The feast of Saint Anthony is tomorrow, but the celebration should be yearlong! Anthony is, after all, one of the most revered saints in the Church calendar!
Anthony faced several startling paradoxes. A paradox is defined as “a situation or event that appears to be of one value, perhaps negative, but then in time it is seen to be something positive.” It can happen the other way, too. Paradoxically, Jesus’ death had to be a sign of a complete failure of his mission and life.
To observers, Jesus was rejected by his own people, abandoned by his disciples and seemingly abandoned by the Father. Yet, in just three days, with his resurrection, everything was turned upside down. His terrible death meant salvation for all and was a promise of life everlasting. Good Friday was just a prelude to a glorious Easter Sunday.
Look at Saint Anthony and what happened in his short life. As an Augustinian monk in Lisbon in the year 1221, Anthony met some Franciscan friars who were returning from Morocco with the remains of other friars who had been martyred for preaching the Gospel to Muslims. Anthony was so deeply moved by what he saw and heard of these Franciscan martyrs that he begged and received permission to enter the Franciscan Order.
In a short time, he was allowed to make his own journey to the Mideast so that he could preach and perhaps die a martyr for Christ. What a noble intention he had! But it never happened. The ship he was on ran into a terrible storm, and he ended up in Sicily. Why would he run into such bad luck? Paradoxically, he met other friars about to leave for a meeting in Assisi called by Saint Francis. Three thousand friars would be there also.
Anthony, who was new to so many friars, had no assignment and asked the provincial minister from northern Italy to take him into his province. Anthony had studied Scripture and theology for nine years, bringing to his studies a brilliant mind. All Anthony wanted was to learn more about the Franciscan life. He never mentioned his background. And so he was assigned to cook in the kitchen—to which he did not object. What an apparent waste of talent!
But, here again, we see another paradox. A Dominican friar was ordained a priest, and Anthony went with his whole friary to attend the celebration following the ordination. The superior asked one of the friar priests to give a short sermon, but all declined since they were not prepared.
The superior then told Anthony to preach, figuring that no one would expect much from him. “Just say something simple,” was the command. Paradoxically, what happened was that Anthony preached from his heart and, because of his knowledge of Scripture and theology, the listeners realized that Anthony was so talented that he needed to become a preacher for the Order.
This is exactly what he did. Anthony preached Church missions throughout Italy, making 400 journeys in the next 10 years. He entered towns where heretics lived, but his preaching was not angry or volatile. His approach was to point out the grandeur of the true teaching of the Church rather than scold and castigate listeners who had been misled by false teaching. But even more than his preaching, it was Anthony’s personal holiness that attracted people.
He later taught theology at the University of Bologna, though none of his lectures are still in existence. But, in one of his sermons, he used 183 citations from the Scriptures. Some said he knew the Bible by heart.
Anthony lived only 10 years in his ministry, dying at the age of 36. We might say what a shame that he did not live to be 60 or 70. Of course, we have to remember the average age of death in the 13th century was a good deal younger than it is today. What we can say is that Anthony worked as hard as he could for as long as he could, and that is all any one of us can hope to do.
I have personally faced paradoxes in my priestly ministry. For example, I once took an assignment that I would have preferred not to, but I realized years later that the very place I did not want to be was a place of great blessing for me.
Paradoxes are part of all our lives. Think back to moments which you thought were the worst you could experience—perhaps a crisis that seemed so terrible. Yet now, looking back, you realize that that crisis changed your life in a very positive way. Negative experiences—even sin itself—can be a moment of growth and the beginning of conversion.
Look at Peter who bragged to Jesus that he would never betray him. The other apostles might fail, but Jesus could rely on Peter for his bravery and protection. And that’s even after Jesus told him he was praying for Peter lest he enter into temptation. And when, in Herod’s courtyard, Peter was faced with the accusation that he was a follower of Jesus, he, the brave one, folded like house of cards.
Three times he swore he did not even know Jesus. And Jesus had, just hours before, knelt before Peter and washed his feet. Peter fell flat on his face. But when Jesus came through the court, he looked at Peter and, with his eyes said, “Peter, I love you.” No wonder Peter wept. He realized how much Jesus loved him no matter what he had done. And at that moment, Peter rose, not by his own strength, but by total dependence upon Jesus, his Lord.
You see, sometimes, like Peter, when we fall, we actually fall forward. And when we get up, paradoxically, we are further ahead than when we fell.
All that is part of the mystery of God’s grace and providence. We sometimes think that when we are good, God is near us and, when we are bad, God leaves us. Not true at all. God never leaves and, paradoxically, sometimes it takes a total blunder in our lives to wake us up to God’s love and our need for him.
Remember the words of the wise man: “Where did I get the wisdom I have? Well, I’ve had a great deal of experience. You wonder how I got all my experience. Oh, that’s the important part. It’s because I made a ton of mistakes.”
Our past can be looked at with unproductive regret. But, more importantly, in faith and trust, we can come to understand the mysterious paradoxes of our lives and our journeys on earth.