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The Life of St. Anthony
Bishop Athanasius (Anthony’s spiritual son) writes his detailed biography after Anthony’s death.
Anthony was born in Coma in Lower Egypt in ad 251 to wealthy landowner parents. When he was about 18 years old, his parents died and left him with the care of his unmarried sister. Shortly thereafter, he decided to follow the Evangelical counsel of Jesus which reads, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven.” Anthony gave away some of his family’s lands to his neighbors, sold the remaining property, and donated the funds thus raised to the poor. He then left to live an ascetic life, placing his sister with a group of Christian virgins, a sort of proto-nunnery.
For the next fifteen years, Anthony remained in the area, spending the first years as the disciple of another local hermit.There are various legends associating Anthony with pigs: one is that he worked as a swineherd during this period.
Anthony is sometimes considered the first monk, but there were others before him. There were already ascetic paganhermits (the Therapeutae) and loosely organized cenobitic communities were described by the Hellenized Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria in the 1st century ad as long established in the harsh environment of Lake Mareotis and in other less accessible regions. Philo opined that “this class of persons may be met with in many places, for both Greece and barbarian countries want to enjoy whatever is perfectly good.” Christian ascetics such as Thecla had likewise retreated to isolated locations at the outskirts of cities. Anthony is notable for having decided to surpass this tradition and headed out into the desert proper. He left for the alkaline Nitrian Desert (later the location of the noted monasteries of Nitria, Kellia, andScetis) on the edge of the Western Desert about 95 km (59 mi) west of Alexandria. He remained there for 13 years.
According to Athanasius, the devil fought 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 into the desert to a farther mountain by the Nile called Pispir (now Der-el-Memun), opposite Arsinoe. There he lived strictly enclosed in an old abandoned Roman fort for some 20 years. According to Athanasius, the devil again resumed his war against 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. 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. 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, who broke down the door. By this time most had expected him to have wasted away or to have gone insane in his solitary confinement. Instead, he emerged healthy, serene, and enlightened. Everyone was amazed that 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. Anthony went to Fayyum and confirmed the brethren there in the Christian faith before returning to his fort.
Amid the Diocletian Persecutions, Anthony wished to become a martyr and in 311 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.
At the end of the persecutions, Anthony returned to his old Roman fort. By this time, many more had heard of his sanctity and he had many more visitors than before. He saw these visits as interfering with his worship and went further into the Eastern Desert. He traveled for three days before reaching a small oasis with a spring and some palm trees and chose to settle there. Disciples soon found him out and his number of visitors again continued to grow.
Anthony had not been the first ascetic or hermit, but he may properly be called the “Father of Monasticism” in Christianity, as he organized his disciples into a worshipful community and inspired similar withdrawn communities throughout Egypt and, following the spread of Athanasius’s hagiography, the Greek and Roman world. His follower Macarius the Great was particularly active in continuing his legacy.
Anthony anticipated the rule of Benedict by about 200 years, engaging himself and his disciples in manual labor. Anthony himself cultivated a garden and wove rush mats. He and his disciples were regularly sought for words of enlightenment. These statements were later collected into the book of Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Anthony himself is said to have spoken to those of a spiritual disposition personally, leaving the task of addressing the more worldly visitors to Macarius. 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 praise and requesting prayers. 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 every day, 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 was 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 former 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.
In 338, he left the desert temporarily to visit Alexandria to help refute the teachings of Arius. Although not particularly learned, Anthony was able to confound the Arians.
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 sheepskincloak 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, secretgrave.
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.
Though Anthony himself did not organize or create a monastery, a community grew around him based on his example of living an ascetic and isolated life. Athanasius’ biography helped propagate Anthony’s ideals. Athanasius writes, “For monks, the life of Anthony is a sufficient example of asceticism.”
Famously, Anthony is said to have faced a series of supernatural temptations during his pilgrimage to the desert. The first to report on the temptation was his contemporary Athanasius of Alexandria. It is possible these events, like the paintings, are full of rich metaphor or in the case of the animals of the desert, perhaps a vision or dream. 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 interpretations. Many artists, including Martin Schongauer, Hieronymus Bosch, Dorothea Tanning, Max Ernst, Leonora Carrington and Salvador Dalí, have depicted these incidents from the life of Anthony; in prose, the tale was retold and embellished by Gustave Flaubert in The Temptation of Saint Anthony.
Emphasis on these stories, however, did not really begin until the Middle Ages, when the psychology of the individual became of greater interest. Below are some of these controversial tales.
The Satyr and the Centaur
At any rate, he was stopped by the two demons and he asked them, “Who are you?” To that the satyr replied, “I am a corpse, one of those whom the heathen call satyrs, and by whom they are snared into idolatry.” The satyr then tried to terrify the saint while the centaur acknowledged the overthrow of the gods. In the end, the centaur tried to show Saint Anthony the way to his destination while the satyr ended up asking for Saint Anthony’s blessing.
Silver and Gold
Another time Saint Anthony was travelling in the desert, he found a plate of silver coins in his path. He pondered for a moment as to why a plate of silver coins would be out in the desert where no one else travels, and realized the Devil must have laid it out there to tempt him. To that he said, “Ha! Devil, thou weenest to tempt me and deceive me, but it shall not be in thy power.” Once he said this, the plate of silver vanished.
Saint Anthony continued walking along and saw a pile of gold in his way which the Devil had laid there to deceive him. Saint Anthony cast the pile of gold into a fire, and it vanished just like the silver coins did. After these events, Saint Anthony had a vision where the whole world was full of snares and traps. He cried to the Lord, “Oh good Lord, who may escape from these snares?” A voice replied, “Humility shall escape them without more.”
Demons in the Cave
Once, Saint Anthony tried hiding in a cave to escape the demons that plagued him. There were so many little demons in the cave though that Saint Anthony’s servant had to carry him out because they had beaten him to death. When the hermits were gathered to Saint Anthony’s corpse to mourn his death, Saint Anthony was revived. He demanded that his servants take him back to that cave where the demons had beaten him. When he got there he called out to the demons, and they came back as wild beasts to rip him to shreds. All of a sudden a bright light flashed, and the demons ran away. Saint Anthony knew that the light must have come from God, and he asked God where was he before when the demons attacked him. God replied, “I was here but I would see and abide to see thy battle, and because thou hast mainly fought and well maintained thy battle, I shall make thy name to be spread through all the world.”