Commentary on Saint Anthony of Egypt, Abbot
Most of what we know about Anthony is thanks to St Athanasius, his friend, who wrote his biography. Anthony was born in 251 at Coma, a village near Great Heracleopolis in central Egypt, where he grew up in a very protective and well-off family. On the death of his parents, he inherited a large estate. Then, in church one day, he heard the words of the Gospel: “Go, sell what you have and give to the poor” (Matt 19:21). He took the words as addressed to himself and sold off the whole of the estate, only keeping what he felt he needed for his sister and himself. Later, he heard the call, “Do not be anxious about tomorrow” (Matt 6:34). This led him to give away what he still had, he put his sister in a convent and, still only 21 years of age, became a hermit. He lived alone, working with his hands, praying and doing religious reading. He only ate bread with salt and only drank water. He slept on a rush mat. He was soon seen as a model of humility, holiness and self-discipline. He was assailed by many temptations – some very persuasive – during this period but managed to resist them all.
For many years, Anthony lived in a tomb near his birthplace but, at the age of 35, moved to the ruins of an old castle on top of a mountain. There he lived for almost 20 years, seeing no one except a person who brought him food every six months! At the end of that time he set up his first monastery, which consisted of separate cells, each occupied by one monk (something like the Carthusians today). But he still lived mainly on his own, only visiting the monastery when necessary. In spite of his austere life, he always gave the impression of being energetic and joyful. People could pick him out from among the other monks simply by his cheeriness. Many came long distances to speak with him. And he was as ready to learn from them as they came to learn from him.
At the age of 60, during a time of religious persecution, he went to Alexandria hoping to earn martyrdom but was not arrested. Later still, he returned to Alexandria to refute the Arians, who denied the divinity of Jesus Christ but, in spite of being asked to stay on in the city, he returned to his life as a hermit. He died about the year 356, traditionally on 17 January. He is said to have lived to the remarkable age of 105, never having been sick, still with good sight and sound teeth. He is regarded as the “Father of Monks”. Several groups of Eastern monks may still be following his teaching and he certainly influenced later development of monastic life in the Church.