Great; Gonçalo de Amarante

Painting of the Torment of St. Anthony by Michaelangelo ca. 1488Anthony the Great (ca. 251–356) is known as the Father of Monasticism. He was born in Egypt, and after his parents died, he placed his sister in a women’s home (we assume that she was okay with this), and went off into the desert. There, like a teenage male with an iPhone, he was afflicted with boredom, laziness, and phantoms of women. A second stay in the desert, near a town with the delightful name of Crocodilopolis[1], saw him afflicted with phantoms in the form of wild beasts, snakes, and scorpions, like the same teenager looking through a catalog at a tattoo parlor. For a while he locked himself in a tomb, and when the villagers came to get him out several months later with a crowbar, they were delighted to find him alive and well, and his reputation began to spread.

Wishing to escape all fame and worldly reputation, he wandered off into the wilderness, thereby becoming the most famous monk of the middle ages. His biography was written within 4 years of his death by none other than Athanasius the Great (Jan 18), and how many of us can say that? I mean none of us, because we’re still alive and Athanasius died hundreds of years ago. But you get the idea.

Wishing to die a martyr, Anthony wandered into Alexandria during one of the persecutions and began looking for trouble. He argued with the governor, went where he was explicitly told not to go, and basically did everything he possibly could to get martyred, short of taking out an ad in the papyrus. It didn’t work. He went back to the desert, only to be plagued with the curse of the would-be hermit, which is as we have seen a steady stream of aspiring monastics and ultimately a monastery. He lived out his days teaching the monks, fighting Arians (I’m sensing a theme here), and exuding many books’ worth of wise sayings and koan-like “words.”* We probably don’t want to ask why, but he is also the patron saint of people suffering from “St. Anthony’s Fire” or ergot poisoning.

Painting of São Gonçalo de Amarante by António André, ca. 1620Gonçalo de Amarante (1186–1260) (aka Gonzalo) was a Portuguese priest named after a city in northeast Brazil. After he had been established in his first parish, he gave up his benefice* to his nephew and went on a walking tour of the Holy Land. He was not a speed walker, however. When he returned fourteen years later, his nephew, thinking he was a vagrant (despite his saying, “No, wait, it’s Uncle Gonçalo!”), set the dogs on him. Gonçalo shrugged and wandered off to become a hermit. In perhaps the most marvelous of his many miracles, no monastic community sprang up around him.

One day, while building a bridge, his workers ran out of wine. Apparently there was something about this in their contract, for he was afraid they would go on strike. Gonçalo prayed and attacked a large rock with his staff, and wine of a particularly good vintage flowed from a crevice in the ground. My sources do not say how long it took the workers to get back to work. Clearly he was a pescotongue[2], for when the food ran out, he walked down to the river bank and called to the fish, who fought for the privilege of jumping onto the shore at his feet. We can just imagine a chorus of their tiny voices crying, “Pick me! Pick me!” Just what the fish stood to gain from this behavior is not explained. Perhaps they were downstream from a—no, it doesn’t bear thinking about.

Once, to make a point during a sermon, Gonçalo excommunicated a basket of bread, and immediately the loaves were covered in black mold. Then he pardoned the bread, and it instantly became fresh and wholesome and bread-colored again[3]. As far as we know he only did this once. I would have been tempted to go back and forth all day like that. Look, moldy! Look, fresh! Look, moldy! Look, fresh! Moldy! Fresh! Moldy! Fresh! This is probably why I have not been granted the ability to perform miracles.

[1] This could be the basis of a great tongue-twister, the composition of which is left as an exercise for the reader.
[2] Not to be confused with a piscotongue, someone who speaks Episcopalian.
[3] From this I think we can conclude it wasn’t pumpernickel.