Saint Anthony of Egypt or, as he is simply known in the history of monasticism, Anthony the Great, was born in Coma in Lower Egypt, Anthony heard the call to leave everything behind to give himself to God. The words of Jesus Matthew 19:21, namely: 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, Anthony immediately knew that those words were for him. Unlike the wealthy young man of the gospel who went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions (Matt 19:22), Anthony did precisely the opposite. He gave away his wealth which his parents left to him, sold the property which remained in his hands, gave the money to the poor, put his sister under the custody of a community of virgins and went and lived an ascetic life in the desert.
His heremitical life was intense and influenced other people. Like St Francis of Assisi who came after him, Anthony was a living prayer. Slowly, slowly others started to be interested in giving their lives to Christ in the desert. According to Philo of Alexandria, this class of persons may be met with in many places, for both Greece and barbarian countries want to enjoy whatever is perfectly good. Anthony himself dedicated some five or six years to organize this great group of monks which gathered around him. Later on we find him withdraw into the inner desert between the Nile and the Red Sea. Hence, Anthony’s life was one strict seclusion as well as be in contact with those who visited him in the desert.
Fasting, prayer and fighting temptations was the general character of his life. In The Life of Anthony, St. Athanasius gives us an interesting sketch of this superhero of the faith: Anthony kept vigil to such an extent that he often continued the whole night without sleep; and this not once but often, to the marvel of others. He ate once a day, after sunset. … His food was bread and salt, his drink, water only. … A rush mat served him to sleep upon, but for the most part he lay upon the bare ground. Confronted with this holiness the demons waged a relentless war against him. St Athanasius tells us: Changes of form for evil are easy for the devil, so in the night they made such a din that the whole of that place seemed to be shaken by an earthquake, and the demons as if breaking the four walls of the dwelling seemed to enter through them, coming in the likeness of beasts and creeping things.
But Anthony kept choosing the Christ that he always wanted in his life. His story tells us that once Christ put him on the test, when He allowed evil to combat Anthony for a whole night. At the point of exhaustion Jesus appeared to him. At Jesus’ show up the demons rapidly ran away whereas Anthony’s body was relieved from its pain. Upon seeing Jesus Anthony was a bit offended. He asked the Lord: Where were you? Why did you not appear at the beginning to make my pains to cease? And Jesus replied: Anthony, I was here, but I waited to see your fight,” Jesus answered. “I will always be a helper for you.
Commenting on this story Pope Francis said: The Lord is close. It can happen that, when faced with fresh sorrow or a difficult period, we think we are alone, even after all the time we have spent with the Lord. But in those moments, where he might not intervene immediately, he walks at our side.
St Anthony, the Father of Christian monasticism, firmly believed this word and lived by it till death on 17 January 356.
The wisdom Anthony left to shows his spiritual greatness in front of both God and men. Anthony said that we are to avoid the death of the soul through our constant struggles against negligence and laziness of the soul. He said: If we make every effort to avoid death of the body, still more should it be our endeavor to avoid death of the soul. There is no obstacle for a man who wants to be saved other than negligence and laziness of soul.
Intelligence is to be detected in the soul who is able to determine what is good and evil. They sideline evil and do what is good. Anthony said: Men are often called intelligent wrongly. Intelligent men are not those who are erudite in the sayings and books of the wise men of old, but those who have an intelligent soul and can discriminate between good and evil. They avoid what is sinful and harms the soul; and with deep gratitude to God they resolutely adhere by dint of practice to what is good and benefits the soul. These men alone should truly be called intelligent.
A virtuous life is not easy. However those who live it let their intellect be controlled by God’s love not by the mundane spirit of the world which comes through laziness. Anthony tells us: One should not say that it is impossible to reach a virtuous life; but one should say that it is not easy. Nor do those who have reached it find it easy to maintain. Those who are devout and whose intellect enjoys the love of God participate in the life of virtue; the ordinary intellect, however, is worldly and wavering, producing both good and evil thoughts, because it is changeful by nature and directed towards material things. But the intellect that enjoys the love of God punishes the evil which arises spontaneously because of man’s laziness.
Experiencing temptation is an essential quality for having the Kingdom of Heaven’s citizenship. Anthony counsels us: Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Without temptations no-one can be saved. Anthony condemns while defining slander. He says: What is slander? It is every sort of wicked word we would dare not speak in front of the person whom we are complaining about.
Our work is that of being responsible for our sins and combat temptation till our death. He says: This is the great work of man: always to take the blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath. Anthony tells us to avoid heretics who are obstinate in their error because they hate Christ. He says: Do not have a single thing to do with schismatics and absolutely nothing with heretics . . . As you know I myself have avoided them due to their Christ hating and heterodox heresy.
Prayer, sacrifices, humility, goodness and making the sign of the Cross make the devil afraid. Anthony says: The devil is afraid of us when we pray and make sacrifices. He is also afraid when we are humble and good. He is especially afraid when we love Jesus very much. He runs away when we make the Sign of the Cross.
Anthony reminds us of the serious duty we all have to know ourselves. He states that one who knows oneself, knows God: and one who knows God is worthy to worship Him as is right. Therefore, my beloveds in the Lord, know yourselves. This great man of prayer instructs us that fear of God makes us hate the world, the peace which is derived from the flesh and reject this life to live for God. He says: Always have the fear of God before your eyes. Remember Him who gives death and lives. Hate the world and all that is in it. Hate the peace that comes from the flesh. Renounce this life, so that you may be alive to God.
This father of monasticism gave us a splendid catechesis on humility. He says: Learn to love humility, for it will cover all your sins. All sins are repulsive before God, but the most repulsive of all is pride of the heart. Do not consider yourself learned and wise; otherwise, all your efforts will be destroyed, and your boat will reach the harbor empty. If you have great authority, do not threaten anyone with death. Know that, according to nature, you too are susceptible to death, and that every soul sheds its body as its final garment.
Anthony defends Jesus as the Son of God. He states: He who neglects the Son throws stones at the Father as well. For the Son Himself speaks of God in the Gospels that he who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father.
This Egyptian monk provides us with an excellent catechesis on divine sanctifying grace. He says: As long as it [the human soul] is engulfed by winter of evil, she is barren and impossible to compare with others, remains dead and barren. But when it receives the Divine and understandable in the spiritual sense rain of verbal teaching, then the cold of evil ends: it discards the nasty clothes of many passions, warming itself with the word, and when it comes to life from Divine moisture and spiritual warmth, it brings forth fruit, according to God’s word: some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred.
Finally, the wise Anthony has this prophecy so appropriate for our troubled times! He says: A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad; you are not like us.
St Anthony the Great, pray for us!