St. Anthony of Padua and the Spirit of Prayer and Devotion
Most probably think of St. Anthony as the patron saint of lost keys. The other week, when I couldn’t find my new set of keys to the four church buildings on the island, the community center, and the friary, I inevitably called upon Anthony (who, to me, is “Tony,” but that’s because I’m his brother friar) to see if his prayers on my behalf might inspire the Holy Spirit to clear my mind and help me remember where I had put the keys or see where they might be hiding. A few days later I did find them, they were in my backpack the whole time. Not only did I feel stupid for having the keys in my possession the whole time and not realizing it, but I felt grateful for what often amounts to half-communion-of-saints theology and half-superstition in the calling upon the medieval Franciscan Saint to assist me in my quest.
Although in his lifetime he was probably best known for two other reasons. The first, like his later confrere Bernardine of Siena, is for his preaching. Anthony was, even from a young age when — as legend has it — he was called upon to give an impromptu sermon at a large event of both Franciscan and Dominican friars, an astounding orator who was able to connect with his hearers and expound on the Scripture in such a way as to move hearts and minds.
He was also the first theologian of the friars. Long before the Parisian Master Alexander of Hales, the mentor of St. Boanventure, entered the Order while still occupying his faculty chair at the university, Anthony was given permission to teach the growing number of friars some basic theology so that they might be qualified to preach and respond to questions about the faith. This permission was granted to Anthony by Francis of Assisi himself and the text of that permission, given in the form of a short letter, remains one of the authentic writings of the poverello that we have today. Here is what the text says in full:
I Brother Francis send wishes of health to Brother Anthony, my bishop. It pleases me that you teach sacred theology to the brothers, as long as in the words of the Rule you “do not extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion” with study of this kind.
It should be noted here that Francis uses the term “bishop” in a broader sense, meaning that he recognized the teaching authority and magisterial responsibility that theologians also hold. While different from those who are episcopally ordained as bishops, theologians still have a role in the Church and a teaching office not unlike the bishops — hence the interchangeability of the term in Francis’s letter… but this is a digression.
What is most important to note is that Francis, who was initially against the pretense of education for he thought it would separate and distinguish the friars too much from the people with whom they lived and were to serve, ultimately realized the importance of a solid education and the need for a basic grounding in the tradition.
The one caveat that Francis makes is expressed in the Rule of the Friars Minor and reiterated by Francis here: do not let your work, your study, and so on, interfere with your more fundamental vocation as a man of prayer. This is such important advice for us today too. We can get so distracted by false idols of money and other distractions that we lose that sense of who we really are — people created to be in relationship with God and one another.
This leads to what I think is the lost characteristic of St. Anthony. Yes, he helps people find things through intercession, he was a miracle worker in life, he was a great preacher, and he was the first Franciscan theologian, but he was also a man of deep prayer and contemplation!
I was reminded of this characteristic earlier this week while editing the manuscript of my next book. The last section of this book contains my commentary on and analysis of the twelve addresses Pope Benedict XVI delivered on figures and themes of the Franciscan spiritual and theological tradition during his weekly audiences between 2009 and 2011. One of these addresses is on St. Anthony of Padua. What’s particularly interesting to me is that Benedict XVI, having briefly acknowledged all the things for which Anthony is most famously remembered, he spends a great deal of time talking about the contemplative dimension of the Saint’s life. He holds Anthony up as a model of prayer and study, and it shouldn’t be surprising that this Pope is particularly drawn to Anthony’s example given Benedict XVI’s own scholarly background.
Anthony’s necessary withdrawal from time-to-time from teaching and preaching is what precisely permitted him to be such good teacher and pastoral minister. He sought to live the command of Francis, to not extinguish the spirit of prayer and devotion in his life.
I think this is partly what is going on in the first reading today, the concern about idols and the people who are drawn to the flashy, immediate, exciting and dramatic spectacles of their day in place of cultivating a spirit of prayer and devotion to the One God. What are our distractions? What impedes us or extinguishes our spirits of prayer and devotion?
May St. Anthony of Padua continue to intercede for us in our times of need, as today’s prayer reads, but especially in our need to maintain a Spirit of Prayer and Devotion.