Saint Anthony is known today as the “Lamp of Monasticism,” the father of all who seek the ascetic life. In his time, there existed unmarried men and women who lived ascetic lives in the Church. But, it was he who established a life of seclusion and prayer as a means of dying to the world for the sake of Christ. The account we have of Anthony comes from Saint Athanasius the Great, Patriarch of Alexandria, who wrote of his life while he was in Rome to reveal the monastic life to the Romans.
Anthony was born in the city of modern-day Beni Suef, Egypt. He was raised in a wealthy family and in the Christian faith. Even at a young age, Anthony preferred to meditate on Christ rather than socializing with friends, usually keeping to himself and refusing to participate in anything excessive. At the age of 18, he lost both his parents and took on the family fortune, as well as the care of his younger sister.
One day he entered the Church and heard the words of the Gospel, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.” (Matthew 19:21 KJV). Having heard these words as if they were directed to him personally, he continued to ponder on these things, always cautious in discerning God’s will.
He started by distributing his wealth to the poor, but he wondered how much he ought to leave aside for himself and his sister. Again he entered the Church and heard the words of the Gospel as if they were directed to himself, saying, “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” (Matthew 6:34). In these words, Anthony heard God confirm his calling, and so he gave away everything he had. But, refusing to force his decision on his sister, he put aside some money for her and gave her to the care to a community of virgins.
While monasticism had not yet been established, there did exist certain people who lived isolated lives on the outskirts of the city. Such people, while still maintaining daily jobs, devoted themselves to a type of unstructured ascetic life. Anthony saw this life as the kind he wanted to model. In the words of Athanasius, “Anthony was like a prudent bee, he went out and sought him, and did not turn back to his own place until he had seen him and returned having got from the good man supplies for his journey in the way of virtue.” During this time, Anthony also worked, as “he who is idle let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10 KJV), spending part of what he earned on bread and gave the rest to the poor. Athanasius writes, “He observed the graciousness of one; the unceasing prayer of another; he took knowledge of another’s freedom from anger, and another’s loving-kindness … one he admired for his endurance, another for his fasting and sleeping on the ground, the meekness of one and the long-suffering of another he watched with care. At the same time, he took note of the piety towards Christ and the mutual love which animated all.”
Anthony continued to learn and grow diligently, imitating the good in all those around him, even excelling above the level of his teachers. All this he did without stirring jealousy or envy in anyone. Instead, he won them over with his love and humility and brought joy to everybody who saw him.
During this time, the devil was not idle. Anthony was often tempted by the remembrance of his wealth, care for his sister, love of glory and the relaxations that life could offer. But Anthony persevered and fortified himself with fasting and prayer, and when he would triumph in fighting, he would remember the words of Paul, “not I but the grace of God which was with me.” (1 Corinthians 15:10 KJV).
After a time, Anthony began to feel the desire to devote himself even more to isolation. He even asked one of the elders to join him in a place further away from the city, but the elder would not agree, saying, “It is not my way.” Anthony went on his own to live among the tombs, which in those days, these were above-ground structures carved from stone.
Having chased away from his heart all the memories and thoughts that darkened his mind, the demons reverted to physical warfare. They would appear as large and savage animals coming to him in packs and would attack Anthony physically within an inch of his life. But, Anthony would reply, “Here am I, Anthony, I flee not from your stripes, for even if you inflict more nothing will separate me from the love of Christ (Romans 8:35 KJV).”
After much toil, the Lord came to Anthony’s, and immediately the demons vanished. Anthony said to the Lord, “Where were you? Why did you not appear at the beginning to make my pains cease?”. And a voice came to him, “Antony, I was here, but I waited to see you fight; since you have endured, and not been bested, I will ever be a help to you and will make your name known everywhere.”
At the age of 35, Anthony decided to cross the Nile and go deeper into the desert. He eventually found an abandoned fort. After arranging with some Bedouins to bring him food and water every few months, he locked himself up, intending to see no one for 20 years. But, word spread about Anthony, and many tried to visit him over the years to ask for his prayers and guidance. Often he would send them away, telling them to pray to God themselves. Eventually, when the fame of his holiness had spread throughout the cities, a great number of people came and broke open the fort to see Anthony. When he came forward, the people were astonished to see that he was not frail from long fasts nor fat from laziness, and he was neither happy nor sad at seeing the great multitude of people who had come to see him. Instead, the witness and peace of the desert had filled his heart.
Later, Anthony accepted disciples and lead them to the mountain by the Red Sea, where his monastery sits to this very day. Anthony lived to be 105 years old, and though he never ate costly food or pampered his body, he remained in good health. Because of his discernment in his asceticism, even at this old age, his eyes remained undimmed, and he appeared more cheerful than most others.
Many of his sayings are written down and remain a light for our own personal spiritual warfare. Here are some that encourage me daily to follow Christ as our Orthodox Fathers did:
“I saw the snares of the devil laid out upon the ground, and I said: Who can flee from these? And an angel said to me: Humility.”—Saint Anthony
“Set the Lord constantly before your eyes, at all times, and everywhere you go. And before any task, recite a section from the Holy Books that your works may be blessed.”
“Our lives and death hinge on our neighbour. So, if we do well to our neighbours, we gain and profit ourselves! But if we resent them, we are resenting God!”—Saint Anthony
“Let this be the common aim of all, neither to give way having once begun, nor to faint in trouble, nor to say: We have lived in the discipline for a long time. But as though making a beginning daily, let us increase our earnestness.”—Saint Anthony
“He who knows himself knows God.”—Saint Anthony
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St. Anthony the Great
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