Today’s thought is a brief overview of the life of St. Anthony the Great. As he is THE central figure in the development of monasticism in Egypt and the Holy Land, and a model and teacher for Desert Fathers of many generations, I think it is important for each of us to have the general outlines of his life and spiritual development in mind. Next week, we will return to the teachings of the Desert Fathers.
BEGIN: The Life of St. Anthony the Great
St. Anthony is the founder of Christian monasticism. The chief source of information on St. Anthony is a Greek Life attributed to St. Athanasius, to be found in any edition of his works. A note of the controversy concerning this Life is given at the end of this article; here it will suffice to say that now it is received with practical unanimity by scholars as a substantially historical record, and as a probably authentic work of St. Athanasius. Valuable subsidiary information is supplied by such secondary sources as John Cassian and Palladius (ìLausiac Historyî) which are accepted as substantially authentic, whereas what is related concerning St. Anthony in St. Jerome's “Life of St. Paul the Hermit" cannot be used for historical purposes.
Anthony was born at Coma, near Heracleopolis Magna in Fayum, about the middle of the third century. He was the son of well-to-do parents, and on their death, in his twentieth year, he inherited their possessions. He had a desire to imitate the life of the Apostles and the early Christians. One day, on hearing in the church the Gospel words, "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell all thou hast", he received them as spoken to himself, disposed of all his property and goods, and devoted himself exclusively to religious exercises.
Long before this it had been usual for Christians to practice asceticism, abstain from marriage and exercise themselves in self-denial, fasting, prayer, and works of piety; but this they had done in the midst of their families, and without leaving house or home. Later on in Egypt, such ascetics lived in huts, in the outskirts of the towns and villages, and this was the common practice by about 270, when Anthony withdrew from the world.
He began his career by practicing the ascetical life in this fashion without leaving his native place. He used to visit the various ascetics, study their lives, and try to learn from each of them the virtue in which he seemed to excel. Then he took up his abode in one of the tombs, near his native village, and there it was that the Life records those strange conflicts with demons in the shape of wild beasts, who inflicted blows upon him, and sometimes left him nearly dead.
After fifteen years of this life, at the age of thirty-five, Anthony determined to withdraw from the habitations of men and retire in absolute solitude. He crossed the Nile, and on a mountain near the east bank, then called Pispir, now Der el Memum, he found an old fort into which he shut himself, and lived there for twenty years without seeing the face of man, food being thrown to him over the wall. He was at times visited by pilgrims, whom he refused to see; but gradually a number of would-be disciples established themselves in caves and in huts around the mountain. Thus a colony of ascetics was formed, who begged Anthony to come forth and be their guide in the spiritual life.
At length, about the year 305, he yielded to their request and emerged from his retreat, and, to the surprise of all, he appeared to be as when he had gone in, not emaciated, but vigorous in body and mind. For five or six years he devoted himself to the instruction and organization of the great body of monks that had grown up around him; but then he once again withdrew into the inner desert that lay between the Nile and the Red Sea, near the shore of which he fixed his abode on a mountain where still stands the monastery that bears his name, Der Mar Antonios. Here he spent the last forty-five years of his life, in seclusion, not so strict as in Pispir, for he freely saw those who came to visit him, and he used to cross the desert to Pispir with considerable frequency.
The Life says that on two occasions he went to Alexandria, once after he came forth from the fort at Pispir, to strengthen the Christian martyrs in the persecution of 311, and once at the close of his life (c. 350), to preach against the Arians. The Life says he died at the age of 105, and St. Jerome places his death in 356-357. All the chronology is based on the hypothesis that this date and the figures in the Life are correct. At his own request his grave was kept secret by the two disciples who buried him, lest his body should become an object of reverence.
Of his writings, the most authentic formulation of his teaching is without doubt that which is contained in the various sayings and discourses put into his mouth in the Life, especially the long ascetic sermons spoken on his coming forth from the fort at Pispir. It is an instruction on the duties of the spiritual life, in which the warfare with demons occupies the chief place. Though probably not an actual discourse spoken on any single occasion, it can hardly be a mere invention of the biographer, and doubtless reproduces St. Anthony's actual doctrine, brought together and coordinated. It is likely that many of the sayings attributed to him in the "Apophthegmata" really go back to him, and the same may be said of the stories told of him in Cassian and Palladius. There is a homogeneity about these records, and a certain dignity and spiritual elevation that seem to mark them with the stamp of truth, and to justify the belief that the picture they give us of St Anthony's personality, character, and teaching is essentially authentic.
The authorities are agreed that St Anthony knew no Greek and spoke only Coptic. There exists a monastic Rule that bears St Anthony's name, preserved in Latin and Arabic forms. While it cannot be received as having been actually composed by Anthony, it probably in large measure goes back to him, being for the most part made up out of the utterances attributed to him in the Life and the "Apophthegmata"; it contains, however, an elements derived from the "Pachomian Rules". It was compiled at an early date, and was in great vogue in Egypt and the East. To this day it is the rule followed by the Uniate Monks of Syria and Armenia, of whom the Maronites, with sixty monasteries and 1,100 monks, are the most important; it is followed also by the scanty remnants of Coptic monachism.
The monasticism established under St Anthony's direct influence became the norm in Northern Egypt, from Lycopolis (Asyut) to the Mediterranean. In contradistinction to the fully coenobitical system, established by Pachomius in the South, it continued to be of a semi-eremetical character, the monks living commonly in separate cells or huts, and coming together only occasionally for church services; they were left very much to their own devices, and the life they lived was not a community life according to rule, as now understood. This was the form of monastic life in the deserts of Nitria and Scete, as portrayed by Palladius and Cassian. Such groups of semi-independent hermitages were later on called Lauras, and have always existed in the East alongside the Basilian monasteries; in the West St Anthony's monachism is in some measure represented by the Carthusians. Such was St Anthony's life and character, and such his role in Christian history. He is justly recognized as the father not only of monasticism, strictly so called, but of the technical religious life in every shape and form. Few names have exercised on the human race an influence more deep and lasting, more widespread, or on the whole more beneficent.
It remains to say a word on the controversy carried on during the present generation concerning St Anthony and the Life. In 1877 Weingarten denied the Athanasian authorship and the historical character of the Life, which he pronounced to be a mere romance; he held that up to 340 there were no Christian monks, and that therefore the dates of the "real" Anthony had to be shifted nearly a century. Some imitators in England went still further and questioned, even denied, that St Anthony had ever existed. To anyone conversant with the literature of monastic Egypt, the notion that the fictitious hero of a novel could ever have come to occupy Anthony's position in monastic history can appear nothing less than a fantastic paradox. As a matter of fact these theories are abandoned on all hands; the Life is received as certainly historical in substance, and as probably by Athanasius, and the traditional account of monastic origins is reinstated in its great outlines. The episode is now chiefly of interest as a curious example of a theory that was broached and became the fashion, and then was completely abandoned, all within a single generation.
From “The Catholic Encyclopedia”