The ideal of fervent Christians in the first centuries had been to give their lives for the Lord in the torture of Martyrdom, but since the peace of Constantin in 313 this hope had no further possibility. In the decadent and weakened roman empire of the 4th century, the Christians who now were no longer required to shed their blood, suddenly found themselves clothed with honor and a freedom which risked to bring both lukewarm half-heartedness and mediocrity.
It is in this context that at the extreme south of the empire, a few Egyptians, wishing to live a life conforming to the spirit and radical requirements of the Gospel, decided to quit both towns and villages to live in the desert.
In Greek the word monachos already existed to name these recluses, but tradition makes Saint Anthony the first, and in any case the most celebrated of these hermits of the beginning of the 4th century.
Anthony was the only inheritor of a wealthy family. His parents has just died leaving him vast wealth, when one day he entered a church at the precise moment when the priest, reading the Gospel of the day, spoke the words which the Lord said to the rich young man: “if you wish to be perfect, go sell all that you possess and give it to the poor, and you will have a treasure in heaven: then come and follow me”. He took this message as being addressed to him personally, and at once, he gave away all that he had and retired to the Egyptian desert, living in a tomb hewn from the rock.
He did not remain alone for long, as many other Christians, who felt the need to put the desert between themselves and the world rallied around Anthony, whose wisdom and kindliness they admired. He became the example of all those who retired from the world and consecrated themselves to God.
Anthony lived to be more than one hundred, and when he died around 356, hundreds and maybe thousands of hermits, who recognized him as their spiritual Father, from then on fed their inner life with the words of wisdom he had left them.
All the monks of Christendom, whether recluse or in community, recognize Saint Anthony as their Father, their example and their patron, particularly in the oriental church.
The TAU or “Saint Anthony Cross” is well known as a heraldic emblem. But what does it signify precisely? Several explanations have been proposed: it is said that in his old age, St. Anthony leaned on a stick in the form of a “T”. When he visited one of his disciples for a religious discussion, he propped his stick at the entrance to the grotto or hut of the hermit.
That signified “do not disturb, Anthony is speaking of God”.
The hospitaller Order of the Antonine of Dauphiné (regular canons of St.-Antoine-en-Viennois) founded in 1095, had the TAU as emblem. You can still see it today on the door of their church.
They considered it to be a crutch: the crutch which was used by the victims of bubonic plague whom the Antonine helped. This order was dissolved in 1776.
The Antonine Maronite of Lebanon, when their Constitutions were approved by Pope Clement XII, adopted the TAU as their distinctive emblem. At that period they could also find a resemblance in it to another form of crutch which they used daily: the stick in the form of the “T” on which they leaned during the long night services where they sang standing for many hours around a lectern, where the big book of song copied by hand and written in syriac occupied the place of honour. The TAU then represented perseverance in ordered and sung prayer.
In any case, the TAU remains today the Antonine emblem. It is worn in bright blue, over the heart, on their black monks habit, so differentiating them from the other two Lebanese Orders, the Baladites and the Mariamites, showing their attachment to both the personality and the spirituality of Saint Anthony.
The reputation of Saint Anthony spread during his own lifetime throughout all the Roman empire and even to Mesopotamia. It is there in Nisibin, that the poet and musician Saint Ephrem had in his “Carmina Nisibana” sung of the kindliness and the graciousness of the “Father of monks” explaining that “the closeness of his contact with God made him ever more condescending and correct with all men”.
The influence of Saint Ephrem had been large in syriac monastical life which, during the subsequent centuries, developed in an extraordinary way in northern Syria. All forms of consecrated life: Asceticism in the open air, hermits, monks in community, and stylites, all developed there, as you see from Theodorus of Cyrrhus and John Chrysostom.
In effect the monastical conceptions of St. Ephrem were very wide in scope, putting together or separating monastic communities and hermits, from monastic life and pastoral work. He himself as a deacon was surprisingly active in the Nisibin church and later in that of Edessus (Urfa), and yet he was a man of intense spiritual life.
In his “Carmina”, he invites “everyone everywhere to become one with God but pluralist in regard to all men, insulated from the world,, yet available to all”. It is a remarkable fact that in praising the virtues of a bishop-monk, Ephrem underlined as a rare virtue, his charisma of “Adaptation to his Time”.
These, among others, are the factors which the Antonine have adopted and which they endeavor to practice in their daily life. The Antonine ideals are inspired by the great monastic law makers of the past. St. Pacôme and St. Ephrem meet on the essential traits of poverty and celibacy in monastic life, but on the other hand Ephrem like St. Basil is a “preacher of the Gospel by practical virtue and actual work”. Like St. Benedict he has “a love of the consecrated place and the sense of ordered prayer”.
He created glorious texts which were kept in use after his time, and which are still in use in the Syriac missal.
But the monastic ideas of St. Ephrem seem more supple, more intertwined in the works of the Church, and better attached to daily life. St. Benedict taught that “the monk must always keep his silence”, whereas St. Ephrem considers that “to speak and to be silent are both as necessary as day and night”.
The Antonine monk, it is true, does not specifically follow the monastic ideas of St. Ephrem, yet each day he does receive the influence of his spirituality, as the liturgical syriac prayer of the Maronite monks owes much to the musician of Nisibin.