"The old order changeth, giving place to the new, And God fulfils Himself in many ways, Lest one good custom should corrupt the world".
LET us not sever ourselves by any sharp discontinuity from any class of God's children in the days of old. Each age has its own types of saintliness,. its own ideals of the best way of serving God. No good deed, no genuine sacrifice, is ever wasted. If there be good in it, God will use it for His own holy purposes, and whatever of ignorance, or weakness, or mistake was mingled with it will drop away as the withered sepals drop away when the full flower has blown. Nor was the life of the hermits mere individualism. It was philanthropic also. It was very far from useless ; it was useful to their own days ; useful to the days that were to follow; useful for all time.
I. It was useful to their own days. Different remedies are required amid differing conditions. What might in these times be absurd or pernicious may have been a necessary resource in other ages. The hermits, let us remember, arose during a period of terrible confusion, amid the chaos of a society for which it might well have seemed that the fountains of the great deep were being broken up. There lay the decaying carcase of the institutions of the world of classic paganism; and on every side was heard the flap of the wings of the gathering vultures. Art and science were dead; society had sunk into utter frivolity; slavery had assumed its most revolting aspects ; cruelty and luxury were triumphant. They might well have thought that the only protest which could be effectual, the only protest which would startle into attention a dead and wicked world, would be one which should at least unmistakably proclaim the awful dignity, the inestimable value of the individual soul. Merely to preach purity, and unworldliness, and charity seemed hopeless; and therefore they proclaimed the glory and the necessity of these virtues in the language of such examples as no human beings could misunderstand. As the days of Ahab needed an Elijah, as the days of Herod needed a John Baptist, so the age of the successors of Constantine needed and were leavened by an Antony, an Hilarion, a Macarius, and a Paul.
II. Nor did their example die with them. To them we owe, both indirectly and directly, the preservation, in its purity, of the Christian faith. When Athanasius was in danger of death, it was among the hermits of the desert that he found safe refuge from his enemies. It was Athanasius who wrote the biography of Antony. It was to Athanasius that Antony bequeathed his sheepskin cloak ; and of all the honours of his life, Athanasius accounted none greater than this—that he had been permitted to commune with the desert saint. And St. Basil, too, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus, the eloquent maintainers of the faith, had both been hermits. When the Emperor Valens sent a great officer to try to win over St. Basil to the Arian heresy, the saint stood firm. " I never met such boldness," said the courtier. " Because you never met a bishop," said Basil. " This bishop is above threats," reported the officer to the Emperor, and the orthodoxy of the diocese was saved. Again, it was the life of Antony that tended to the conversion of St. Augustine. It was St. Jerome, a hermit like Antony, who translated the Bible into Latin. It was Telemachus, a hermit like Antony, who leapt down into the amphitheatre at Rome, and, by his protest and martyrdom, put an end for ever to its hideous butcheries. It was Ephrem the Syrian, a hermit like Antony, who, with his dying breath, raised a needful protest against slavery, when he made the daughter of the governor of Edessa swear never again to be carried in a litter by slaves, because " the neck of man," he said, " should bear no yoke but that of Christ".
III. And lastly, for all time, the hermits have proved by actual life that perfect purity and perfect self-denial are possible for men; that virtue, and even charity, are not beyond human attainment; that envy, and hatred, and malice, and all uncharitableness, and the base voices of scandal, and the unmannerly jostlings in the throng, are no necessary elements of human life, but that men can live as they were meant to live together, in mutual love and honour; that men can utterly do without the things for which man most wildly struggles, and that men need most the very things which they are apt most utterly to disregard. They showed for all time that when any man stood on the dignity of being simply man—seeing no greatness but such as he could attain in the sight of God—he could be fearless in all danger, and could rise superior to all desires.
We cannot imitate the outer life of Antony or Sera-pion; it is not necessary, it is not desirable that we should; but in an age of much unbelief and irreligion, of much gossip and detraction, of much anxiety and corruption, of much luxury and greed, we can learn their strong horror of sin; their noble struggle for righteousness; their entire simplicity of character; their utter aloofness from the mean and greedy scramble of the world; the sincerity with which they cultivated the duty of mutual forbearance; the duty of absolute forgiveness of injuries which they strenuously practised; their intense conviction that the life is more than meat, and the body than raiment.
If we may (thus) gaze with profit for a moment on God's saints, it is only, after all, because they dimly reflect the image of their Saviour. Their example is only precious because it teaches us how they were followers of Him:—
"The Saviour lends the light and heat That crowns His holy hill; The saints, like stars around His seat, Perform their courses still.
"The Moon above, the Church below, A wondrous race they run, But all their radiance, all their glow, Each borrows of its Sun."—Kcble.
Saintly Workers, p. 58.