Who is Saint Anthony?
We commemorate the venerable and God-bearing Father Saint Anthony the Great every January 17.
Our venerable and God-bearing Father Saint Anthony the Great was born into a wealthy family in upper Egypt about 254 AD. Also known as Anthony of Egypt, Anthony of the Desert, and Anthony the Anchorite, he was a leader among the Desert Fathers, who were Christian monks in the Egyptian desert in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. The Orthodox Church celebrates his feast on January 17.
Life of St. Anthony
Most of what we know about the life of St Anthony is in the Greek vita (Life of Antony) by Athanasius, circulated in Latin. Several surviving homilies and epistles of varying authenticity provide scant autobiographical detail.
Anthony was born near Herakleopolis Magna in Upper Egypt in 251 to wealthy parents. When he was eighteen years old, his parents died and left him with the care of his unmarried sister. In 285, he decided to follow the words of Jesus who had said: “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.” (Matthew 19:21). Anthony gave his wealth to the poor and needy, and placed his sister with a group of Christian virgins, a sort of proto-nunnery at the time.
The moniker “Father of Monasticism” is misleading, as Christian monasticism was already being practiced in the deserts of Egypt. Ascetics commonly retired to isolated locations on the outskirts of cities. Anthony is notable for being one of the first ascetics to attempt living in the desert proper, completely cut off from civilization. His anchoritic (isolated) lifestyle was remarkably harsher than his predecessors. By the 2nd century there were also famous Christian ascetics, such as Saint Thecla. Saint Anthony decided to follow this tradition and headed out into the alkaline desert region called the Nitra in Latin (Wadi El Natrun today), about 95 km west of Alexandria, some of the most rugged terrain of the Western Desert.
Also note that pagan ascetic hermits and loosely organized cenobitic communities that the Hellenized Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria described as the Therapeutae in the first century, were long established in the harsh environments by the Lake Mareotis close to Alexandria, and in other less-accessible regions. Philo understood: for “this class of persons may be met with in many places, for both Greece and barbarian countries want to enjoy whatever is perfectly good.” (Philo, De vita contemplativa, written c. 10)
According to Athanasius, the devil fought St Anthony by afflicting him with boredom, laziness, and the phantoms of women, which he overcame by the power of prayer, providing a theme for Christian art. After that, he moved to a tomb, where he resided and closed the door on himself, depending on some local villagers who brought him food. When the devil perceived his ascetic life and his intense worship, he was envious and beat him mercilessly, leaving him unconscious. When his friends from the local village came to visit him and found him in this condition, they carried him to a church.
After he recovered, he made a second effort and went back to the desert, further out, to a mountain by the Nile, called Pispir, now Der el Memun, opposite Arsinoë in the Fayyum. There he lived strictly enclosed in an old abandoned Roman fort for some twenty years. According to Athanasius, the devil again resumed his war against Saint Anthony, only this time the phantoms were in the form of wild beasts, wolves, lions, snakes and scorpions. They appeared as if they were about to attack him or cut him into pieces. But the Saint would laugh at them scornfully and say, “If any of you have any authority over me, only one would have been sufficient to fight me.” At his saying this, they disappeared as though in smoke, and God gave him the victory over the devil. While in the fort he only communicated with the outside world by a crevice through which food would be passed and he would say a few words. Saint Anthony would prepare a quantity of bread that would sustain him for six months. He did not allow anyone to enter his cell: whoever came to him, stood outside and listened to his advice.
Then one day he emerged from the fort with the help of villagers to break down the door. By this time most had expected him to have wasted away, or gone insane in his solitary confinement, but he emerged healthy, serene, and enlightened. Everyone was amazed he had been through these trials and emerged spiritually rejuvenated. He was hailed as a hero and from this time forth the legend of Anthony began to spread and grow.
Then he went to the Fayyum and confirmed the brethren there in the Christian faith, then returned to his old Roman fort. Anthony wished to become a martyr and went to Alexandria. He visited those who were imprisoned for the sake of Christ and comforted them. When the Governor saw that he was confessing his Christianity publicly, not caring what might happen to him, he ordered him not to show up in the city. However, the Saint did not heed his threats. He faced him and argued with him in order that he might arouse his anger so that he might be tortured and martyred, but it did not happen.
When he went back to the old Roman fort, many came to visit him and to hear his teachings. He saw that these visits kept him away from his worship. As a result, he went further into the Eastern Desert of Egypt. He travelled to the inner wilderness for three days, until he found a spring of water and some palm trees, and then he chose to settle there. On this spot now stands the monastery of Saint Anthony the Great. On occasions, he would go to the monastery on the outskirts of the desert by the Nile to visit the brethren, then return to his inner monastery.
The backstory of one of the surviving epistles, directed to Constantine I recounts how the fame of Saint Anthony spread abroad and reached Emperor Constantine. The Emperor wrote to him, offering him praise and asked him to pray for him. The brethren were pleased with the Emperor’s letter, but Anthony did not pay any attention to it, and he said to them, “The books of God, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, commands us everyday, but we do not heed what they tell us, and we turn our backs on them.” Under the persistence of the brethren who told him, “Emperor Constantine loves the church,” he accepted to write him a letter blessing him, and praying for the peace and safety of the empire and the church.
According to Athanasius, Saint Anthony heard a voice telling him, “Go out and see.” He went out and saw an angel who wore a girdle with a cross, one resembling the holy Eskiem (Tonsure or Schema), and on his head was a head cover (Kolansowa). He was sitting while braiding palm leaves, then he stood up to pray, and again he sat to weave. A voice came to him saying, “Anthony, do this and you will rest.” Henceforth, he started to wear this tunic that he saw, and began to weave palm leaves, and never got bored again. Saint Anthony prophesied about the persecution that was about to happen to the church and the control of the heretics over it, the church victory and its return to its formal glory, and the end of the age. When Saint Macarius visited Saint Anthony, Saint Anthony clothed him with the monk’s garb, and foretold him what would be of him. When the day drew near of the departure of Saint Paul the First Hermit in the desert, Saint Anthony went to him and buried him, after clothing him in a tunic which was a present from St Athanasius the Apostolic, the 20th Patriarch of Alexandria.
When Saint Anthony felt that the day of his departure had approached, he commanded his disciples to give his staff to Saint Macarius, and to give one sheepskin cloak to Saint Athanasius and the other sheepskin cloak to Saint Serapion, his disciple. He further instructed his disciples to bury his body in an unmarked, secret grave, lest his body become an object of veneration. He stretched himself on the ground and gave up his spirit. Saint Anthony the Great lived for 105 years and departed on the year 356. He probably spoke only his native language, Coptic, but his sayings were spread in a Greek translation. He himself left no writings. His biography was written by Saint Athanasius and titled Life of Saint Anthony the Great. Many stories are also told about him in various collections of sayings of the Desert Fathers.
Some of the stories included in Saint Anthony’s biography are perpetuated now mostly in paintings, where they give an opportunity for artists to depict their more lurid or bizarre fantasies. Many pictorial artists, from Hieronymus Bosch to Salvador Dalí, have depicted these incidents from the life of Anthony; in prose, the tale was retold and embellished by Gustave Flaubert.
Founder of monasticism
Saint Anthony and Saint Paul the Hermit are seen as the founders of Christian monasticism. Saint Paul the Hermit is lauded by Saint Anthony as the first hermit. The monastery of Saint Paul the Hermit exists to this day in Egypt. Saint Anthony himself provided the example that others would follow (see Saint Pachomius). Anthony himself did not organize or create a monastery, but a community grew up around him based on his example of living an ascetic and isolated life. Those who wished to follow him needed the company of others to survive the harsh conditions.
Sayings (apophthegmata) of Abba Anthony
- When the holy Abba Anthony lived in the desert he was beset by accidie, and attacked by many sinful thoughts. He said to God, ‘Lord, I want to be saved but these thoughts do not leave me alone; what shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?’ A short while afterwards, when he got up to go out, Anthony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and plaiting a rope, then getting up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct and reassure him. He heard the angel saying to him, ‘Do this and you will be saved.’ At these words, Anthony was filled with joy and courage. He did this, and he was saved.
- When the same Abba Anthony thought about the depth of the judgements of God, he asked, ‘Lord, how is it that some die when they are young, while others drag on to extreme old age? Why are there those who are poor and those who are rich? Why do wicked men prosper and why are the just in need?’ He heard a voice answering him, ‘Anthony, keep your attention on yourself; these things are according to the judgement of God, and it is not to your advantage to know anything about them.’
- Someone asked Abba Anthony, ‘What must one do in order to please God?’ The old man replied, ‘Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved.’
- Abba Anthony said to Abba Poemen, ‘this is the great work of a man: always to take the blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath.’
- He also said, ‘Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. ‘He even added, ‘Without temptations no-one can be saved.’
- Abba Pambo asked Abba Anthony, ‘What ought I to do?’ and the old man said to him ‘Do not trust in your own righteousness do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach.’
- Abba Anthony said, ‘I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, “What can get through from such snares?” Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.”‘
- He also said, ‘Some have afflicted their bodies by asceticism, but they lack discernment, and so they are far from God.’
- He also said, ‘Our life and our death is with our neighbour. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalise our brother, we have sinned against Christ.’
- He said also, ‘just as fish die if they stay too long out of water, so the monks who loiter outside their cells or pass their time with men of the world lose the intensity of inner peace. So like a fish going towards the sea, we must hurry to reach our cell, for fear that if we delay outside we will lose our interior watchfulness.’
- He said also, ‘He who wishes to live in solitude in the desert is delivered from three conflicts: hearing, speech, and sight; there is only one conflict for him and that is with fornication.’
- Some brothers came to find Abba Anthony to tell him about the visions they were having, and to find out from him if they were true or if they came from the demons. They had a donkey, which died on the way. When they reached the place where the old man was, he said to them before they could ask him anything, ‘How was it that the little donkey died on the way here?’ They said, ‘How do you know about that, Father?’ And he told them, ‘The demons showed me what happened.’ So they said, ‘That was what we came to question you about, for fear we were being deceived, for we have visions which often turn out to be true.’ Thus the old man convinced them, by the example of the donkey, that their visions came from the demons.
- A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him, ‘Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.’ So he did. The old man then said, ‘Shoot another,’ and he did so. Then the old man said, ‘Shoot yet again and the hunter replied ‘If I bend my bow so much I will break it.’ Then the old man said to him, ‘It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.’ When he heard these words “the hunter was pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the brethren, they went home strengthened.
- Abba Anthony heard of a very young monk who had performed a miracle on the road. Seeing the old men walking with difficulty along the road, he ordered the wild asses to come and carry them until they reached Abba Anthony. Those whom they had carried told Abba Anthony about it. He said to them, ‘This monk seems to me to be a ship loaded with goods but I do not know if he will reach harbour.’ After a while, Anthony suddenly began to weep, to tear his hair and lament. His disciples said to him, ‘Why are you weeping, Father?’ and the old man replied, ‘A great pillar of the Church has just fallen (he meant the young monk) but go to him and see what has happened.’ So the disciples went and found the monk sitting on a mat and weeping for the sin he had committed. Seeing the disciples of the old man he said, ‘Tell the old man to pray that God will give me just ten days and I hope I will have made satisfaction.’ But in the space of five days he died.
- The brothers praised a monk before Abba Anthony. When the monk came to see him, Anthony wanted to know how he would bear insults; and seeing that he could not bear them at all, he said to him, ‘You are like a village magnificently decorated on the outside, but destroyed from within by robbers.’
- A brother said to Abba Anthony, ‘Pray for me.’ The old man said to him, ‘I will have no mercy upon you, nor will God have any, if you yourself do not make an effort and if you do not pray to God.’
- One day some old men came to see Abba Anthony. In the midst of them was Abba Joseph. Wanting to test them, the old man suggested a text from the Scriptures, and, beginning with the youngest, he asked them what it meant. Each gave his opinion as he was able. But to each one the old man said, ‘You have not understood it.’ Last of all he said to Abba Joseph, ‘How would you explain this saying?’ and he replied, ‘I do not know.’ Then Abba Anthony ‘Indeed Abba Joseph has found the way, for he has said: “I do said, not know.”
- Some brothers were coming from Scetis to see Abba Anthony. When they were getting into a boat to go there, they found an old man who also wanted to go there. The brothers did not know him. They sat in the boat, occupied by turns with the words of the Fathers, Scripture and their manual work. As for the old man, he remained silent. When they arrived on shore they found that the old man was going to the cell of Abba Anthony too. When they reached the place, Anthony said to them, ‘You found this old man a good companion for the journey?’ Then he said to the old man, ‘You have brought many good brethren with you, father.’ The old man said, ‘No doubt they are good, but they do not have a door to their house and anyone who wishes can enter the stable and loose the ass.’ He meant that the brethren said whatever came into their mouths.
- The brethren came to the Abba Anthony and said to him, ‘Speak a word; how are we to be saved?’ The old man said to them, ‘You have heard the Scriptures. That should teach you how.’ But they said, ‘We want to hear from you too, Father.’ Then the old man said to them, ‘The Gospel says, “if anyone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matt. 5.39) They said, ‘We cannot do that.’ The old man said, ‘If you cannot offer the other cheek, at least allow one cheek to be struck.’ ‘We cannot do that either, ‘ they said. So he said, ‘If you are not able to do that, do not return evil for evil, ‘ and they said, ‘we cannot do that either.’ Then the old man said to his disciple, ‘Prepare a little brew of corn for these invalids. If you cannot do this, or that, what can I do for you? What you need is prayers.’
- A brother renounced the world and gave his goods to the poor, but he kept back a little for his personal expenses. He went to see Abba Anthony. When he told him this, the old man said to him, ‘If you want to be a monk, go into the village, buy some meat, cover your naked body with it and come here like that.’ The brother did so, and the dogs and birds tore at his flesh. When he came back the old man asked him whether he had followed his advice. He showed him his wounded body, and Saint Anthony said, ‘Those who renounce the world but want to keep something for themselves are torn in this way by the demons who make war on them.’
- It happened one day that one of the brethren in the monastery of Abba Elias was tempted. Cast out of the monastery, he went over the mountain to Abba Anthony. The brother lived near him for a while and then Anthony sent him back to the monastery from which he had been expelled. When the brothers saw him they cast him out yet again, and he went back to Abba Anthony saying, ‘My Father, they will not receive me.’ Then the old man sent them a message saying, ‘A boat was shipwrecked at sea and lost its cargo; with great difficulty it reached the shore; but you want to throw into the sea that which has found a safe harbour on the shore. ‘When the brothers understood that it was Abba Anthony who had sent them this monk, they received him at once.
- Abba Anthony said, ‘I believe that the body possesses a natural movement, to which it is adapted, but which it cannot follow without the consent of the soul; it only signifies in the body a movement without passion. There is another movement, which comes from the nourishment and warming of the body by eating and drinking, and this causes the heat of the blood to stir up the body to work. That is why the apostle said, “Do not get drunk with wine for that is debauchery.” (Ephes. 5:18) And in the Gospel the Lord also recommends this to his disciples: “Take heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness.” (Luke 21:34) But there is yet another movement, which afflicts those who fight, and that comes from the wiles and jealousy of the demons. You must understand what these three bodily movements are: one is natural, one comes from too much to eat, the third is caused by the demons.’
- He also said, ‘God does not allow the same warfare and temptations to this generation as he did formerly, for men are weaker now and cannot bear so much.’
- It was revealed to Abba Anthony in his desert that there was one who was his equal in the city. He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Sanctus with the angels.