Immortal diamond: the charism of St. Anthony

April 19 2003 | by

ON 13 JUNE we celebrate the feast of St. Anthony of Padua. It is 771 years since this great saint died, yet his spirit lives on in our memory. We simply cannot get him out of our minds. Why is this so? Perhaps because he was such a charismtic person. It is thus fitting that we speak about the charism of St. Anthony on this great feast.
As you may know, the English word, charism, comes from the Greek word, charis. Charis has many meanings in Greek: grace, favour, loveliness, kindness or delight. All of these meanings fit St. Anthony to a tee. In this article we shall concentrate on the first meaning, that is, charism as a ‘grace’ or special gift of God.

A gift of grace

John Rigauld, a Franciscan friar in the early fourteenth century, wrote an account of the life of St. Anthony about 70 years after Anthony’s death. Rigauld’s account is not a biography, as we understand it today, because he included legendary details about Anthony. His purpose in writing it was to increase our devotion to St. Anthony, and in this he largely succeeded.
In the prologue to his account, Rigauld says this about Anthony: the grace of God in its fullness was poured out over (St. Anthony) in both orders (the Augustinian and the Franciscan), as it becomes clear from the course of his life. Rigauld did not use the word ‘charism’ but this is, fact, what he is referring to, the special gift of St. Anthony.
What exactly is the charism of St. Anthony of Padua? Before we get to this question, it’s helpful to look at the meaning of charism in Scripture. St. Paul speaks about charism in his various epistles. He does not speak about them theoretically; rather, he confesses and bears witness to them in 2 Cor. 3:6 and Eph. 4:7. In 1 Corinthians 12-14 he uses four terms in speaking about charism.
In 1 Cor. 12:1 St. Paul speaks of the gifts of the Spirit. In this passage he implies that these gifts are a manifestation of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:7). He also speaks of a charismtic person as one who has a spiritual type of understanding. The term may refer to every Christian or to the Apostles and teachers in the community (1 Cor. 2:13; 12:28).
St. Paul speaks of charism as ‘spiritual gifts.’ He notes that there are a variety of spiritual gifts or charism. They all come from the same Spirit; there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. (1 Cor. 12:6). Paul puts it this way in Phil. 2:13: For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Paul calls such activities a service. We see this usage in Rom. 15:31 and in 2 Cor. 9:12. A charism is a service because it serves the needs of the community. We do not receive these charism for ourselves, to gloat over them, so to speak. They are meant to build up the community.
Finally, Paul speaks of charism as ‘gifts of grace.’ He writes in Romans 12:6: We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us. Paul is certainly aware of the slight shades of difference between these four terms: gifts of the Spirit, workings of God, service in the community, and gifts of grace. However, he likes to stress that which these terms have in common. Paul saw a common source and a common goal implied in these four terms, as we shall see.
These gifts of grace come from the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:8-9). The encounter of Paul with Christ at Damascus helped him see that the Risen Lord was the source of these charism or spiritual gifts. The first Christians realised that they were living in the last days (Acts 2:17-21) because the Spirit was poured out and was to manifest itself in the various gifts of grace.
Paul sees charism or spiritual gifts of grace as an ordered whole and compares them to the functioning of the human body. We read in 1 Cor. 12:12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. All members of the Body of Christ have their own particular charism that must be used wisely, 1 Cor. 12:31). Paul adds that the charism of charism is love, the fruit of which is unity – the unity of Christ’s body with its rich diversity among its members.

God’s Word: a blueprint for life

It’s difficult to get a firm hold on the concept of Anthony’s charism. It may be compared to a rock overgrown with tiny moss, a very slippery surface indeed. Anthony’s charism ought not be regarded as any ‘old rock,’ but rather as a diamond, one that sparkles from many angles.
Five ideas sum up the special charism of St. Anthony. First, throughout his lifetime St. Anthony stressed the primacy of God’s word. Not only did Anthony possess a great intellectual knowledge of God’s word, he also made the word a blueprint for his life. Before teaching theology to the friars, St. Anthony asked St. Francis for permission to teach. St. Francis wrote Anthony a letter in 1223 stating, I am pleased that you teach sacred theology to the brothers provided that, as is contained in the Rule, you ‘do not extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion’ during study of this kind.
It was almost superfluous for St. Francis to write these words to St. Anthony. Anthony would never extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion in teaching theology. For Anthony, the study of theology was always secondary to his spirituality, that is, his life of prayer and devotion. Anthony had a profound knowledge of Holy Scripture. One scholar asserts that he knew Scripture so well that if it had been lost, Anthony could have restored it word for word.
Not only was Anthony able to teach the intricacies of theology to his fellow friars, but he was able to explain complex thoughts in simple language to the people who were mostly illiterate. St. Anthony put difficult concepts into language that even a small child could comprehend. This is the mark of a good educator and in this regard, Anthony was masterful.

A Franciscan spirit

Another part of the charism of St. Anthony was his extraordinary humility. Throughout his life Anthony wished to appear to be the lowest among the friars. He concealed his theological education, taking on such menial tasks as washing the floors of the friary. He also concealed the fact that he could preach until he was commanded to preach by his superior at the ordination in Forli, Italy. As custos or superior he was very humble, taking to heart the words in Luke 14:11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. It is as if Anthony on a daily basis kept before his eye’s mind the words of Christ, Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart… Matt. 11:29.
Another aspect of Anthony’s charism was his poverty of spirit, in imitation of the poverty of Christ and of St. Francis, the Poverello or little poor man. One of the things that attracted Anthony to join the Franciscan Order was their emphasis on poverty. In fact, Anthony came in contact with the Franciscans when they knocked on the doors of the Augustinian priory begging for alms. The early friars lived in poor huts. They practiced material poverty in addition to being poor in spirit. Theirs was a life poor in material goods but rich in the things of God. Not only did Anthony preach about the virtue of poverty, but also, and more importantly, he lived it in his own life.

Love for the poor

The fourth aspect of Anthony’s charism is his extraordinary love of the poor and those in need. St. Anthony took to heart the words of St. Francis in his Rule of 1221 that his friars Must rejoice when they live among people of little worth and who are looked down upon, among the poor and powerless, the sick and the lepers, and the beggars by the wayside.
St.Anthony’s deep love of the poor, whom the Hebrew Scriptures call the anawim, explains his bravery in protecting the people from the tyrant, Ezzelino da Romano, a ruthless, brutal man who was head of the Ghibelline party, and Anthony’s desire to bring peace and harmony into the family lives of the poor, e.g., the miracle of the newborn who speaks.
It also explains St. Anthony’s defense of the poor against those businessmen who charged exorbitantly high interest rates. During his Lenten sermon in 1231, he condemned usury which had brought unhappiness to many poor families. One of the results of Anthony’s Lenten sermons was that a new statute was passed in Padua stating that no one could be imprisoned for any debts, if they shall have agreed to relinguish their possessions.
Artists down through the centuries have tried to portray Anthony’s compassion and love for the poor by placing in his hand a burning heart or flame to show his love for the poor and downtrodden.

Pray always

The final aspect of the charism of St. Anthony was his spirit of prayer. Upon becoming a Franciscan, Fernando changed his name to Anthony so as to protect his privacy and solitude. He did not want his friends and family to find him so that he could devote himself more fully to a life of prayer and solitude.
What is striking about Anthony is how prayer was an integral part of his life, not merely something fitted in if time permitted. After the General Chapter of the Franciscans in 1221, Anthony had no place to go. Anthony then asked Friar Gratian, the minister of the province of upper Italy if he would request the minister general to assign him to his province. Brother Gratian complied with Anthony’s request and sent him to the little hermitage at Montepaolo near Forli. There Anthony revelled in the solitude.
Since the Franciscans combined the contemplative and the active life, there were many friars at that time that led a life of contemplation apart from the hustle and bustle of the world.
In this regard Anthony was like his master, Jesus, who withdrew to deserted places to pray. (Lk.5: 16). Prayer, meditation and solitude were very dear to Anthony’s heart. Thus, Anthony took to heart the biblical words, Pray always.
As we celebrate the feast of St. Anthony this month, let us call to mind the special charism of St. Anthony. Let us try to imitate this great saint by attempting, in an infinitely small way, to have our life revolve around Scripture, living humbly, poor in spirit, showing genuine love and compassion for the poor, and making prayer an integral part of our lives, in imitation of Il Santo.

Updated on October 06 2016