The Real St. Anthony

St. Athanasius (A.D. 296-373) is the great Church Doctor who stood against the world in defense of the “Trinitarian doctrine, whole and undefiled” thus earning the title “contra mundum.” He battled the Arian heresy as fearlessly and steadfastly as his mentor St. Anthony lived out the devout life in the desert.  St. Athanasius tells us that his orthodox heart was formed in the desert as he spent time there serving St. Anthony. Out of this service and at the request of the desert monks, the spiritual masterpiece The Life of Antony came to fruition. St. Athanasius meant to give an account of the blessed Anthony’s way of life, how he began his ascetic discipline, what kind of man he was before he become a monk, how his life ended and to determine whether or not all the marvels told of him were true.

St. Athanasius implores us not to doubt the wonders we hear about St. Anthony (A.D. 251 – 356), “for possibly when all have told their tale, the account will hardly be in proportion to his merits.” The Life of Antony is a treasure calling for close study and contemplation, full of holy seeds worthy of sowing in the prepared soil of the believer’s soul.  Today is the memorial of St. Anthony and good cause to reap from St. Athanasius’ words: “for simply to remember Antony is a great profit and assistance for me also.”

Anthony was raised in a loving, wealthy and faithful Christian home in Egypt. He grew up with the desire to live a peaceful life in the manner of Jacob of whom it is written in Genesis 25:27 “Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents.” We learn that as a boy growing up Anthony “could not bear to learn letters.”  But “of course he accompanied his parents to the Lord’s house and… he was obedient to his mother and father and paying attention to the readings, he carefully took to heart what was profitable in them.” Though he was illiterate, in this short description, St. Anthony embodies the deeper truth about the real purpose of attending to the Holy Scriptures: to take to heart what is profitable in the word.

When Anthony’s parents died, he was about eighteen. Six months later at the Lord’s house, he heard Christ’s words spoken from Mathew 19:21: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Anthony took these words to heart and gave away his considerable wealth, including 300 acres of productive farm land. He made sure his sister was provided for and left her in the hands of faithful virgins in a convent, he gave the proceeds from his remaining goods to the poor, and then he followed Christ into the desert. He became known as the father and founder of desert monasticism.

Anthony began his ascetic discipline by seeking out good and holy men for imitation, he diligently tracked down the man known for piety, another for unceasing prayer, one for graciousness, one for loving kindness, one for diligent study, or one long suffering, and many others besides. After encountering such worthy models, he returned to his ascetic dwelling to discipline himself and strive to acquire all the qualities he encountered in the holy men. He labored tirelessly to attain a surpassing excellence to each virtue by the imitation of saints and devotion to Christ; he desired that he should be second to no one in higher things. He never looked back to his former wealth, home, or kinsfolk, but saved “all his desire and energy for perfecting his discipline.”

The Devil “who hates and envies what is good, could not endure to see such a resolution in a youth” like Anthony and from the beginning there ensued brutal spiritual combat. Satan began by tempting him with whispers drawing on memories of his riches, beguiling him to remember the call to glory, pleasures of food, lust and relaxation as contrasted with the toil and discipline required to cultivate the virtues of the ascetic life in the desert. Though the Father of lies plagued him constantly, St. Anthony’s faithful response was constant fasting and prayer because “his mind was filled with Christ and the nobility inspired by Him.”

St. Anthony’s victory over the Devil through Christ led not to complacency, but to even more watchful discipline. He secluded himself in a tomb to “acquire more knowledge of his own life.” Satan feared that Anthony’s devotion would fill the desert with holy discipline and one night in a rage he approached his cave “with a multitude of demons” and they beat him nearly to death. When he was carried home his brethren had thought him deceased, though he revived at midnight. St. Anthony bid his servant to return him to the cave where he had been so treacherously beaten and there he beckoned the demons again.

They appeared in vast numbers in the form of wild beasts and devils. They resumed attack by horns, teeth, claws and insults, until there appeared a bright light. The demons took flight, his pain was relieved, and St. Anthony knew that Christ had come. St. Anthony implored of Jesus, “Where were you? Why did you not help me in the beginning?” And Christ answered “I was here Antony, but I wanted to watch your struggle. And now, since you persevered and were not defeated, I will be your helper forever, and I will make you famous everywhere.”

St. Athanasius reports that Antony was extremely wise. During his many years in the desert, he was visited by many Greek philosophers seeking him out in the wilderness to ridicule him because he had not learned his letters. Anthony would ask them: “Which is first- mind or letters? And which is the cause of which- the mind of the letters, or the letters of the mind?” The Greeks would rightfully determine that the mind is first and that letters come out of the mind. Anthony concluded: “Now you see that in the person whose mind is sound there is no need for letters.”  The learned Greeks would leave in astonishment that an untrained man living in the wilderness could possess such understanding. He was “gracious and civil, and his speech was seasoned with divine salt, so that no one resented him.”

When St. Anthony was 105 years old, providence informed him of his coming death, a fact that greatly saddened his brethren, but he had the countenance of joy, as if he was merely about to travel from a foreign city to his home land. In the end, he counseled the monks to avoid idleness, to avoid becoming slack in their discipline, and to “live as though dying daily.” He told them to “zealously guard the soul from foul thoughts,” and to eagerly to imitate the Saints. He further instructed them to “observe the traditions of the fathers, and chiefly the holy faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.”

St. Anthony persevered in a steady discipline with continual zeal his entire life. He remained healthy, his eyes were still sharp, he had not lost a single tooth, and he remained strong until the end. Most startlingly, he was famous throughout the world and even those who didn’t know him wondered at his greatness and yearned to know him. This is a great sign of Anthony’s virtue and the love God had for his soul.

God promised St. Anthony that his name would be known throughout the world, even though he lived his entire life hidden in a mountain. Even the saints who work in secret and wish to remain obscure are used by the Lord, “as lamps to lighten all.” St. Athanasius ends his account by recommending St. Anthony as a worthy model of imitation and he exhorts us to understand that “Christ glorifies those who glorify Him.”

Let us celebrate St. Anthony’s memorial today and venerate him as a light shining on our own narrow paths reflecting the unfathomable brilliance of Christ’s holiness, humility and humanity.

Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg

By

Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is a Catholic convert, a catechist, a school teacher, a Catholic writer and speaker on matters of Faith, culture, and education. He holds a degree in History from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Steven is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative, a regular contributor to the Integrated Catholic Life, a member of the Teacher Advisory Board and writer of curriculum at the Sophia Institute for Teachers, a contributor to Crisis Magazine, The Civilized Reader, The Standard Bearers, Catholic Exchange and a founding member of the Brinklings Literary Club.

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  • Antonia

    My name is Antonia so I suppose St Anthony is my patron saint.

  • Vicky Hernandez

    May Egypt, through the intersession of St. Anthony, overcome the present dark hour.

  • noelfitz

    Congratulations to all involved with CE. It is an excellent resource for the Church and professionally presented. The articles are of a very hign, solid standard, and this article is an example of the best of them.

    When I think of St Anthony I usually think of Anthony of Padua, and in many Irish churches, including my parish church, there is a statue of this St Anrhony.

    However I had considered St Anthony of Egypt too exreme in his penances and mortifications for the present time. Western monasticism is based more on Benediict. But the ancient Irish monks were very ascetic and seemed to be influeinced strongly by Anthony of Egypt.

  • Rosemary58

    This is such a great article on such a great saint! I sent it to my son, even though he is not materialistic. St. Anthony could have led a sybaritic life, and yet he saw beyond that.

  • Rosemary58

    Many thought (and still think) that Jesus Christ was too extreme. Imagine someone allowing themselves to be scourged and crucified as expiation for our transgressions! But he did.

    The point is not the penance and mortification but following the call. And what are the fruits? Ask St. Athanasius, St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nyssa… and on down today. How do we repay those heroes in faith?

  • Luciano

    I treasure both saints for what they have done to bring Christ to others.

  • Trimelda McDaniels

    As someone who loves both Anthony the Black (of Egypt) and Anthony the White (Padua), I wish you would have titled this differently. They are both “Real Saint Anthonys!”

  • catholicexchange

    I didn’t even read the title that way. We have a running series of Saints lives that we call “The Real” such as The Real St. Jude.

    There are several saints named Anthony and they all are very much a jewel in the crown of Christ.

  • Shirley Murry

    I really need some of help, I was trying to get some one to sponsor a friend from India but I fail in my life I am homeless my two boy,s need to be in school I don,t have enough to get apartment so they can not get in school plus we need some were to live please help me find some place to live and to sponsor my friend who I know he can help me want the rest,plus I would food food to in JESUS sweet please please HELP us GOD BLESS

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