Today, January 17, is the Memorial of St. Anthony the Great, the desert father who inspired so many with his wisdom and asceticism.
St. Anthony was born in Coma, Egypt, around AD 251. His parents were wealthy landowners, but died when Anthony was only eighteen, leaving him with the responsibility of caring for his younger sister. Soon after his parent’s death, Anthony took to heart the challenge of Jesus in the Gospels, “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” (Mt. 19:21). Anthony arranged for his sister to reside with a community of women religious, sold or gave away his parent’s property, donating any profits to the poor, and left for the desert.
Anthony lived first in the area around Coma, as a disciple of a local hermit. He then moved to the Nitrian Desert, and finally lived in an old Roman fort on Mount Pispir. He moved farther and farther into the desert to escape the large numbers of visitors who sought his spiritual counsel, but whom he regarded mostly as an interruption to his prayer and worship. Anthony never allowed a visitor into his cell, but would offer his counsel through a small opening. Several disciples, inspired by Anthony’s life of asceticism, formed a community around him. Their wisdom and prayers are collected into a book, Sayings of the Desert Fathers.
In 311, Anthony went to Alexandria, Egypt, to provide comfort to the Christians suffering persecution under Diocletian. The Governor there ordered Anthony to stop publicly proclaiming his Christian faith, but Anthony refused, well prepared and even eager to face martyrdom. Martyrdom, however, was not Anthony’s fate, and he returned to his Roman fort.
Anthony is known to have faced severe temptations and persecutions from the Devil and his minions, even suffering beatings at their hands, once to near death! Anthony conquered these demons with his humility, his faith and his prayers. There are many examples in Western Christian art of Anthony wrestling these demons.
Anthony was instrumental in the fight against the Arian heresy in Egypt, which denied the divinity of Christ. He was a strong ally of St. Athanasius and, though unlearned, was successful in arguing against the heretics. Athanasius wrote a biography of Anthony, Life of St. Anthony the Great, which helped spread the ideals of the desert monk and the example of his ascetic lifestyle. St. Anthony died in AD 356.
Anthony faced many demons. He suffered temptations to boredom, laziness and lust. He is an example of how to face and overcome such temptations with faith, prayer and sacrifice. He is an example, too, of constancy in one’s vocation. Anthony was committed to the life of solitude and penance, never wavering in his devotion. The Lord blessed him with an unusually long life and his wisdom has served the faithful for seventeen centuries.
Abba Anthony said, “I no longer fear God, but I love Him. For love casts out fear.” (John 4.18)
Father, you called Saint Anthony to renounced the world and serve you in solitude in the desert. By his prayers and example, may we learn to deny ourselves, and to love you above all things. Amen.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.