The Red Hart

March 14 2022 | by

HART is an old-school term for a mature red deer stag, traditionally one more than 5 years old. It is the fourth largest in the deer family, and it was plentiful in France and Italy where Anthony preached. Frequently seen on shields and tapestries, the stag weighed between 350 and 530 pounds, and was hunted for both flesh and hide. To entice sinners to come to confession during Lent, Anthony used the example of a hart. This magnificent animal so intrigued the Saint that he composed two homilies on it. The first is part of his homily at The Beginning of the Fast, and the second is a portion of his homily from The Nativity of John the Baptist, the greatest penitent of all.


Hell’s kitchen


“Natural History says that deer are hunted in this way: Two men go, and one of them whistles and sings. The deer follows the song, taking pleasure in it. Then the other one takes his spear, strikes the deer, and kills it. The hunting of the rich is the same. The two men are the world and the devil. The world whistles and sings in front of the rich man, showing him pleasures and riches, and promising him them. When the stupid fool follows, taking pleasure in them, he is killed by the devil and carried off to hell’s kitchen, to be skinned and boiled” (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals IV, p. 156; translated and edited by Paul Spilsbury; Edizioni Messaggero Padova).

“Natural History says that the hart directs its course by practice, being accustomed to leap over thorny and pitted places. When it hears the barking of dogs, it makes its way down-wind, so that its scent is blown away. It hears keenly with pricked-up ears, but not when they are down. When it feels itself growing sick, it eats twigs of olive and recovers its health. When it incurs darkness in its eyes, it extracts a serpent with the breath of its nostrils from hidden caverns, and when it is pulled out it eats it; and in the heat of its poison it goes to a spring, where, as it drinks and immerses itself, it deposits the darkness and other superfluous matter. In the same way the penitent or just man directs his course by the practice of devotion, so that he may run well and unweariedly towards the prize of his heavenly calling… The penitent also grows accustomed (for ‘custom is second nature’) to leap over (that is, despise) the thorny places of temporal riches and the pitted places of bodily pleasure, and is so called a ‘hart let loose.’ ‘No one gets to the top at once’ and so we must little by little get used to despising riches and pleasures. ‘Use is learned by use’ and the Philosopher says, ‘They would abandon sin if they would get into the habit of avoiding it.’ And again, ‘The shortest way to riches is by despising riches.’ And again, ‘I am great, and born to greater things than to be a slave to my body.’


Humility and obedience


“Again, when the penitent senses the ‘barking of dogs,’ the suggestions of the devil, he makes his way of his action ‘down-wind.’ That is, in all his actions, inward and outward, he takes refuge in humility. Humility is a ‘following wind,’ pride a ‘contrary wind.’ The wind was against them and they were laboring in rowing (cf. Mk 6.48). ‘Following’ is ‘in the footsteps of.’ Alternatively, ‘following’ is a reminder of the person who takes up his cross and follows the Crucified. Whoever thus makes his way ‘down-wind,’ the devil cannot sniff out with his subtle malice.

“Again, he hears keenly with ears pricked up. It is said: ‘At the hearing of the ear they have obeyed me (Psalm 17:45)… The ear, which hears by drawing in sound, represents obedience. If it is ‘pricked up’ by humility and ‘open’ by devotion, it will draw in sound; for it will hear the master, that is, Christ or his prelate. He will not contradict his words, and not turn his back on his will… obedience should be prompt and cheerful.


Olive twigs


“Again, when the hart (the penitent) feels himself growing sick, that is, weakened or burdened with temptations, he eats twigs of olive. The ‘olive’ is Christ’s humanity, from which for our sake he squeezed out his blood like olive oil, in the press of the Cross, and with it soothed our wounds. The ‘twigs’ of this olive are the nails and the lance, the scourges and the crown of thorns, and the other circumstances of his Passion. When the penitent ‘eats’ these by faith and devotion, he receives strength against temptation.

“The true penitent is poor in spirit and needy in things. Christ, who was made obedient to the Father, even unto death (Phil 2.8), is his strength against worldly prosperity, lest it make him proud; his strength against worldly adversity, lest it make him despair; his refuge from the whirlwind of the devil’s suggestions, lest they blow him away; and a shade against the heat of carnal desire, lest it burn him up.


Fountain of confession


“Again, just as the hart panteth after the fountains of water (cf. Ps. 41.2), so the penitent sinner pants after the fountain of confession. When he feels afflicted by blindness of soul, by the withdrawal of grace, he draws out the serpent of mortal sin from the dark recesses of his conscience, with the breath of his nostrils (contrition)… The nostrils of the penitent are his subtle judgements, whereby he distinguishes the scent of paradise and the stink of hell, and recognizes the snares of the devil. From these nostrils there goes up a ‘smoke’ of tearful compunction in his wrath, for repentance regarding himself, against himself. So he devours the serpent drawn out, because he avidly recollects in bitterness of soul his mortal sin and its least circumstances; and so he hastens to the fountain of confession, where he may drink the water of tears and by humility immerse himself in that fountain of confession, putting away all that is superfluous and harmful, and so growing young again (Sermons IV, pp. 283-286).

Updated on March 14 2022