1 Kings 21:1-16; Matthew 5:38-42
The readings today remind me of Winston Churchill’s observation that “we make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” In the reading from 1 Kings, we see how hardness of heart leads Ahab and Jezebel to become possessed by possessions. The more they desire them, the more they are owned by them. In the gospel, Jesus teaches the opposite; the docile or teachable heart has learned that faith is the only valuable possession. The more that faith is given away in a spirit of Christ-like charity, the more we enrich others and the more it abounds.
Few people better exemplify the wealth of docility, charity, and faith than the man known to us as St. Anthony of Padua. He was born Fernando Martins de Bulhões on August 15, 1195 into a wealthy family living near Lisbon. When he was 15, he entered the nearby Augustinian monastery of St. Vincent. Although he loved the monastic life, friends and family proved too much of a distraction. He moved to the Abbey of the Holy Cross in Coimbra, where he immersed himself in theology and Latin, fell in love with Scripture, and was ordained a priest.
Several years later, Father Fernando met 5 missionaries from a new order called the Franciscans. They were traveling to Morocco to preach the gospel. Father was moved by their simplicity, poverty, and zeal. Just a few months after meeting them, he watched as their martyred remains were carried past the abbey toward Assisi. Perhaps he contemplated Christ’s words, When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well, for he resolved then and there to become a missionary to Africa and literally become the other cheek. He received permission to enter the Franciscans, took the name Anthony after the great hermit Anthony of the Desert, and set out as a missionary to Morocco.
But it was not to be. Upon his arrival in Africa, Father became so ill that he was forced to return home. Yet Portugal was not to be, either; while en route, a violent storm blew their ship so far off course that they reached shore in Sicily. Upon his recovery, Father was sent to a small town north of Assisi where he worked and lived quietly in the background at the local Franciscan friary.
Yet again the hand of God intervened. During a celebration at which a group of Dominicans had joined the Franciscans, each order assumed that the other would provide a speaker. When no one stepped forward, Anthony was ordered to say a few words. His eloquence, charisma, and depth of Scriptural knowledge stunned everyone in the room. Not surprisingly, he was ordered to preach throughout the area. Father Anthony was so personable, eloquent, and effective that St. Francis himself asked him to be the first theology instructor to the Franciscans.
Father soon became Provincial Superior of the Franciscans in northern Italy, but also made time to preach and to organize his sermons into volumes that are of great value to this day. Upon finishing his term as Provincial, Anthony went to live near Padua. About a year later, he died at the city gates on June 13, 1231. He was 36 years old. The reigning pope, Gregory IX, had heard Father preach and nicknamed him the “Ark of the Testament.” Miracles attributed to Anthony’s intercession led to his canonization the next year, one of the fastest in history.
In the gospel, Jesus told his disciples: Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles. St. Anthony’s life echoes with the lesson that such great charity does not require understanding, it requires a teachable spirit. God knows the plan he has in mind for us; we simply have to listen and learn. This can be hard, especially when we think that we’re already doing exactly what God wants. Again, consider St. Anthony: Serving in the monastery was good, but he was sent away to study. Serving as an Augustinian was good, but he was called to the Franciscans. Serving as a missionary willing to die for love of the gospel was good, but he was kept alive and sent to Italy instead. Serving quietly and in the background at the friary was good, but he was sent to preach to the people and to teach and lead his brothers. In every case, what Anthony was already doing was good; yet in every case, he faithfully responded to the call and gave it all he had.
No one can give what they do not possess. Father Anthony possessed great faith and great charity, but what transformed him from service in an Augustinian monastery to service as one of the greatest preachers and teachers of the faith was his love of Christ, shown in his constant willingness to discern and pursue the call of Christ in his life as well as his desire to keep Christ at the center of his life. As he once so eloquently said, “If you preach Jesus, he will melt hardened hearts; if you invoke him he will soften harsh temptations; if you think of him he will enlighten your mind; if you read of him he will satisfy your intellect.”
St. Anthony of Padua, pray for us.