Saint Antony the Great

(c251-356 CE)


Saint Antony the Great, "star of the wilderness" and "father of all Christian monks," is a greatly beloved figure of the ancient Christian world. Though he was certainly not the first Christian to leave the cities for a life of solitude in more remote areas, Antony stands prominently as the hugely popular father of the important Desert Father-Mother movement in upper Egypt, which soon spread this eremetic and cenobitic (hermit and monastic) form of deeply meditative, very austere, and psychologically rigorous Christian spirituality over to Palestine, Syria, Greece and beyond, and across the Mediterranean sea to Italy and thence to much of Europe.

On this webpage, we can peruse the biographical details about St. Antony/Anthony the Great, and then read the spiritual teachings from this great Christian master of meditation and morality as preserved by the tradition.

Here's the biography of St. Antony, which, for convenience, I have drawn, with slight changes and corrections of grammar and punctuation, from a good basic account of the saint by an anonymous author for Wikipedia [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_the_Great]. Other articles on the life of Antony are available on the internet, such as from the online Catholic Encyclopedia.

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(Posted at Wikipedia:)

Saint Anthony (c.251-356 CE)

Most of what we know about the life of St Anthony is in the Greek Vita [Life] by Athanasius (d. 373), which soon circulated in Latin. Several surviving homilies [from Apophthegmata Patrum, Sayings of the Fathers, and works of Cassian and Palladius] and epistles provide his teachings.

Anthony was born near Heraclea in Upper Egypt around 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 [of communal monastics] 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 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 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 20 years. According to Athanasius, the devil again resumed his war against 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 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.

Then 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 that 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 the 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.

Next 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 appear in the city. But the Saint didn’t heed his threats. The Governor faced Anthony 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 Anthony 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, 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 [as a way to ward off boredom]. 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, Anthony clothed him with the monk’s garb, and foretold what would become of him. When the day drew near of the departure of St Paul the First Hermit in the desert, Anthony went to him and buried him, after clothing him in a tunic which was a present from St Athanasius the Apostolic, 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 St Macarius, and to give one sheepskin cloak to St Athanasius and the other sheepskin cloak to St 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. St 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. His biography was written by Saint Athanasius the Apostolic 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—St Anthony and Paul the Hermit are seen as the founders of Christian monasticism. Paul is lauded by Anthony as the first monk and the cell of Paul exists to this day in Egypt. Anthony himself provided the example that others would follow. Anthony did not himself organize or create a monastary, but such 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.


(St. Antony depicted on right, wearing monk's habit, St. Paul the Hermit depicted on left in a tunic; above them, a raven comes down, directed by God to feed the desert saints with a small loaf of bread.)

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The fortress-like Monastery of St Antony the Great, at Deir El-Kedees El-Anba Antonios, stands at an oasis spring in the Red Sea Mountains, 155 km (100 miles) southeast of Cairo. It was founded in the mid-4th century, perhaps in 356, on Antony’s burial site. This Coptic Orthodox monastery, presided over by an abbot, is one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world. The church is one of Egypt’s great treasures—some of the wall paintings here date from the sixth and the ninth centuries, and among them is a picture of the founder, St Antony himself. He lived in a tiny cave, high above the desert, for 40 years soon after AD 300, and the monastery—really a city in the desert—was built in the 360s. The monks who live here still speak Coptic, a language descended from the language of the ancient Egyptians. (Note: 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.)

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Resources on St. Antony, the Desert Fathers and the inner way of Hesychia (Stillness, Tranquility, Silence)

On the greatest early proponent of this way of Christian ascetic mysticism, St. Antony the Great (251-356), see the Life of St. Antony written by St. Athanasius (various translations, some online); The Letters of Saint Antony the Great, translated by Derwas Chitty (Fairacres, Oxford OX4 1TB: SLG [Sisters of the Love of God] Press, 1975). See also Chitty’s translation of a collection of letters by a disciple of St. Antony, The Letters of Ammonas (SLG Press, 1979).

British Anglican nun Benedicta Ward translated and edited some excellent works, The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers: Systematic Sayings from the Anonymous Series of the Apophthegmata Patrum, SLG Press, 2nd ed., 1986; and a larger work, The Desert Christian: Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, NY: Macmillan, 1975. Thomas Merton put together a little collection of stories with a good introduction entitled The Wisdom of the Desert, New Directions, 1960; Helen Waddell did a fine excerpting from several sources of sayings and biographies in her The Desert Fathers, U. of Michigan Ann Arbor ed., 1957 (first publ. in 1936).

Two essential and quite interesting biographical works are The Lives of the Desert Fathers: The Historia Monachorum in Aegypto (Norman Russell, Tr., introd. by Sr. Benedicta Ward), WMU Station, Kalamazoo, MI 49008: Cistercian Publications, 1981 (an eyewitness work by one of seven Palestinian Christian monks who traveled as a group through the Egyptian desert in 394); and Palladius: The Lausiac History (Robert Meyer, Tr.) Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1965. Palladius was an eye-witness pilgrim in Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Asia Minor in 419-420. Among other interesting things, Palladius observed that in Egypt (birthplace of this type of Christian holiness based on hesychia), Desert Mothers outnumbered the Fathers by a factor of two to one: an estimated 20,000 women monastics and anchorites compared to 10,000 men. See B. Ward’s The Desert Christians for teachings from Desert Mothers, Syncletica, Theodora, Sarah.

The Philokalia [“Love of the Beautiful/Exalted”] was compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain at Mt. Athos, Greece (where the Desert Christian tradition moved after being eclipsed in Egypt, Syria, and Palestine by the spread of Islam), and gives writings from over a dozen Desert Fathers from the 4th to 14th centuries from the Middle East, Near East, and Greece; see The Philokalia (4 vols.) (G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, & Kallistos Ware, Tr.), London: Faber & Faber, 1979-1999. (The Glossaries in these volumes are especially valuable as a quick introduction to Desert Christianity.)

See also John Binns, Ascetics and Ambassadors of Christ: The Monasteries of Palestine, 314-631 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1994) for more of what transpired up in Palestine.

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Teachings of St. Antony the Great:

One who knows oneself, knows God: and one who knows God is worthy to worship Him as is right. Therefore, my beloveds in the Lord, know yourselves. (Letter IV, from the authentic collection of Seven Letters [cf. the spurious “20 Letters” attributed to Antony])

[Antony speaks here of the intellect, nous, our highest faculty, not mere reason, but that which can understand the Divine via immediate experience, intuition, or “simple cognition”:] “Holiness is achieved when the intellect is in its natural state.” “The soul realizes its integrity when its intellect is in that state in which it was created.” “Let us purify our mind, for I believe that when the mind is completely pure and is in its natural state, it gains penetrating insight, and it sees more clearly and further than the demons, since the Lord reveals things to it.” (Quoted by St. Hesychios the Priest, in Philokalia).

Some elders came to St. Antony and asked him, “Which is the greatest of all virtues?” Each one then gave an opinion, some saying that “fasting and keeping of vigils” best help one come near to God; others said “voluntary poverty” and “detachment”; others said “compassion.” Last of all, Anthony gave his reply: “All that you have said is both necessary and helpful for those who are searching for God and wish to come to Him. But we cannot award the first place to any of these virtues; for there are many among us who have endured fasting and vigils, or have withdrawn into the desert, or have practiced poverty to such an extent that they have not left themselves enough for their daily sustenance, or have performed acts of compassion so generously that they no longer have anything to give; and yet these same monks, having done all this, have nevertheless fallen away miserably from virtue and slipped into vice. What was it, then, that made them stray from the straight path? In my opinion, it was simply that they did not possess the grace of discrimination [discernment]; for it is this virtue that teaches a man to walk along the royal road, swerving neither to the right through immoderate [excessive] self-control, nor to the left through indifference and laxity. Discrimination is a kind of eye and lantern of the soul, as is said in the Gospel passage: ‘The light of the body is the eye; if therefore your eye is pure, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is evil, your whole body will be full of darkness’ (Matt. 6:22-3). And this is just what we find. For the power of discrimination, scrutinizing all the thoughts and actions of a man, distinguishes and sets aside everything that is base and not pleasing to God, and keeps him free from delusion…. Scripture also refers to it as ‘discernment’ without which we must do nothing—not even drink the spiritual wine that ‘makes glad the heart of man’ (Psalm 104:15), for it is said, ‘Drink with discernment’ (Proverbs 31:3), and ‘he that does not do all things with discernment is like a city that is broken down and without walls’ (Prov. 25:28). Wisdom, intellect and perceptiveness are united in discrimination; and without these our inner house cannot be built, nor can we gather spiritual wealth (cf. Prov. 24:3-4).… These passages show very clearly that without the gift of discrimination no virtue can stand or remain firm to the end, for it is the mother of all the virtues and their guardian.” (quoted by John Cassian in his Conferences)

I beseech you in the name of Jesus the Christ that God may give you the spirit of discernment…. Prepare yourselves while you have [heavenly] intercessors to pray to God for your salvation, that He may pour into your hearts that fire which Jesus came to send upon the earth (Luke 12:49), that you may be able to exercise your hearts and senses, to know how to discern the good from the bad, the right from the left, reality from unreality…. Truly, my beloved, you know that when there is a fair wind, the ship’s captain boasts; but it is in the time of violent adverse winds that every skilled captain is revealed. (Letter III)

Antony writes to his dear spiritual children… Truly my children, the love that is between you and me is no bodily love but a spiritual, religious love. For this cause I grow not weary of praying to God day and night for you, that you may be able to know the grace which He has wrought toward you…. Now, my children, neglect not to cry out day and night to God, constraining the bounty of the Father, and in His bounty He will give you help from heaven, teaching you until you know what is [spiritually] good for you. Truly, my children, we are dwelling in our death, and staying in the house of the robber [finite, fleeting Time], and bound with the bonds of death. Now therefore, don’t sleep, that you may offer yourselves a sacrifice to God in all holiness, which none can inherit without sanctification…. Know that God always loves His creatures—their substance being immortal, not to be dissolved with the bodies [at death]. (Letter V)

Understand that, be it the holy heavens or angels or archangels or thrones or dominions or cherubim or seraphim or sun or moon or stars, or patriarchs or prophets or apostles, or devil or satan or evil spirits or powers of the air, or (to say no more) be it man or woman, in the beginning of their creation, they all derived from one [God]. [This teaching by Antony says that even evil originally came from God and also that the world is not created by some rival power, as most Gnostics believed.] (Letter V; see also Letter VI for same idea)

Truly, my beloved in the Lord, not at one time only did God visit His creatures, but from the foundation of the world, whenever any have come to the Creator of all by the law of His covenant implanted in them, god is present with each one of these in His bounty and grace by His Spirit. But in the case of those rational natures in which that covenant grew cold… they became altogether irrational, and worshipped the creation rather than the Creator. But the Creator of all in His great bounty visited us by the implanted law of the covenant. For He is immortal substance…. And the Creator of all, who repents not of His love, desiring to visit our sickness and confusion, raised up Moses the Lawgiver … and founded for us the House of Truth, which is the Church, that makes us one in God; for He desires that we should be brought back to our first beginning…. Now therefore, O God, we know what You have given us—that we are children and heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ. (cf. Romans 8:17) (Letter II)

All you who have prepared to go to God, I greet you in the Lord, beloved, from the least to the greatest, both men and women… Truly, my beloved, this is a great thing for you, that you should ask concerning the understanding of the intellect [nous] substance [or spiritual nature], which has a beginning [in God] but no end [eternal in God]. … I want God to give you a heart of knowledge and a spirit of discernment, that you may be able to offer your hearts as a pure sacrifice [“making sacred”] before the Father, in great holiness, without blemish…. [But] everyone who delights in his own will, and is subdued to his own thoughts, and takes up the things sown in his heart [i.e., anything not in accordance with God], and rejoices in them, and supposes in his heart that these are some great chosen mystery, and justifies himself in what he does—the soul of such a man is a lair of evil spirits, counseling him to evil… and over such a one the demons have great power…. They are not bodily visible, but you must know that we serve as bodies for them, for our soul receives their wickedness [e.g., their addictions, ambitious desires, hateful or self-destructive impulses, slothfulness, etc.], and when it receives them, then it brings them to manifestation by the body in which we dwell. Now, then, my children, let us give them no place…. [So,] I pray that you may not grow weary of loving one another…. Lift up your body in which you are clothed, and make it an altar, and set thereon all your thoughts, and leave there every evil counsel before the Lord, and lift up the hands of your heart to Him, that is, to the Creator Mind, and pray to God that He may grant you His great invisible fire, that it may descend from heaven and consume the altar and all that is on it…. Strive to offer yourselves as a sacrifice to God always, and give gladness to the power that helps you… and to all the band of the saints [who are looking over and helping us]… [I pray that] since we are all created of the same invisible substance, which has a beginning but no end, we may love one another with a single love. For all who know themselves, know that they are of one immortal substance…. Therefore we are all members one of another, and the body of Christ. Therefore we ought greatly to love one another. For he who loves his neighbor, loves God; and he who loves God, loves, too, his own soul. (Letter VI)

Except through great humility in your whole heart and mind and spirit and soul and body, you will not be able to inherit the Kingdom of God…. For he who knows his own disgrace, seeks again his elect grace; and whoever knows his own death, also knows his life eternal. (Letter VI)

The Holy Spirit comforts us and brings us back to our beginning, to recover our inheritance and the dominion of that same comforting Spirit. Therefore, ‘as many as have been baptized into Christ [the Divine anointing], have put on Christ: there is neither male nor female, there is neither bond nor free.’ (Gal. 3:27-8) (Letter VII)

I no longer fear God: I love Him. For perfect love cast out fear. (Sayings of the Fathers, Alphabetical Collection)

A man asked abbot Antony, “What shall I keep, that I may please God?” Anthony said: “Wherever you go, have God ever before your eyes. In whatever you do, hold by the example of the holy Scriptures; and in whatever place you abide, be don’t be swift to leave [out of restlessness]. These three things keep, and you will be saved.”