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St. Anthony of the Desert is not the Anthony we usually think of. He is not the beloved Italian saint who finds lost things and preached to fishes. Instead, he is an Egyptian hermit in the third century who is considered the Father of Monasticism.
But maybe he can make an even more beloved claim than Anthony of Padua. Maybe he first popularized the sentiment we hear in the beloved Footprints story — only his version is more powerful.
You’ve seen Christian posters and cards about the “Footprints in the Sand.”
The story changes in different iterations, but essentially it’s this: If you reviewed your life’s walk with Jesus, represented by footprints on a beach, you would be delighted to see two pairs of footprints, side by side: Jesus’ and yours. But then you might notice that at the most difficult moments of your life, there is only one set of footprints.
“What happened?” you might ask. “Did you abandon me, Jesus?”
In one popular version of the poem, Jesus answers this way: “During your times of trial and suffering, / when you see only one set of footprints, / it was then that I carried you.”
The version we know can be traced back to various 20th century minor religious poets, such as Mary Stephenson or Burrell Webb. But the sentiment is much older. Maybe as old as St. Anthony of the Desert.
It all started when Anthony went to church one day and heard in the Gospel Christ’s call to leave everything and follow him.
Anthony applied the words to himself, gave everything he had to the poor, and entered the desert to begin epic battles with demons, whom he fought by prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
In The Life of Anthony, St. Athanasius described this superhero of the faith:
Anthony kept vigil to such an extent that he often continued the whole night without sleep; and this not once but often, to the marvel of others. He ate once a day, after sunset. … His food was bread and salt, his drink, water only. … A rush mat served him to sleep upon, but for the most part he lay upon the bare ground.
The demons gave him no rest. “Changes of form for evil are easy for the devil, so in the night they made such a din that the whole of that place seemed to be shaken by an earthquake, and the demons as if breaking the four walls of the dwelling seemed to enter through them, coming in the likeness of beasts and creeping things,” Athanasius wrote.
The Temptation of Anthony became a common medieval subject in art, with some horrifying and weird results. But one thing Anthony could always count on was the presence of God. “Nor was the Lord then forgetful of Antony’s wrestling, but was at hand to help him,” wrote Athanasius.
St. Anthony found he could count on Jesus. Until he found he couldn’t.
One night, Jesus was missing as Anthony wrestled with evil all night long. Finally, after hours, Jesus showed up. “The demons suddenly vanished and the pain of his body straightway ceased.”
Anthony was a little miffed. “Where were you?” he asked the Lord. “Why did you not appear at the beginning to make my pains to cease?”
“Anthony, I was here, but I waited to see your fight,” Jesus answered. “I will always be a helper for you.”
In a way, this is the opposite of the Footprints story.
Pope Francis has said to think of this story of St. Anthony when Jesus seems absent from your life, and remember,
The Lord is close. It can happen that, when faced with fresh sorrow or a difficult period, we think we are alone, even after all the time we have spent with the Lord. But in those moments, where he might not intervene immediately, he walks at our side.
In other words, maybe the story is wrong. It’s not that Jesus is by our side, except in the difficult moments when he carries us.
In fact, there is only one set of footprints our whole life long, as Jesus carries us — in his sacraments, in those around us, and in the providence he fills our lives with.
The times we see two sets of footprints are the tough places, when Jesus puts us on our own for a short time to remind us just how much we need him.
But even then, he is always by our side.