St. Anthony the Great: The best example from history, I can think of, is St. Anthony the Great, one of the desert fathers who lived in Egypt (c. 251-356 AD). Anthony inherited a good fortune from his parents. Upon hearing Jesus's words in the Gospel "If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven; and come, follow Me," he literally distributed his money to his lone sister and to people in need then left the urban city to the mountain where he lived the remainder of his life in a cave continuously praying. He advanced in holiness and people came from all places to seek his spiritual advice.
I wonder what advice did Anthony give to his hearers. He surely did not advise them to go and enjoy their lives in the great civilization of his time, the Roman empire. He surely did not advise them to participate in the gladiatorial games where slaves killed each other for the entertainment of the emperor and his entourage. When, at the age of 34, he became monk Christianity was still persecuted. Recall that Constantine the emperor became Christian in 312 and Christianity was not the official religion of the empire until 320 AD.
It is evident that Anthony's metanoia was real. He practiced what he believed was necessary for penance. Unlike us today, he gave his belongings to the needy, ate only what was necessary for his survival, controlled the sexual desires of the flesh and depended on God alone. Which reminds me of the temptation of Christ!
The Temptation of Christ: Luke narrates it in his Gospel, Chapter 4: And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing in those days; and when they were ended, he was hungry. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread." And Jesus answered him, "It is written, `Man shall not live by bread alone.'" And the devil took him up, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, "To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours." And Jesus answered him, "It is written, `You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.'" And he took him to Jerusalem, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here; for it is written, `He will give his angels charge of you, to guard you,' and `On their hands they will bear you up,lest you strike your foot against a stone.'" And Jesus answered him, "It is said, `You shall not tempt the Lord your God.'" And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time. And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee, and a report concerning him went out through all the surrounding country.
Note that Jesus was fasting for 40 days, probably a symbolic number of completion (the 4 corners of the world x 10 which is the symbolic number of perfection: zero and one). Note too that the Devil used scripture to tempt him . In other words, the same holy book that Jesus knew so he would not be able to contradict the accuser. Very clever on the Devil's part! Yet, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, was able to overcome the temptation.
Let's take a quick look: 1) Jesus is hungry so the first temptation is to fill his stomach with food. It is the same old trick of the serpent with the first parents of the human race (however symbolic the story may be). 2) The next temptation is to have power. This is also what the old serpent said to Eve "You will be like gods" (Genesis 3: 5). 3) The third temptation is to test Jesus' dependence on God. Again, the story of trusting God. When our first parents lost trust in God, they lost their life with him.
Go back to Anthony and see his struggle for many years with the Devil and how he responded to these temptations in his little cave, then you will know the power of the Spirit that filled Jesus in his confrontation with the Evil One.
TODAY, how can we compare our life to that of Christ. The Son of God himself had to endure hunger and thirst for forty days. Note that his endurance did not finish after the 40 days. The sacred author says "[The Devil] departed from him until an opportune time." And that opportune time was probably his agony in the garden at the night of his betrayal while every one is still asleep. Is this not written for our generation? Yes it is. Re-read it. He IS suffering and bleeding TODAY and we, his disciples, are still asleep. Continue the comparison: He is hungry in the hungry people around us, and we are filled with food. He is humiliated by the powers of the world TODAY, from America to Western Europe in our materialistic and atheist culture to radical Muslim countries with their aggression and violence against fellow humans, to Russia, China and India that are embracing a triumphant free market economy and an ethically embarassing financial system where the corporate powerful dictate how to divide the earth's resources and steal the little that is left to the poor in Africa and Asia. Just think again of the global food crisis still enraging in Africa, and the global financial crisis still causing job losses everywhere.
Do you think that humans alone can cause all the problems that the world is facing TODAY? There are here Devilish powers that continue to incite humanity against God. It is not enough that we have the entire pornographic industry on the internet for everyone to see. It is not enough that filth fills our TVs day and night with shows produced to mock faith, encourage free sex, divorce and destroy families. It is not enough that our secular legal system has legalized abortion and same-sex marriage. It is not enough that the myth of overpopulation has taken a toll on the developed world, but the U.N. is attempting to force artificial contraception in the entire world. It is not enough that our kids in schools are given free condoms for a "free sex" industry. It is not enough that courts in the U.S. are now prohibiting Christian prayer in schools. It is not enough that the Economist, along with Richard Dawkins and his likes of agnostic scientists, is claiming that man will be able to artificially create man.
Not for my sake, and not for your sake, but for the sake of our future generations, let us only start the metanoia of the Prodigal Son. He was hungry and went back to his dad, not because he loved his dad, but because he loved himself. And this, according to St. Bernard, is the first step of love. Metanoia, remember, is the first act of penance. What would be an appropriate act? I suggest eating less in solidarity with the hungry and being generous towards the needy. But the best approach is to consult your own spiritual director or priest who knows you.
I did not speak about the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (confession). That is another subject.