Saint Anthony of Egypt Begins Ascetic Life Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Saint Anthony’s religious hermitage inspired others to live a solitary life of religious devotion and began the anchoritic form of Christian monasticism.

Summary of Event

Around 286 c.e., a Christian ascetic named Anthony (or Antony) went to live on Mount Pispir, a mountain near the Nile River. His settlement on Mount Pispir began an entire movement, the anchoritic form of Christian monasticism. Within his lifetime, Anthony drew great numbers of followers, as monks flocked to the desert to live the life of Christian hermits. By the time of his death, Anthony was styled the father of monks by his biographer Saint Athanasius of Alexandria. Anthony of Egypt, Saint

Saint Anthony of Egypt.

(Library of Congress)

Anthony was born to Christian parents in Coma, in Middle Egypt. His parents both died when he was around twenty years of age, and he received a substantial inheritance. Soon after he came into this inheritance, Anthony heard Matthew 19:21 read in church, in which Christ had told a rich young man to seek perfection by selling his possessions and giving the money to the poor. Anthony took those words to heart. He sold his possessions, and after providing for his younger sister by placing her in a convent, he gave his money away to the poor. Anthony began his life of asceticism by moving to the fringe of his old community. From local hermits, Anthony gained a wisdom and experience that would, around the year 286 c.e., lead Anthony to Mount Pispir and his vision of Christian anchoritic monasticism.

Anthony’s monasticism had much in common with other early existing forms, including the practice of celibacy and a personal striving for spiritual perfection. Anthony’s monastic vision differed from that of his fellow Egyptian and contemporary Pachomius, recognized as the founder of cenobitic, or communal, monasticism. What made Anthony’s approach unique was his goal of withdrawal and isolation from the world. Anthony chose to live separated from what he saw as the constraints of family and society to be able to concentrate more clearly on his goal of spiritual perfection.

On Mount Pispir, Anthony settled into a deserted fort, where he lived the life of a hermit. While he practiced a monastic discipline in isolation from others, that isolation was not total. Over the years, many, including bishops, philosophers, and emperors came or wrote to Anthony for advice and counsel. People came out to be taught and to be healed and to be prayed over. Others came to imitate his anchoritic lifestyle. By his teaching and example, the desert was said to have become “a city of monks.”

Like other Christian monks, Anthony saw himself as a successor of the martyrs and of their struggle for faithfulness in the midst of adversity. In common with other Christian monks, Anthony also saw his anchoritic discipline as a war against the devil and his demons. According to his biographer, Saint Athanasius, Anthony fought battles of the spirit against demons who tried to tempt him away from his life of spiritual perfection. These demons appeared in many forms, as women, fellow monks, and wild animals. According to Athanasius in his Vita S. Antonii (c. 357 c.e.; The Life of Saint Anthony the Great, 1850), Anthony defeated these demons while he fought himself and the passions of the flesh. Anthony is reported to have used various means of fighting these demons, such as invocation of the name of Christ, recitation of verses of Scripture, praying, and making the sign of the cross. Athanasius also offered accounts of Anthony’s healing miracles and his visions of the future. These miracles and visions were presented by Athanasius as further evidence of Christ’s power, which he saw active in Anthony’s life. Athanasius recorded elements of Anthony’s teaching. Anthony is recorded refuting the heretical Arians on three occasions, and at least one of Anthony’s sermons (delivered in Coptic) is presented.

Athanasius’s biography is not the only source for Anthony’s life. There are seven extant letters, most likely originally written in Coptic, bearing Anthony’s name. These letters indicate the variety of his correspondents as well as the practical and theological issues that occupied his attention (from monastic advice, to Trinitarian reflections, and to renunciations of Arius). Tradition claims that Anthony was illiterate. Athanasius, and later Saint Jerome, stated that Anthony wrote his letters by means of an interpreter or translator. These letters are a significant source for understanding the father of anchoritic monasticism.

Another source for Anthony is the collection of Apophthegmata Patrum (fourth century c.e.; The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century, 1961). Anthony is the second most frequently cited father in this collection. Many of these “sayings” of Anthony are recognized as genuine, while some are not. References to Anthony also appear in other early monastic literature and church histories.

Although Anthony is remembered for his seclusion on Mount Pispir, he made several journeys back into the world—for example, visiting Alexandria both during the Maximian persecutions at some point between 311-313 c.e. and again possibly as early as 337 or as late as shortly before his death around 356, to battle the Arians.

Significance

By the time he died, Anthony’s settlement on Mount Pispir had spawned the anchoritic form of monasticism. Within his lifetime, Anthony developed an international fame that built an entire movement. Anthony’s temptations served as an inspiration to artists from the fourth to the twenty-first centuries, and his biography became the model for Christian hagiography.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Athanasius. The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus. Translated by Robert C. Gregg. New York: Paulist Press, 1980. A modern translation of Anthony’s life by Athanasius, with an introduction by the translator.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Peter. Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. This volume, especially the chapter “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity,” presents the context for Anthony and the rise of Christian monasticism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">

    The Desert Fathers. Translated by Helen Waddell. New York: Vintage Books, 1998. A translation of a collection of sayings of the desert fathers and a good introduction into Egyptian monasticism in general.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Quasten, Johannes. Patrology. Vol. 3 in The Golden Age of Greek Patristic Literature. Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, 1983. A major study of the Patristic period, including a treatment of Anthony and works associated with his name.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Queffélec, Henri. Saint Anthony of the Desert. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1954. A readable biography of Anthony.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rubenson, Samuel. The Letters of Saint Antony: Monasticism and the Making of a Saint. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995. A thorough study of Anthony and his letters.
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Categories: History