St. Anthony the Great, Founder of Monasticism
On January 17, the Church remembers Saint Anthony the Great, or Anthony the Abbot, the founder of Christian monasticism.
Early Life of St. Anthony
Most of what is known about St. Anthony, who was born around 251 AD, is found in the document “Life of Anthony,” written by Athanasius of Alexandria in the year 360. The biographical information as well as some homilies and epistles of Anthony provide the known details of this saint’s life and works.
Anthony was born at Coma in the middle of the 3rd century, near Heracleopolis Magna in Fayum (Lower Egypt), to a well-to-do family. There is not much detail on Anthony’s childhood and youth. His parents died when he was 20, and so he inherited their possessions at that time. He had a desire to live his life in imitation of the apostles, and so it was not long before, upon hearing in the church the Gospel words “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell all thou hast,” Anthony shed himself of all his property and other goods. At this point, Anthony made the decision to devote himself entirely to God and religious exercises. He placed his unmarried sister, who had been in his care since the death of their parents, with a group of Christian virgins, a sort of proto-nunnery.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, at this time in the history of the Church, it was already common for Christians to “practice asceticism, abstain from marriage and exercising themselves in self-denial, fasting, prayer, and works of piety.”However, until this point these pious Christians dedicated their lives to God and practiced these acts of holiness without leaving their homes and families. By the year 270, around the time that Anthony discerned his call to an ascetic life, it had become a common practice in Egypt for ascetics to live in huts at the outskirts of town and so Anthony began his career this way. He visited the other nearby ascetics, studying their habits and virtue, to learn from them. It was also while he resided here that Anthony experienced the conflicts with strange demons in the form of beasts that inflicted painful blows on him.
Founder of Monasticism
After about 15 years of living as an ascetic on the outskirts of town, Anthony made the decision that led the Church to remember him as the founder of Christian monasticism. Around the age of 35, Anthony left his abode near the edge of town, to live in complete solitude. He crossed the Nile and found an old fort on a mountain near the east bank called Pispir. He shut himself within the walls and lived the next 20 years without seeing the face of another man. Food was thrown to him over the walls and many pilgrims, whom he refused to see, tried to visit him.
Gradually these pilgrims, would-be disciples, established themselves in various caves and huts around Anthony’s mountain. Unintentionally, Anthony’s actions had resulted in the formation of a colony of ascetics. They begged Anthony to be their guide in the spiritual life and around the year 305 AD, he conceded. He emerged from his fort, not emaciated as many expected, but as vigorous and healthy as when he’d first gone in. For about 5 or 6 years, Anthony devoted himself to instructing the colony of monks that had grown around his fort.
Still, after some time, Anthony withdrew into seclusion again. This time he withdrew to the inner desert, between the Nile and Red Sea, where he spent the last 45 years of his life. However, this time Anthony’s seclusion was not quite as severe; he would freely see those who came to visit him and often visited the nearby Pispir. Twice Anthony journeyed as far as Alexandria. Once, a few years after he’d emerged from his fort at Pispir, Anthony went to Alexandria to strengthen the martyrs during the Christian persecutions of 311 AD. Again he went near the end of his life, to preach against Arianism, a heresy that denied the divinity of Christ.
In all likelihood, Anthony was not the first Christian to live fully as a hermit, yet within a few decades of his death he was widely seen as the father of monasticism, as described in the Catholic Encyclopedia:
“It will be proper to define St. Anthony's place, and to explain his influence in the history of Christian monasticism. He probably was not the first Christian hermit. . . . Nor was St. Anthony a great legislator and organizer of monks, like his younger contemporary Pachomius. . . . And yet it is abundantly evident that from the middle of the fourth century throughout Egypt, as elsewhere . . . St. Anthony was looked upon as the founder and father of Christian monasticism.
This great position was no doubt due to his commanding personality and high character, qualities that stand out clearly in all the records of him that have come down. The best study of his character is Newman's in the 'Church of the Fathers.' The following is his estimate: 'His doctrine surely was pure and unimpeachable; and his temper is high and heavenly, without cowardice, without gloom, without formality, without self-complacency.' . . . Full of enthusiasm he was, but it did not make him fanatical or morose; his urbanity and gentleness, his moderation and sense stand out in many of the stories related of him. . . . The monasticism established under St. Anthony's direct influence became the norm in Northern Egypt, from Lycopolis to the Mediterranean.”
This article was adapted from the Catholic Encyclopedia.