At the end of his life, St. Antony gave two sheepskin coats to his two closest disciples—both were bishops and became saints: St. Serapion, the bishop of Thmuis; and St. Athanasius, the Archbishop of Alexandria. This letter is addressed to the disciples of St. Antony and was written immediately after St. Antony’s departure in 356 AD. St. Serapion wrote also four or five other letters to St. Athanasius.
1. After the departure of the blessed Antony the hermit, Serapion, the Bishop of Thmuis, wrote to the hermits Isaac and Saramata as follows:
2. The world lost a great old man, and the heavens have gained a great man.
3. The One above has found the one he has sought; the one below has lost the one he possessed.
4. Today, there is a festival above because of his passing on high, but there is great desolation and anguish for us who remain below because of his departure from us.
5. See now, brothers! As soon as the great old man departed from us—that blessed Antony, who had been an intercessor for the world—behold we were suddenly thrown down and laid low; and all the elements together were anguished; and the earth of God from above first consumed Egypt.
6. Behold, his separation from us has made apparent our immense loss in desolation; but how much more will his freedom make the joy which is in heaven apparent.
7. As long as that saint was on earth he spoke and cried out. And he kept his holy hands always stretched out to God; and by speaking with him, he was gloriously radiant before the Lord. He did not allow wrath to come down; and by faithfully lifting up his thoughts, the saint prevented God’s wrath from coming upon us.
8. But after his hand was withdrawn and no one was any longer found who could keep us from the descent of wrath, now suddenly it was poured out and came down to afflict the region and laid waste everything.
9. Now Aaron, when plagues began among the people, took incense and opposed the wrath with great force and ‘stood between the living and the dead.’ [Num. 16:58]. He did not allow some of the living to die and did not permit wrath to break forth. And some he preserved alive, and turned death away from them. And God’s wrath stopped and stood still, filled with shame by the righteous one.
10. But as long as the old man, blessed Antony, was still with us, since he constantly carried about the sweet-smelling incense of his prayers, he compelled the wrath to be suspended on high and did not let it spring forth below to us.
11. For as long as that blessed one was with us, it did not come down very much. And as long as that saint was with us, the wrath was far from us. But when that righteous one departed, then the wrath found an opportunity and came down to us, since it did not find anyone among us to prevent it. But while the saint of God was alive, it did not remain in our midst.
12. Therefore, what tears shall we now shed or what lament shall we sing, because we have been deprived of that outstanding man and wonderworker and have been surrounded by that great wrath? And now, because we have no remedy to find for this,
13. we therefore now flee to you, who ought to retain his image, O holy disciples of that blessed one, and who ought to form in yourselves his image and teaching.
14. For in no way should a disciple be cast down in spirit, decline from his forebears’ way of life, and fall behind his instructor. Rather he should always form his teacher’s image in himself rigorously and diligently by hard and diligent training.
15. Moreover, since I am by no means ignorant that you once spent time with the saint and dwelling with God’s witness, thereby retaining his word and sanctity and ascetical life, for this reason,
16. though the one most acceptable has been taken from our midst, since we now have many with us, it is now right for us to find among ourselves the power of the one in many.
17. I therefore pray that while you are many and have great power among you—because each of you was an Antony and because you labor greatly and are indeed many—the power of many Antonys may come down to us, powers which by effecting a greater reformation than before will themselves be made more perfect than before.
18. And because it is difficult for you to have his power by imitating him, although you are many, display the power of the one; and what he alone effected, we ourselves who are many shall effect; and what he alone did, we shall do. Because he appeased God by his holy prayers, we who are many shall now do the same thing by good deeds; and you will appease God by the holiness of your souls. And I think that the whole of wrath may chance to depart from us, for the Church will surely receive some quiet relaxation.
19. And now, my beloved, I am writing to you because the churches have been reduced to captivity. Blasphemies have filled the squares of our streets. All the wickedness and crimes are scattered in our city, and destructive impiety has led our souls into captivity. The errors of the Arians fill our minds, and it is not possible to turn this way or that and to abandon tears.
20. For the sanctuary of God does not have its ministry, and the churches of God are despoiled of many people. And now the places are left deserted because the people do not enter, and they make for themselves desert places as congregations in place of the Holy Church. Their grief is cured by changing places, and they dwell in the wilderness and from there offer their prayers to God.
21. the churches weep, and the walls send forth, as it were, a cry. And the holy places remain dishonored and are as though they shed tears for themselves. We too are distressed in pronouncing what is written: ‘The ways of Zion mourn, because they do not come to her festival.’ [Lam. 1:4].
22. I now write this to you so that when you hear it, you may take refuge with God and may pray. And we believe that God will be merciful and that though aroused because of our sins, He will quickly unbend, when we who have caused Him to threaten us as sinners, shall have recited the prayers of that saint.
This text was taken from the English translation of the Armenian text, with references to the translation of the Syriac text, published by Cistercian Publications, “The Life of Antony,” 2003, pp. 41-47.