Daily Meditations

The Feast Day of Saint Anthony the Great

Anthony was born in central Egypt around 215, the son of Christian peasant farmers. After their death, around 269, he paid attention when the Gospel was read in church and applied to himself literally the words, ‘Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor.’ He disposed all his property and undertook a life of solitude and discipline under the guidance of another recluse near his village. Some years later, having put his sister in the care of some nuns, he went to live alone in the utter desert. His reputation for holiness attracted disciples, many of whom settled near him. He died at the age of one hundred and five. An account of his life was written in Greek by Athanasius of Alexandria; this was immediately translated into Latin and circulated widely, and its influence on the Christian world is incalculable.

The influence of the hermits did not remain only within the context of monasteries themselves. Monasticism was a major influence in shaping European society and because the roots of its spirituality were to be found in the early days of Egyptian experimentation, medieval Christendom inherited an attraction for the desert. The desert fathers’ stories and sayings were recorded in the fourth century as a special but vital aspect of Christian life in the early church. They were widely read and the influence of these texts could be dramatic. For instance, in the year 386 a young man was talking with some companions in a private garden in Milan, when visitors arrived who described how two of their friends in the Imperial Civil Service had left the world recently in order to become monks after reading about the way of life of Anthony of Egypt, the most famous of the desert fathers. Unspeakably moved, their host left them, and, as he wrote later:

I flung myself down beneath a fig tree and gave way to tears . . . all at once I heard the singsong voice of a child, ‘Take it and read it, take it and read it’ . . . I opened the book of the Scriptures and read the first passage my eye fell on, for I had heard the story of Anthony, and I remembered how he happened to go into a church while the Gospel was being read and taken it as a counsel addressed to himself when he heard the words, ‘Go and sell all that you have and give to the poor and come and follow me.’

He exclaimed, ‘What is the meaning of this story? These men have none of our education and yet they stand up and storm the gates of heaven’.  In this way, the story of an uneducated Egyptian peasant farmer and his adoption of solitude in the desert for life proved the turning point in the conversion of Augustine, the formative theologian of Europe.

In the twentieth century, many monastic reforms have referred back specifically to Egypt and the desert fathers. As well as the continued monastic interest in this material from the desert, these Sayings have been translated into many languages and continue to provide spiritual nourishment far beyond the cloister. They have inspired poetry, drama, opera and art as well as withdrawal into solitude and prayer. The facts that these early monks were living on the fringes both of civilization and of the institutional church, that they were not scholars or clerics, wealthy or with positions in society but just ordinary people who were sincerely concerned to live out their understanding of the Gospel, are perhaps what make them so universally popular. This is material which has in it an air of eternity, making it available to anyone; as Anthony the Great said:

Some leave home and cross the seas in order to gain an education, but there is no need for us to go away on account of the Kingdom of God nor need we cross the sea in search of virtue. For the Lord has told us, ‘The kingdom of God is within you.’ All that is needed for goodness is that which is within, the human heart.

Someone asked Abba Anthony, ‘What must one do in order to please God?’ The old man replied, ‘Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the Holy Scriptures.

Abba Anthony said, ‘I saw all the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, what can get through from such snares?’  Then I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Humility.

He also said, ‘Some have afflicted their bodies by asceticism, but they lack discernment, and so they are far from God.’

He also said, ‘Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.’

A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked…. [But] the old man said to him, ‘Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.’ So he did. The old man then said, ‘Shoot another,’ and he did so. Then the old man said, ‘Shoot yet again,’ and the hunter replied, ‘If I bend my bow so much I will break it.’ Then the old man said to him, ‘It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.’ When he heard these words the hunter was pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the brethren, they went home strengthened.

He also said, ‘God does not allow the same warfare and temptations to this generation as he did formerly, for men are weaker now and cannot bear so much.’

Abba Anthony said, ‘A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, ‘You are mad, you are not like us.’

Three Fathers used to go and visit blessed Anthony every year and two of them used to discuss their thoughts and the salvation of their souls with him, but the third always remained silent and did not ask him anything. After a long time, Abba Anthony said to him, ‘You often come here to see me, but you never ask me anything,’ and the other replied, ‘It is enough for me to see you, Father.’

They said that a certain old man asked God to let him see the Fathers and he saw them all except Abba Anthony. So he asked his guide, ‘Where is Abba Anthony?’ He told him in reply that in the place where God is, there Anthony would be.

Some say of Saint Anthony that he was ‘Spirit/borne’, that is, carried along by the Holy Spirit, but he would never speak of this to men. Such men see what is happening in the world [and] know what is going to happen.

Abba Anthony said, ‘I no longer fear God, but I love Him. For love casts out fear.’ (John IV, 18).

~Adapted from Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers and The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks


See the source image