Born at Koman (Coma) near Memphis, Egypt, c. 251; died on Mount Kolzim,
January 17, 356.
The same St. Anthony is often depicted on
Irish High Crosses, together with St Paul of Thebes,
both being brought bread by a raven
as they converse about spiritual matters
Whoever sits in solitude and is quiet has escaped from three wars:
hearing, speaking, and seeing. Yet against one thing he must constantly
battle: his own heart.
--Saint Antony Abbot.
The devil dreads fasting, prayer, humility, and good works: He is not
able even to stop my mouth who speak against him. The illusions of the
devil soon vanish, especially if a man arms himself with the Sign of the
Cross. The devils tremble at the Sign of the Cross of our Lord, by which
He triumphed over and disarmed them.
--Saint Antony Abbot.
Antony's work was of lasting import--centuries later, in the 20th
century, the monasteries he established still exist and are peopled by
numerous monks as the Coptic Orthodox Church enjoys a thriving monastic
life in the 20th century.
But the Church has never been simply a clique of saints but a field of
weeds as well as wheat. Even after only its first 250 years of existence
the level of early enthusiasm and standard of holiness had sunk a great
deal as large groups of people, some lukewarm, entered the Church. The
Church does not exist for men who are already holy, but rather to help
us to grow in sanctity. Her moral laws do not exist to inhibit our
freedom, but as signposts allowing us the freedom to become most
ourselves, who are made by, for, and in the image of God. Her Sacraments
are not prizes for the already perfected but medicine for the sick and
Yet the Church is not just a hospital for the morally wounded or
spiritual convalescents. The generous heart, the strong worker, the
vivid imagination, the triumphant will--all these are cared for,
nurtured, and called to live within her. And not only the Church as a
body, but each of us within Her, contains this mixture of the sick and
the holy. We are beaten down by the evil within and around us but, with
God's help, arise again to continue the fight. Antony was one of those
whose virtues encouraged others to continue the battle and win the crown
of glory offered to all by our Lord Jesus Christ.
Antony, the founder of Christian monasticism, is considered as such
because he gathered the desert hermits into loosely-knit communities and
exercised a certain authority over them. Nevertheless, he himself spent
most of his life in solitude.
In order to keep Antony from being tainted by bad example, his rich and
pious parents kept him always at home, unacquainted with any branch of
human literature or other languages. His childhood was marked by his
even temper, attendance to religious duties, and obedience to his
At age 18 to 20, his parents died leaving him a vast fortune, including
300 "auras" (about 120 acres) of rich Egyptian soil. The "Golden Legend"
says that one day in church Antony heard:
If you wish to be perfect, go
and sell all that you have and give it to the poor.
Many of us hear
this passage without really paying much attention to it. But Antony,
impressed by Christ's words to the rich young ruler, gave up everything
and, providing only for the needs of his sister, became an ascetic. She,
however, following his example, surrendered her share in the inheritance
and entered a house of virgins.
He went to live alone in various spots in the neighbourhood of his home
in Lower Egypt, but sought the counsel of an aged hermit to teach him
the spiritual life and help to control what he felt was his wayward,
impressionable temperament, which he knew he could not govern all alone.
During the next 15 years, he also visited other solitaries, copying in
himself the principal virtue of each. Soon he was a model of humility,
charity, and prayerfulness.
He found God on the abrupt and rocky banks of the Nile, where burning
stones take possession of flowers before they even bloom. Fleeing the
agony of a corrupt and crumbling world, he sought in silence and poverty
to hear the whispers of the divine presence, to make the sand and
flagstones flourish with spiritual flowers.
Antony began the life of a hermit, living in a tomb. He spent his time
in prayer, study, and the manual work necessary to earn his living,
while practising the strictest self-denial. He ate only bread, with a
little salt, and water, which he never tasted before
sunset, and sometimes only once every several days. He wore sackcloth
and sheepskin, and often knelt in prayer from sunset to sunrise. When he
did sleep, it was on a rush mat or the bare floor. Thus, he became
Antony the Great: the giant of holiness, the athlete of the spiritual
order, the colossal mystic whose name dominates early Christianity in
Here the devils assaulted him most furiously, appearing as various
monsters and worldly temptations such as rich clothing, delicious food,
and beautiful women. They even wounded him severely. But his courage
never failed, and he overcame them all by confidence in God and by the
Sign of the Cross. One night many devils scourged him so terribly that
he lay as if dead. A friend found him that way and, believing him dead,
carried him home. When Antony awakened, he persuaded his friend to
carry him, in spite of his wounds, back to his solitude. Here, prostrate
from weakness, he defied the devils, saying,
I fear you not; you cannot
separate me from the love of Christ.
Hereupon the fiends appearing again, renewed the attack, and alarmed him
with terrible noises and a variety of spectres in hideous shapes until a
ray of heavenly light chased them away. He cried out as we so often do
when besieged by the enemy:
Where were You, my Lord and my Master? Why
weren't You here from the beginning of my conflict to assuage my pain?
A voice answered:
Antony, I was here the whole time; I stood by you,
and saw your combat. And because you manfully withstood your enemies, I
will always protect you, and will make your name famous throughout the
Not only did the devils assault him in this way, they also tempted him
with thoughts about failed opportunities for doing good with the
property he had given away. This is a common ploy of the evil one: to
attempt to pull us away from the vocation to which God has called us,
making us slothful or dissatisfied with our own role in the salvation of
the world and the glorification of the Father.
About 285, in a quest for greater solitude, he left the area around his
birthplace and took up residence in an abandoned fort atop Mount Pispir
(now Der el Memun), living in nearly complete solitude and seeing almost
no one, eating only dates growing nearby and the bread thrown to him
over the wall. He continued this life for 20 years until he knew and
could govern himself to do the exterior work.
In 305, he emerged to organise at Fayum (Phaium) the colony of ascetics
that had grown around his retreat into a loosely organised monastery
with a rule, though each monk lived in solitude except for worship. Most
say it was the first Christian monastery. The dissipation occasioned by
this undertaking led him into a temptation of despair, which he overcame
by prayer and hard manual labour.
During this time of his life, he daily ate six ounces of bread soaked in
water with a little salt, and sometimes added a few dates. He generally
ate after sunset, but on some days at 3:00 p.m. In his old age, he also
added a little oil. Thus, in his more active period he somewhat modified
his earlier austerities.
It is said that he was always so cheerful when in company that strangers
could always identify him from among his disciples by the joy that
always painted his countenance. This, of course, was the result of the
inward peace and composure of his soul--Christ's final gift to us, His
servants. (It does appear, however, that Antony also possessed the gift
Antony exhorted his brethren to spend as little time as possible in the
care of the body. Nevertheless, he was careful never to place perfection
in mortification, but rather in charity. He instructed his monks to
always be mindful of eternity: to reflect every
morning that they might not live until nightfall, every evening that
they may never see the sun rise, and to perform every action as if it
were the last of their lives, with all the fervour of their souls to
In 311, at the height of Emperor Maximin's persecution, he went to
Alexandria to give encouragement to the Christians being persecuted
there and in the mines of the Sudan where they were imprisoned. He wore
a white tunic of sheepskin during his stay in Alexandria so that he
would be recognised by other Christians. He took care, however, never to
provoke the judges or impeach himself, as some rashly did. He returned
to his monastery when the persecution subsided in 312 and organised
another at Pispir, near the Nile.
Again he retired, this time with his disciple
Saint Macarius the Younger (f.d. January 2)
to a cliffside cave on Mount Kolzim near the northwest
corner of the Red Sea, where he remained for the rest of his long life
cultivating enough land to support himself, weaving reed mats, and
visiting the monks of the desert community. Generally, Macarius would
entertain any strangers who managed to reach their aerie. If they were
found to be spiritual men, Antony would spend time with them, too.
Another lesson we can learn from Saint Antony: In a time of spiritual
dryness take up an ordinary occupation. When Antony found uninterrupted
contemplation above his strength, an angel taught his to use intervals
of manual labour interspersed with prayer. Soon prayer was added to the
work of his hands.
He had many followers and soon his life of solitude became impossible.
Numerous colonies of monks, following his example, multiplied with great
rapidity, so that the deserts of the Nile and the sands of Libya were
peopled with thousands of anchorites. The rocks resounded with their
songs, and at Easter immense congregations of up to 50,000 people would
gather to celebrate the glory of the Risen One.
Antony's influence exerted itself like a radiating force in other
Saint Hilarion (f.d. October 21)
visited him about 310,
and inaugurated monasteries in Palestine; Mar Agwin did so in 325 in
Saint Pachomius (f.d. May 9),
nearer home, in 318. Antony
had two qualities proper to great men--he was able (such was the force
of his personality) to leave almost complete freedom and initiative to
the men under his immediate influence; and he did not grumble if others
imitated and also modified his system. Thus, Pachomius started a much
more centralised, highly organised monasticism more like modern
monasteries--the system that spread to the West.
A significant feature of these desert saints was their physical strength
and energy. Antony himself remained alert and vigorous despite his
privations, and those who followed him became spiritual athletes, men
and women who under conditions of great severity developed strong
physique and braced themselves in health and virtue. (When Antony died
at age 105, his sight and hearing were unimpaired and he had all his
teeth.) These desert fathers lived in remote places in huts, caves or
abandoned buildings, and sought God through intellectual and physical
self-discipline in a life of prayer, meditation, austerity, and manual
labour (to feed themselves). Such lives produced characters of
impressive integrity and wisdom, as well as keen understanding of the
Some desert monks were characterised by extravagant austerities and
fanaticism; not so Antony. He was notably moderate for his time, a man
of spiritual wisdom, whose austerity of life was always consciously
directed to the better service of God.
Many stories are told of Antony and of his encounters with strange
creatures (including a centaur and satyr in the story of his search for
Saint Paul the Hermit (f.d. January 15),
and of how by the power of
prayer he overcame his fears and proved that the wildest phantasies of
the mind can be dispelled by the grace of God. He had also the gift of
taming wild animals and on that account is called their patron saint.
Why do you hurt me,
he asked the beasts of the desert, gently taking
hold of one of them,
who do not hurt you?
and they left him in peace.
He had a great reputation for holiness, but on one occasion he heard an
Antony, you are not so perfect as is a cobbler that dwells
Whereupon he took his staff and sought him out. The
cobbler was amazed to see such a holy and famous man at his door. Antony
enquired how he spent his time.
as for me, good works have I none, for my life is
but simple and slender. I am but a poor cobbler. In the morning when
I rise, I pray for the whole city wherein I dwell, especially for all
such neighbours and poor friends as I have. After, I set me at my
labour, where I spend the whole day in getting my living. And I keep me
from all falsehood, for I hate nothing so much as I do deceitfulness;
wherefore when I make to any man a promise, I keep to it and perform it
truly. And thus I spent my time poorly with my wife and children, whom I
teach and instruct, as far as my wit will serve me, to fear and dread
God. And this is the sum of my simple life.
Thus, Antony learned that there are many way of holiness and that
perfection is not only to be found in the lonely places of the desert.
About 337, Emperor Constantine and his two sons, Constantius and
Constans, wrote a joint letter to Antony seeking advice and asking for
his prayers. His monks were surprised that he should be so honoured.
Unmoved he said,
Do not wonder that the emperor writes to us, one man
to another; rather admire that God should have written to us, and that
He has spoken to us through His Son.
In total, his response to the
emperor preserved by
Saint Athanasius (f.d. May 2),
and seven other
letters to various monasteries are the sum of Antony's literary output.
In 339, Saint Antony had a vision in which mules kicked down the altar.
This was taken as a warning about the havoc the Arian persecution
wrought just two years later in Alexandria. At the request of the
bishops, about 355, Antony again went to Alexandria to join those
combatting Arianism. He taught that God the Son is not a creature but
the same substance as the Father, and that the Arians, who claimed he
was, were heathens. There he met and became close friends with Saint
Athanasius, whose "Vita Antonii" is the chief source of information
On his return, he again sought refuge in the cave on Mount Kolzim, where
he received visitors, including Emperor Constantine, and dispensed
advice. He chief advice was that knowledge of oneself was the necessary
and only step by which one can ascend to the knowledge and love of God.
Full of years, of battles and victories, Antony died on January 17 in
the desert where only legend could trace his path. He was secretly
buried on Mount Kolzim. About 561, his body was discovered and with
great solemnity translated to Alexandria, then to Constantinople, and is
now at Vienne, France.
After Saint Antony had lived in the desert for 75 years, he was told in
a vision about the hermit
Saint Paul (f.d. January 15),
who had been
living in asceticism for 90 years. At once he resolved to find him and
set out across the desert. On the way he met with a centaur and a satyr,
before finding Saint Paul in a cave in the rocks beside a stream and a
palm-tree. The two embraced in immediate recognition, after which Saint
Paul inquired about the state of the world that he had left so long ago.
Saint Jerome (f.d. September 30),
in his account of Paul the Hermit,
describes the meeting of the two during which a raven dropped a loaf of
bread for the hermits to share. Paul then asked Antony to return to his
own hermitage and fetch the cloak given to him by Bishop Saint
Athanasius in which he wished to be buried. En route back to the elder
hermit, Antony saw Paul ascending into heaven. At the cave he found the
dead body in an attitude of prayer. Antony was too old to have the
strength to dig a grave, but two lions came and dug it with their paws.
Antony wrapped Paul's body in the cloak and buried it.
The ascetic lives of Paul of Thebes and Anthony was known to the monks
of ancient Ireland and they strove to emulate their asceticism. They
frequently carved onto the Irish High Crosses the scene of the two
ascetics conversing while a raven brings them bread. These High Crosses,
with Paul. and Antony depicted on them, may be seen in Ireland even
today. If you go
and look at the North
Face of the Cross you can see the two hermits on the Ruthwell Cross,
created about 700 AD.
Saint Jerome (f.d. September 30)
and Rufinus relate that Antony met
Didymus, the blind head of the catechetical school at Alexandria.
His fights with the devil, his temptations, his meeting with Saint Paul
the Hermit, his association with monks who treasured his
sayings, his prophecies: These are all told in his "Life" written by
Saint Athanasius, to whom he bequeathed one of his sheepskins and his
cloak as a public testimony of his being united in faith and communion
with that holy prelate.
Upon his death 14 years after that of Saint Paul, Antony was buried
secretly, according to his own wish. Both during his life and after his
death his influence was great, and veneration for him remains strong all
In art Saint Antony is depicted as a very old monk in a habit to
indicate that he was the founder of monasticism. But he is represented
in various ways: (1) with a bell or asperges (both to exorcise evil
spirits) and a "tau"-shaped cross which designates, perhaps, his age and
authority, and which is worn by the Knights of Saint Antony (instituted
1352); (2) with a pig (representing sensuality and gluttony), to denote
his battles with the devil; (3) with a book to signify Antony's devotion
to the Scriptures; or (4) with flames to indicate the disease known as
Saint Antony's Fire, against which his name was invoked in the Middle
Ages; (5) with the devil near him; (6) tempted by devils or carried
aloft by them; (7) with the centaur and satyr he met on his way to Saint
Paul; (8) breaking bread with Saint Paul the Hermit (the bread is
brought to them by ravens); (9) with two lions, who dig Paul's grave;
(10) making baskets, which was one of the primary occupations of the
Egyptian monks; or (11) as a young man distributing his wealth
Attwater claims that his
emblems are a pig and a bell.
Saint Antony is the patron of basket-makers
pet, people those with skin diseases
He is invoked against
erysipelas (Saint Antony's Fire), probably because of his reputation as
Troparion of St Anthony the Great
Thou didst follow the ways of zealous Elijah, and the straight path of
the Baptist, O Father Anthony.
Thou didst become a desert dweller
and support the world by thy prayers.
Intercede with Christ our God that our souls may be saved.
Icon of St. Anthony: