Today is the feast day of St Anthony of Padua and Lisbon. He’s one of those “important” saints who a lot of people know about, perhaps chiefly because he is the patron saint of lost things – so he gets prayed to quite a bit. He devoted his life to charity, poverty, obedience, humility and service to the poor, lending and giving to the poor as regularly as he chastised the rich and powerful. My kind of saint.
So many stories have grown up around St Anthony, some of them quite wonderful, but we also know a lot of the basics about his life. He was born in 1195 as Fernando Martins de Bulhões to a rich family in Lisbon. His family wanted him educated at the local cathedral school but, against their wishes, he entered the community of canons regular at the Abbey of St. Vincent on the outskirts of Lisbon. Canons regular, like monks, live in communities and take vows of chastity and poverty, but, unlike monks, they are ordained as priests and have a duty to work in the world, preaching, teaching, and administering the sacraments. In 1219, on seeing the bodies of five martyred Franciscan monks being returned from Morocco for interment, he applied for and was granted permission to enter the Franciscan order. Upon his admission to the life of the friars, he joined the small hermitage in Olivais, adopting the name Anthony (from the name of the chapel located there dedicated to St Anthony the Great).
After a series of misadventures on his way to Africa as an evangelist, he wound up in Tuscany where he was assigned to a Franciscan monastery, but, because of weakness due to a severe illness contracted on his travels, he was given the task of working in the kitchen of a hospice, and spent most of his time as a contemplative hermit. Whilst there, on the occasion of an ordination, there was a misunderstanding as to who should preach the homily over the evening meal. There were many visiting Dominican friars present, and, because the Dominicans were renowned for their preaching the Franciscans expected one of them to do the job. But they protested that they were unprepared. The head of the monastery then called on Anthony to preach because he alone among the friars was educated. Anthony objected but was overruled, and his sermon created a deep impression. Not only his rich voice and arresting manner, but the entire theme and substance of his discourse and his moving eloquence, held the attention of his hearers.
At that point, Anthony was commissioned by Brother Gratian, the local Minister Provincial, to preach the gospel throughout Lombardy. In this capacity he came to the attention of the founder of the order, Francis of Assisi. Francis had held a strong distrust of the place of theological studies in the life of his brotherhood, fearing that it might lead to an abandonment of their commitment to a life of real poverty, and breed a sense of self importance. In Anthony, however, he found a kindred spirit for his vision who was also able to provide the teaching needed by young members of the order who might seek ordination. He spent much of the rest of his life preaching and teaching in France and Italy, and also served as a papal envoy. In 1231 he became gravely ill and after a period of contemplation in a cell built for him under a walnut tree in a woodland retreat in Camposampiero in the province of Padua, he determined to return to the city of Padua . He died, at the age of 36, on the journey.
There are a great many traditions associated with St Anthony’s feast day. In Portugal, for example, it is a popular day to be married because Anthony was known to be skilled at reconciling couples. Both the eve and the day are marked by feasts and parades. The center of Lisbon is filled with the smell of vendors grilling sardines, which are eaten with sangria. It is also customary worldwide on his feast day to bless and dedicate lilies, symbol of purity, to his name, and he is often depicted carrying a lily. In many parts of the world devotees give food to strangers on this day, a custom which we might be well to observe all year round.
Many dishes bear the name of St Anthony, but this is my favorite from northern Italy: Zuppa di Sant’ Antonio. It is quite simple, as befits a simple man, but also quite delicious.
Zuppa di Sant’ Antonio
3 tbsp (23 g) flour
¼ tsp (1 g) salt
I tsp (5 g) baking powder
2 quarts (2 l) chicken broth
1 cup (150 g) chopped fresh spinach
freshly grated Parmesan cheese
oil for deep frying
Beat the eggs.
Add the flour, baking powder, and salt and beat into a thin batter.
Heat the cooking oil to 325°F (160°C)
Drop the batter into the hot oil to form small balls. When the balls are lightly browned, remove them with a slotted spoon and drain them on a wire rack.
Bring the broth to a slow boil.
Add the batter balls and spinach and simmer until the spinach is wilted, 2 -3 minutes.
Serve with freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Serves 6 to 8.