St. Anthony the Great: Spiritual Hero of the East

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.

image: By Master of the Osservanza Triptych (Metropolitan Museum of Art) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is the executive director of the 7 Institutes at the Veritatis Splendor HQ project. He is a senior fellow at The American Principles Project and a senior fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society. He is on the Teacher Advisory Council at Sophia Institute Press for teachers where he has written Catholic curriculum for the past 8 years, he also serves on the advisory council for Aquinas Learning. Steven is a writer and speaker on education, culture, and the Faith.

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