He was a shining light at the beginning of ascetic monastic life and, by his constancy and fidelity, he became a solid rock on which the Church rested in order to dispel the perfidious attacks of heresy.
On mountain heights or desert expanses, men full of fervour discovered heroic ways of living in solitude as a means of uniting themselves more closely to God. This lifestyle was chosen by many Christians in the early centuries of the Church and later developed into the various forms of religious life we know today.
It is in this early context of isolation and ascetic rigour that we find the figure of St. Anthony.
Complete abandonment into the hands of Providence
The story of this Saint began in Egypt around the year 251.
The little information we have received about his childhood indicates that he was of a sedate and pious nature. It is known that his parents were Christians, enjoyed considerable wealth, and educated their children on the path of holiness.
With the death of his parents, which occurred when Anthony was around twenty years of age, he was entrusted with the care of his younger sister and the house. It was at this time that he made the decision that would change the course of his life.
One day when he was on his way to church, he thought especially of the Apostles’ way of life, abandoning everything in order to follow Our Lord Jesus Christ. Arriving at the church, he entered at the precise moment when a passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew was read: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven; and come, follow Me” (19:21).
Moved by a grace, Anthony understood that these words once spoken by Our Lord to the rich young man were, at that moment, addressed to him. Resolute and seized with enthusiasm, he immediately distributed the inheritance left by his parents and sold his possessions. Part of the sum received went to the poor and the rest was set aside for his sister, thus making him an outstanding executor of the counsel given by the Divine Master.
Some time later, he heard during Mass the following Gospel passage: “Do not be anxious about tomorrow” (Mt 6:34). He then decisively distributed what remained of his fortune and entrusted his sister to some Christian virgins to be educated by them.
In this way, faithfully following the voice of grace, he began to tread the path to which the Holy Spirit had destined for him, and he embraced outwardly the ascetic life that in a certain way already dwelt in his heart.
Striving after perfection
After renouncing the world, Anthony sought the means to put his ideal into practice. First he took counsel with an old man who lived near his native village. This personage led a solitary life and was known for his piety. Following his example, the Saint sought an isolated place to live, outside the village.
During this period, he sought to visit fervent men in order to imitate their works and to emulate the virtues that he had discerned in them. For this reason he was known as the “friend of God”. His love for the Creator made him see in every good act performed by others a revelation of the Lord.
Anthony moved resolutely forward in his ascetic life: renunciations, sacrifices and prayers filled his day, in addition to the time he dedicated to manual work, making mats. In the meantime, great struggles still awaited him along the path of penance he had embraced.
First battles against the devil
The angel of darkness, seeing his virtuous practices, began to tempt him in an ever more explicit way. In order to lead him to abandon his solitary life, he reminded him of the goods he had left behind, of the care of his sister and the pleasures of the world.
On the other hand, he showed him the difficulties entailed in the practice of virtue, the weakness of the body and the frequent adversities which man must face because of his evil tendencies, the fruit of original sin. He resisted these assaults of the infernal enemy energetically, with the help of grace, through prayer.
He also suffered countless temptations against the angelic virtue of purity. The struggle was uninterrupted: using evil devices, the father of lies disturbed him day and night with lewd thoughts and imaginations.
To win such battles, Anthony raised his cogitations to Our Lord and the nobility of the human soul created by God. Moreover, he redoubled his faith, prayers, fasts and mortification, convinced that this was an endless struggle, which he must wage while on earth.
Isolated in a tomb
Always intent on coming closer to God and engaging in new clashes against the evil one, Anthony decided to isolate himself in two unusual places.
First, he chose to live in a sepulchre on the edge of the desert. Some authors say it was an Egyptian tomb, pointing out that such places were considered to be the dwelling place of evil spirits: “It is the kingdom of the dead, the kingdom of evil spirits. Anthony came to this place because of the tombs. For there the demonic powers blow more violently than the sandstorms, and the demons are more numerous than the mummies hidden in the tombs […] There, the Christian ascetic finds himself in a place capable of offering him the fight he desires.”1
Having suggested to a friend to bring him food periodically, he entered the tomb and closed it. The enemy, however, “fearing that in a short time the desert would become a city of ascetics, entered the tomb one night with a multitude of demons and dealt him such a rain of blows that he was left prostrate on the ground.”2 The next day his friend found him unconscious and, judging him to be dead, took him to the village church.
In the meantime, as he recovered his senses, Anthony begged to be taken back to his tomb, where he remained alone. Redoubling their attack, the evil spirits appeared to him in the form of fierce animals. With divine permission, lions, bears, leopards, bulls, wolves, scorpions and snakes tormented him with their horrible noises and aggressions.
Anthony “groaned from physical pain, but remained with his soul vigilant”3 and mocked his tormentors. Raising his eyes, he saw the ceiling open and a light penetrate the tomb. The demons fled and the Saint felt comforted in his afflictions when he recognized the presence of Our Lord. Anthony then asked why He had not come to his aid sooner, to which Our Lord replied: “I was here, Anthony. I was waiting to see you fight. As you resisted and did not let yourself be overcome, I will always be your help and make your name famous everywhere.”4
Such confrontations, far from shaking him, increased his desire to progress ever further along the road to perfection. To this end, he decided to enter the desert, an environment that evokes various symbolisms. It is seen as a place of encounter with God, where the manifestations of His wonders are contemplated, but also as a place of trials, temptations and struggles. This is what the Saint was seeking.
Hermetic life in the desert
At the very outset of his journey, the enemy tempted him by making gold and gold and silver appear before him in the desert sand. Not allowing himself to be deceived by such a ruse, Anthony proclaimed with a loud voice that nothing would be able to divert him from his purpose, and went on his way, full of contempt for satan and confidence in God.
Finally, he sighted the ruins of an abandoned fort located near the Nile River, atop Mount Pispir, now known as Dayr al-Maymūn. Having established his new home there, Anthony closed the entrance. He had taken with him some typical bread from the region, made to last for many months, and twice a year he received new provisions that were thrown over the wall. He did not allow anyone to enter.
Anthony spent about twenty years in this place, without ever leaving. From outside one could hear the cries emitted by the demons to torment him, but he was not shaken and continued to pray and practise his penances.
Master of monks and comforter of the afflicted
Anthony’s life, eminent for its sacrifices and renunciations, became known to many who, captivated by his reputation for holiness, set out into the desert to see him.
From then on, the path of isolation became the ideal of many Christian hearts. The most ardent among them found in asceticism a way of perfection, involving rejection of the world, divestment of riches and purification of the soul.
Around Anthony a small colony of ascetics began to form. Although they lived separately, they sought sanctification under the guidance of the holy hermit who, abandoning his solitude, became their master and spiritual father.
Many others sought him for advice and to ask him for help in their difficulties. “From one day to the next, he was thrown into public life. He was greeted as master by a multitude of people of all ages who sought to give to and receive from him the kiss of peace, to touch him as a second Christ, to secretly cut off a piece of his tunic. […] The boisterously jubilant crowd recognized in Anthony their leader and guide.”5
Even Emperor Constantine the Great sent him a letter asking him how he should govern in the true Spirit of the Lord. The desert monk, after hearing the solemn reading of the letter, dictated a brief reply: “Practise humility and despise the world, and remember that on the Day of Judgement you will have to render an account for all your acts.”6
Among the wonders attributed to him is the fact that on a journey with some of his disciples, Anthony brought forth water in the middle of the desert to quench the thirst of all, who were on the verge of fainting. He also healed the sick, consoled the afflicted, reconciled his enemies and exorcised demons. He, who in isolation had overcome diabolical attacks, now freed many souls from the power of the tempter.
A few years passed, and Anthony longed to resume his life of solitude… However, the former places inhabited by him had become small communities of disciples. While he was searching for a solution, he heard a voice saying to him: “Go to the inner desert.”
God then inspired him to follow a caravan of Saracens that was departing from there. After three days of travel, he saw a high mountain and recognized it as the place designated by the Lord: it was Mount Colzim, where he lived until the end of his days.
Called to defend the true Faith
There is yet another aspect that calls our attention in the life of St. Anthony: the remarkable role he played in defending and supporting the Church during his time.
During the persecution of Maximinus, the Saint headed to Alexandria to strengthen with his presence and words all those who were called to give their lives for the name of Christ. He too wished to suffer martyrdom, but no one ever dared to do him harm, even when he went to the courts to exhort Christians to remain faithful, for “the Lord preserved him for our good and for the good of others.”7
Years later, at the request of the Patriarch St. Athanasius, Anthony returned to Alexandria, but this time to defend the true Church against the poison of heresy. This was Arianism, a false doctrine which denied the divinity of the Word. Although already condemned by the Council of Nicaea, it still threatened to spread throughout the Christian world. The monk of the desert, who in his mystical communications had contemplated the divinity of Our Lord, was the witness that the Holy Church so needed at this time.
Upon his arrival, Christians and heretics gathered in the basilica of the city to listen to him. As soon as the Holy Patriarch began his speech in praise of the divine nature of the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, a rebel rudely interrupted him with protests, claiming that the Lord was merely a man created by God. When Anthony heard what he was saying, he stood up and shouted out loud: “I saw Him!”
This testimony, endowed with the timbre of truth, enthralled those present. “The imposing voice of this hermit, for whom Christ’s divine nature had become all but evident due to a supernatural vision, dealt an even more powerful blow to the heresy than the magnificent and logically exposed doctrine that the Council had defined.”8
After exhorting the people of God to be faithful to the true Religion and to fight against heresies and their perpetrators, the desert monk returned to his dwelling on Mount Colzim.
His last years were spent in meditation and asceticism. He cultivated wheat and prepared his own bread. From time to time some disciples visited him, and made sure to also bring him food. He remained steadfast in a life of austerity, between penance and prayer, and in a growing mystical relationship with God. In one of these supernatural contacts, the Saviour revealed to him the difficulties which the Holy Church would have to suffer and her future triumph.9
Now close to death, and over a hundred years old, Anthony was assisted by two disciples. According to tradition, he surrendered his soul to God on January 17, the date on which the Church celebrates his memorial.
Rock of constancy and orthodoxy
How beautiful it is to contemplate the dawn of the history of Christianity! It shines with men and women full of faith who, inspired by Providence, knew how to glorify God by fulfilling His designs.
In this sense, St. Anthony is a guiding light in the ascetic-monastic life, opening the way for a host of souls who would choose to leave the world to encounter their Creator via a path of penance. By his constancy and fidelity, the Lord made him a rock upon which the Church could lean in order to dispel the perfidious attacks of heresy.
May his example sustain all those who, in these days, engage in perhaps greater battles against the enemies of God and His Church, reminding them of the infallible promise of the Saviour: “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18). ◊