From Dishwasher to Preacher

March 18 2024 | by

“YOU ARE the light of the world, a city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under the bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father” reads chapter 5 verses 14 to 16 of the Gospel according to Mark.

Anthony was now 27 years old, and he was also sitting on a mountaintop, the 400 metre high hermitage of Montepaolo. But up to this point no light was shining on the world from the mountain of Montepaolo.


Lighting the lamp


Oil is poured into a lamp and a candle is prepared, yet for a lamp or a candle to actually start giving off their light something more is needed: they must first be set alight. A young boy is born into a Lisbon noble family, close to the city’s cathedral; he grows up, goes to a school run by the Church and then joins the Augustinian Canons Regular, first in Lisbon, then in Coimbra. Everything apparently seemed to be going smoothly, and out of the public limelight. Apart from his brief service as guest receptionist in the Augustinian abbey in Coimbra, the first real break for Anthony’s dimly lit life was his setting-off for Morocco, and even that was only the prelude to failure. In any case Anthony, ill and scared by these experiences, disappeared almost immediately from the great stage where his light might have been given its first chance, and where he could have revealed his talents. In fact, at the Chapter of Mats in Assisi in 1221, Anthony was not feeling very well and could not make himself known in any way so he was off to Montepaolo! In the company of two or three fellow friars, life must have been quiet. There was no interference from outside, and much time could be devoted to prayer and meditation, and Anthony was desperately in need of such a breathing space. He needed to understand what plan God had laid out for him; to what future tasks the Lord would call him. Moreover Anthony especially needed to discern what, through the events in Morocco and in Assisi, God was trying to make him understand.


Spiritual re-evaluation


In any case, Anthony managed to put himself under God’s guidance by choosing to go to the hermitage of Montepaolo, and that, in itself, was no easy matter. He felt the spiritual need to evaluate all that had happened to him, and discover the right voice and signs in the mass of events he had experienced, and not always understood. This was why he needed this time of relative peace at the hermitage, where a daily life of duties, such as washing-up and other minor tasks, and prayer in observance of Francis’ Rule, was just the right medicine for him. I do not believe that this pale and unassuming Friar from Portugal was able to hide that he was a priest for long from his fellow friars after his arrival, in particular from Friar Gratian, the Provincial Minister of Romagna.

Not yet fluent in Italian, he would surely have used elements of Ecclesiastical Latin to make himself understood. In addition, Anthony would have read Mass for the friars, thus revealing his priestly training.

In those days the frequency of the Mass was different than it is today, where we are used to celebrating Mass daily. In Anthony’s day the celebration of Mass was not a frequent event. Indeed, it has been speculated that Francis himself may have received Holy Communion no more than a couple of dozen times in his whole life, and this despite (or maybe because of) his expressed great devotion to the Eucharist. We must admit that some things have indeed changed from those days!

Once again, there is considerable difference of opinion among experts on how much time Anthony spent ‘under the bushel’ in Montepaolo. For some he arrived in June 1221 and stayed until September of that year, for others he remained in the hermitage even until the following year.


Writing reed


In the meantime, however, the time had come for Anthony to step out of history’s shadow. Therefore let’s allow the first biography on St. Anthony, the Assidua, speak for itself: “At the end of some time, it happened that the friars were sent to the city of Forlì to receive holy orders. For this reason, when Franciscan and Dominican friars had gathered there from different parts, Anthony was among them. As the time of the ordination approached and the friars were gathered together as usual, the local minister began to ask the Dominican friars who were present to address an exhortation to those thirsting for the word of salvation. But when each one began to say quite resolutely that he neither wanted nor ought to preach something improvised, the superior turned to Friar Anthony and ordered him to proclaim to those who were assembled whatever the Holy Spirit might suggest to him. “The superior did not believe that Anthony knew any part of the Scriptures nor thought that he had read anything beyond, perhaps, what concerned the Church’s Office. He trusted only one indication, that is, he had heard Anthony speak Latin when necessity required it. In truth, although Anthony was so industrious that he relied on his memory rather than on books, and although he abundantly overflowed with the grace of mystical language, the friars nonetheless knew him as more skilful in washing kitchen utensils than in expounding the mysteries of the Scripture.

“Why say anything else? Anthony resisted as much and as long as he could. At last, because of the loud insistence of all those present, he began to speak with simplicity. But when that writing reed of the Holy Spirit (I am referring to Anthony’s tongue) began to speak of many topics prudently, in quite a clear manner and using few words, then the friars, struck by wonder and admiration, listened to the orator attentively and unanimously. Indeed, the unexpected depth of his words increased their astonishment; but, to no lesser degree, the spirit with which he spoke and his fervent charity edified them. Filled with holy consolation, they all respected the virtue of humility, accompanied by the gift of knowledge, that was manifest in the servant of God.”


Touch of melancholy


Events were unfolding at a rapid pace. From dishwasher he became not a millionaire, but a great preacher. From offering practical help to the elderly friars at the hermitage, he became an admired artist of words. The Franciscan friars had not studied him very closely. They had heard him speak Latin from time to time, but they had never thought that this young man from Portugal was capable of saying such beautiful and profound things. From that extraordinary day in Forlì, from the moment of that unexpected and unprepared sermon, Anthony’s life suddenly changed. From then on, his life was peppered with stories and tales of miracles. The biographical sources that have come down to us are full of amazing accounts of the miraculous powers of his speeches and sermons.

At this point I sense a touch of melancholy assailing me. From now on it becomes more and more difficult to untangle the jungle and dense undergrowth of reports to get to Anthony’s real character and, let’s face it, his holy person.

Updated on March 18 2024