Anthony the Great

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Saint Anthony the Great (251 - 356), also known as Saint Anthony of Egypt, Saint Anthony of the Desert, Saint Anthony the Anchorite and The Father of All Monks, was a Christian saint the outstanding leader among the Desert Fathers, who were Christian monks in the Egyptian desert in the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D. His feast day is celebrated on January 17th in the Eastern Orthodox Church, but celebrated on January 31 in the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Saint Anthony by Athanasius

Most of what we know about the life of St Anthony is in the Greek vita by Saint Athanasius (d. 373), which soon circulated in Latin. Several surviving homilies and epistles, of varying authenticity provide scant autobiographical detail.

Anthony was born near Heraclea in Upper Egypt in 251 to wealthy parents. When he was twenty years old, his parents died and left him with the care of his unmarried sister. In 285, he decided to follow the words of Christ who had said: "If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven; and come, follow Me." (Matthew 19:21). Anthony gave his wealth to the poor and needy, and placed his sister with a group of Christian virgins, a sort of proto-nunnery at the time.

Christian monasticism had not yet been established, so those who wanted to live an ascetical life retired separately to isolated locations on the outskirts of cities. The pagan ascetic hermits and loosely organized cenobitic communities that the Hellenized Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria described as the Therapeutae in the first century, were long established in the harsh environments by the Lake Mareotis close to Alexandria, and in other less-accessible regions, Philo understood: for "this class of persons may be met with in many places, for both Greece and barbarian countries want to enjoy whatever is perfectly good." (Philo,De vita contemplativa written ca. AD 10)

By the 2nd century there were also famous Christian ascetics, such as Saint Thecla. Saint Anthony decided to follow this tradition and headed out into the alkaline desert region called the Nitra in Latin (Wadi al-Natrun today), about 60 miles west of Alexandria, some of the most rugged terrain of the Western Desert.

According to Athanasius, the devil fought St Anthony by afflicting him with boredom, laziness, and the phantoms of women, which he overcame by the power of prayer, providing a theme for Christian art. After that, he moved to a tomb, where he resided and closed the door on himself, depending on some local villagers who brought him food. When the devil perceived his ascetic life and his intense worship, he was envious and beat him mercilessly, leaving him unconscious. When his friends from the local village came to visit him and found him in this condition, they carried him to a church.

After he recovered, he made a second effort and went back to the desert, further out, to a mountain by the Nile, called Pispir, now Der el Memun, opposite Arsinoë in the Fayyum. Here he lived strictly enclosed in an old abandoned Roman fort for some twenty years. According to Athanasius, the devil again resumed his war against Saint Anthony, only this time the phantoms were in the form of wild beasts, wolves, lions, snakes and scorpions. They appeared as if they were about to attack him or cut him into pieces. But the Saint would laugh at them scornfully and say, "If any of you have any authority over me, only one would have been sufficient to fight me." At his saying this, they disappeared as though in smoke, and God gave him the victory over the devils. While in the fort he only communicated with the outside world by a crevice through which food would be passed and he would say a few words. Saint Anthony would prepare a quantity of bread that would sustain him for six months. He did not allow anyone to enter his cell: whoever came to him, stood outside and listened to his advice.

The one day he emerged from the fort with the help of villagers to break down the door. By this time most had expected him to have wasted away, or gone insane in his solitary confinement, but he emerged healthy, serene, and enlightened. Everyone was amazed he had been through these trials and emerged spiritually rejuvenated. He was hailed as a hero and from this time forth the legend of Anthony began to spread and grow.

The backstory of one of the surviving epistles, directed to Constantine the Great recounts how he fame of Saint Anthony spread abroad and reached Emperor Constantine. The Emperor wrote to him, offering him praise and asked him to pray for him. The brethren were pleased with the Emperor's letter, but Anthony did not pay any attention to it, and he said to them, "The books of God, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, commands us everyday, but we do not heed what they tell us, and we turn our backs on them." Under the persistence of the brethren who told him, "Emperor Constantine loves the church," he accepted to write him a letter blessing him, and praying for the peace and safety of the empire and the church.

Then he went to the Fayyum) and confirmed the brethren there in the Christian faith, then returned to his old Roman fort. Anthony wished to become a martyr and went to Alexandria. He visited those who were imprisoned for the sake of Christ and comforted them. When the Governor saw that he was confessing his Christianity publicly, not caring what might happen to him, he ordered him not to show up in the city. However, the Saint did not heed his threats. He faced him and argued with him in order that he might arouse his anger so that he might be tortured and martyred, but it did not happen.

Then he went back to the old Roman fort and many came to visit him and to hear his teachings. He saw that these visits kept him away from his worship. As a result, he went further into the Eastern Desert of Egypt. He travelled to the inner wilderness for three days, until he found a spring of water and some palm trees, and then he chose to settle there. On this spot now stands the monastery of Saint Anthony the Great (see below). On occasions, he would go to the monastery on the outskirts of the desert by the Nile to visit the brethren, then return to his inner monastery.

According to Athanasius, Saint Anthony heard a voice telling him, "Go out and see." He went out and saw an angel who wore a girdle with a cross, one resembling the holy Eskiem (Tonsure or Schema), and on his head was a head cover (Kolansowa). He was sitting while braiding palm leaves, then he stood up to pray, and again he sat to weave. A voice came to him saying, "Anthony, do this and you will rest." Henceforth, he started to wear this tunic that he saw, and began to weave palm leaves, and never got bored again. Saint Anthony prophesied about the persecution that was about to happen to the church and the control of the heretics over it, the church victory and its return to its formal glory, and the end of the age. When Saint Macarius visited Saint Anthony, Saint Anthony clothed him with the monk's garb, and foretold him what would be of him. When the day of the departure of Saint Paul the Anchorite, the First Hermit in the desert, drew near, Saint Anthony went to him. Saint Anthony buried Saint Paul the Anchorite after he had clothed him in a tunic which was a present from St Athanasius, the 20th Pope of Alexandria.

When Saint Anthony felt that the day of his departure had approached, he commanded his disciples to give his staff to Saint Macarius, and to give one sheepskin cloak to Saint Athanasius and the other sheepskin cloak to Saint Serapion, his disciple. He further instructed his disciples to bury his body in an unmarked, secret grave, lest his body become an object of veneration. He stretched himself on the ground and gave up his spirit. Saint Anthony the Great lived for 105 years and departed on the year 356. Probably he spoke only his native language, Coptic, but his sayings were spread in a Greek translation. He himself left no writings. His biography was written by Saint Athanasius and titled Life of Saint Anthony the Great. Many stories are also told about him in various collections of sayings of the Desert Fathers.

Some of the stories included in Saint Anthony's biography are perpetuated now mostly in paintings, where they give an opportunity for artists to depict their more lurid or bizarre fantasies. Many pictorial artists, from Hieronymus Bosch to Salvador Dalí, have depicted these incidents from the life of Anthony; in prose, the tale was retold and embellished by Gustave Flaubert.

Founder of monasticism

Saint Anthony along with Paul the Hermit are seen as the founders of Christian monasticism. Paul is lauded by Anthony as the first monk and the monastery of Paul exists to this day in Egypt. Anthony himself provided the example that others would follow (see Saint Pachomius). Anthony did not himself organize or create a monastary, but they grew up around him based on his example of living an ascetic and isolated life that others wished to follow, and who needed the community and company of others to survive the harsh conditions.

Monastery of St. Anthony the Great

The fortress-like Coptic Monastery of St Anthony the Great, at Deir El-Kedees El-Anba Antonios stands at an oasis spring in the Red Sea Mountains, 155 km (100 miles) south west of Cairo. It was founded in the mid-4th century, perhaps in 356, on Anthony's burial site. The Coptic Orthodox monastery, presided over by an abbot, is one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world.

The first true monastery was founded by Pachomius in about 320–325 at Tabennisi, Egypt. Historical texts mention the site, but until 2005 no archeological evidence had previously been found there, earlier than the sixth century. Then an earlier collection of monks' rooms with private living areas was uncovered, and a central communal room, where the archeological team found cooking implements [1].


  • The Greek Vita of Athanasius.
  • The almost contemporary Latin translation: in Heribert Rosweyd, Vitae Patrum (Migne, Patrologia Latina. lxxiii.)
  • An English translation: in Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, editors Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, vol. IV [ Full text on-line, with criticisms pro and con of the attribution of this vita to Athanasius.

Historical and critical

  • E. C. Butler, (1898, 1904). Lausiac History of Palladius, Part I. pp. 197, 215-228; Part II. pp. ix.-xii. (See Palladius).
  • S. Rubenson, 1995. The Letters of St. Antony : monasticism and the making of a saint (Minneapolis) An analysis of the letters, including authenticity and theological content.

Texts attributed to St Anthony