September 18, 2020 | Narrative
the ascetic in the attic
st. antony of the desert and me
For a place so small, the off-campus attic apartment I moved into upon arriving in Providence had far, far too much to clean. The bathtub with suspicious black stains—mold?—and rust-colored marks. The sticky refrigerator with multicolored stains from drips and spills and splatters. The drawers and shelves (also sticky) scattered with crumbs and mouse droppings. The literal hairballs left rolling about on the bathroom floor. The unidentifiable food items left in the freezer. All my hours were spent scrubbing and rinsing and wiping and trying (and failing) to contain my distress and emotional turmoil.
At night, exhausted, I sat down on the edge of my mattress to eat my microwavable mac and cheese. (In fact, I ate nothing but Kraft Mac & Cheese for two days, devoid of time, energy, or anything remotely resembling an appetite.) The ceiling sloped down so that standing was impossible in half the room, and the floorboards were so uneven that I had cut up pieces of cardboard to shove under the legs of the clothing rack left behind by a previous tenant. I eyed it and hoped desperately that the cardboard would be enough to stabilize it.
I tried not to think about the moment I had finally managed to lug my fifty-pound suitcase up the narrow stairs and found myself face-to-face with the unmistakably DIY door—so crooked and cracked that the light shone through—and touched the doorknob, only to have it fall off. It was the kind of door that the Big Bad Wolf would have laughed at. A huff and a puff would have blown that door clean to Oz, where the Munchkins would have considered it inadequate even for firewood.
Eating another mac and cheese in silence, I felt a bit like Sara Crewe from A Little Princess, living a scullery maid existence and consigned to the attic. Except Sara Crewe was saintly—so saintly that even as a child reading A Little Princess, I found her unceasing perfection annoying. Me, on the other hand? I was no Sara Crewe. She took things quietly and meekly and sweetly. Meanwhile, I cried for two nights in a row and again the third morning, unspeakably angry and simply overwhelmed by the dirtiness, the smallness, the unexpected housing group complications—all the problems piled up higher than the trash left behind by the previous tenants. I felt powerless.
Antony of the Desert was no Sara Crewe either, but he was a saint. An officially canonized one. Last spring, I had read The Life of Antony for a religious studies class and had been startled by the extremity of his self-denial and withdrawal. Antony gave away all his possessions, sent his sister off to live with a community of Christian women, and withdrew alone to the desert. There, he spent his days physically battling demons, praying ceaselessly, and eating shockingly little. A bit of bread here and there. But instead of growing emaciated and weak from his fasting, he became strong both physically and spiritually. (Nothing like throwing punches at Satan to build your muscles, apparently.) When he emerged from years of dwelling on the divine mysteries, Antony was transformed. Having attained a “passionless” state of perfect emotional equilibrium, he healed the sick, comforted the mourning, reconciled the hostile, and preached devotion to Christ, all through the power of God.
As a Protestant, I didn’t grow up hearing much about ascetics like St. Antony. However, the saints play a much bigger role in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, and when I finally learned about them in my classes at Brown I found the hagiographies—the lives of the saints—both fascinating and unsettling. But the stories of ascetics took on a new meaning when I found myself quarantined at home in March. Spending two weeks alone in my room and eating my meals from the tray that my mother left outside my door made my level of awe for St. Antony skyrocket. He had spent all those hours—all those days—all those years—in discipline and devotion. I spent my two weeks slowly melting into a puddle of goo, 75% of which was made up of all the peanut M&M’s I had eaten.
Now, quarantined in an attic in Providence without a single peanut M&M (or my mother) to console me, my thoughts returned to St. Antony of the Desert. He had rarely left the desert; I, too, rarely left this attic, except to make two pilgrimages to the OMAC to swab the inside of my nostrils. He had wrangled demons in physical combat; I wrestled with an overflowing bathroom trash can which reduced me to tears when it spilled the previous tenants’ used pads and a clump of pubic hair. But while Antony’s body had grown strong, mine seemed to age sixty years so that I awoke too early from my fitful sleep, stiff and full of aches from all the bending and crouching that cleaning demanded.
If I was an ascetic, I wasn’t a very good one. Antony had been so disciplined, had managed to achieve some kind of structure that kept him focused on his one allegiance in life: God. In my two weeks quarantined in Providence, I had just two seemingly unambitious goals—cleaning and keeping somewhat sane—but I was coming apart at the seams every other second. Antony’s transformation was, of course, miraculous, but it began to seem to me that the real miracle of his story was his survival. His persistence. His devotion, his discipline. The people of the early centuries must have looked upon Antony in awe, wondering what kind of divine grace powered his ascetic life.
As my two weeks in quarantine went by, my efforts paid off. The attic became passably clean. My body remembered it was only twenty-one and slowly worked itself out of near rigor mortis and constant back pain. Blessed routine emerged shyly from my scrambled hours and nursed my sanity back to health, gave me a measure of emotional equilibrium. If I have been an ascetic, I have been a very imperfect ascetic of small things. I’m no St. Antony, but my miracle is my survival, too. It turns out that for me, grace is as simple as having a clean refrigerator, a clean bathroom at last. Grace is being free from disturbing flashbacks of filth. Grace is the view from the skylight window, full of sky above and greenery below.
It is raining today, and I can hear the church bells ringing from somewhere down the street. I think of St. Antony in the dry, dry desert, praying and fasting, his faith loud and clear as the sound of those bells.