Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Anthony the Abbot of Egypt, Father of Western Monasticism, and the first of the great “Desert Fathers”. Born in 251AD, it is unusual to know so much about someone from this time period, especially someone who spent the better part of his life in seclusion. To our good fortune, however, his friend and Doctor of the Church, St. Athanasius wrote his biography.
St. Anthony grew up in Middle Egypt in a Christian home. His parents protected him from the pagan influences of the time and thus preserved his strong faith. At the age of 20, Anthony’s parents died and he found himself in charge of his younger sister and a large estate. One day, after hearing the words of Jesus, “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor,” Anthony decided to do just that. He sold everything except a small parcel of land and a home for him and his sister. Later, the words of Jesus again confronted him, “Do not be anxious about tomorrow.” Anthony took that as a sign, and gave away all his property, and placed his sister in a “house of virgins”, the early form of a nunnery.
So what did Anthony believe God was calling him to? Anthony became a hermit, living in an isolated place, doing manual labor, praying, and reading and studying religious books, eating only bread, a little salt and water, and sleeping on a rush mat. During this time, the devil constantly assailed him with all kinds of temptations. Unshaken, Anthony resisted and grew closer and closer to God.
Searching even greater solitude, Anthony sought refuge in a tomb in the desert where the devil continued his torments in this lonely place:
Once, Athanasius says, he was so grievously beaten that when his friend arrived he lay almost dead. As Antony came to himself, he called out to the devils, “See, here I am! Do your worst! Nothing shall separate me from Christ my Lord.” At this, the demons reappeared and again filled the tomb with a terrible clamor and specters of ravening beasts in hideous shapes until a ray of heavenly light, breaking through, chased them away. “Where wast Thou,” Antony cried, “my Lord and my Master? Why wast Thou not here from the beginning of my conflict to give me succor?” “Antony,” replied a voice, “I was here the whole time; I stood by thee, and watched thy conflict. And because thou hast manfully withstood thy enemies, I will forever protect thee, and will make thy name famous throughout the earth.” At this the saint rose up to pray and give thanks. (source)
At the age of 35, Anthony headed across the Nile River and lived in the desert ruins of a castle, rarely seeing anyone except for a man who brought him food every six months. After 20 years, at the age of 55, he came down from the mountain and founded his first monastery made up of scattered cells which housed individual monks. He would visit the monasteries from time to time, but he always retreated to his solitude. In his old age, he lived on Mount Colzim near the Red Sea. He died at 105 years old healthy, with good vision and with all his teeth!
Anthony was known for his humility and wisdom, and people could always pick him out in a crowd by the joy on his face. Athanasius wrote that “in spite of his solitary life, ‘He did not seem to others morose or unapproachable, but met people with a most engaging and friendly air.’ He writes that no one in trouble ever visited Anthony without going away comforted.” People came from all around to talk to him, yet he listened carefully to and appreciated the counsel of others. In a rare long term descent from his hermitage, he ventured to Alexandria to defend the Faith against the Arians, teaching that Christ was fully human and fully divine. People gathered to hear his apologetics, and even the pagan philosophers were attracted to him.
The desert life whether in the physical desert or the spiritual desert always brings us closer to God because there we realize our complete reliance on the goodness of God for everything. There Anthony learned, that “perfection consisted not in mortification of the flesh but in love of God.” That makes all the difference.
St. Anthony, the Abbot, pray for us! Anne
PS: I thought you might enjoy this video blog from Fr. Matt Williams, director of the Office for the New Evangelization of Youth and Young Adults for the Boston Archdiocese “Surrender to God and He Will do Everything for You“.