Greatest Desert Father
“Wherever you find yourself, do not go forth from that place too quickly. Try to be patient and learn to stay in one place.”
Born into a wealthy family, Antony submitted to his parents and their expectations that he follow in their wealthy footsteps. They died when Antony was only about 20 years old, and he inherited every penny. But about that same time, Antony happened to hear a reading from the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus tells a rich young man, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell everything you have and give the money to the poor.” Antony believed he was that rich young man and immediately did exactly as Jesus instructed.
Everything we know about Antony comes from a hagiography (a favorable biography of a saintly person) written shortly after his death by the famous theologian Athanasius. According to him, Antony saw the Christian’s task as both simple and formidable: become a “lover of God” by resisting the Devil and yielding to Christ. Antony saw the world as a battlefield on which God’s servants waged war against the Devil and his demons.
His journey into purity began by removing himself from the village. He took up strenuous spiritual exercises: sleepless nights spent in prayer, fasting every other day, and eating only bread and water. He discovered, Athanasius wrote, “the mind of the soul is strong when the pleasures of the body are weak.”
Soon Antony left the village territories and sought refuge in nearby tombs where, according to Athanasius, devils and wild beasts assaulted him both physically and spiritually. Like an athlete in the arena, Antony endured repeated attacks until the demons were finally scattered by the presence of God. In the peace after the turmoil, Antony asked God why he had been left to do battle alone. God told him that, though he was present, he waited to see the saint fight.
From the tombs Antony fled again, this time seeking refuge in an abandoned Roman fort on a solitary desert mountain. There he shut himself up for 20 years, waging a silent, solitary battle. When he emerged, Antony had become a symbol of strength and wisdom for all of Egypt.
Having built a foundation of solitude and ceaseless prayer, Antony was ready to share his secrets with others who sought to follow his way. Many were attracted to his wisdom, and these he encouraged to seek self-denial and the hermetic life. The Apophthegmata,a collection of sayings attributed to the desert fathers and mothers, tells this story of Antony’s wisdom:
A brother renounced the world and gave his goods to the poor, but he kept back a little for his personal expenses. He went to see Abba Antony. When he told him this, the old man said to him, “If you want to be a monk, go into the village, buy some meat, cover your naked body with it and come here like that.” The brother did so, and the dogs and birds tore at his flesh. When he came back the old man asked him whether he had followed his advice. He showed him his wounded body, and Saint Antony said, “Those who renounce the world but want to keep something for themselves are torn in this way by the demons who make war on them.”
Antony also came to the aid of the larger church. When Roman Emperor Diocletian began persecuting Egyptian Christians in 303, word reached the lonesome Antony in his desert cell. He and several other monks traveled to Alexandria and ministered to the persecuted. He was so respected that even the authorities left him alone to evangelize, console, and ease the suffering of the prisoners. In fact, under Maximin he offered himself as a martyr but was refused.
Only one other time did Antony leave his desert solitude. Near the end of Antony’s life, Arius (a former deacon in Alexandria) began to spread his heresy that Christ was created, and thus not equal with God. Many Egyptian Christians were swayed by Arian teachings. Athanasius, leader of the church in Alexandria and defender of orthodoxy, called Antony to the Egyptian capital to champion the truth. After preaching, the monk fled the world a last time, returning to his quiet cell. When, at the age of 105, he knew he was near the end of his life, he took two companions with him into the desert to wait for his death. They were ordered to bury his body without a marker so no one could make his grave or relics an object of reverence.
Though Antony was not the first monk, his passion for purity blazed the way for a monastic spirituality. Athanasius’s biography became a “bestseller” and inspired thousands to take up the monastic life, which developed into one of the most important institutions in Western history.
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