Life of Saint Anthony

Also known as: The Life and Affairs of Our Holy Father Anthony
Date: ca. 360 CE
From: Encyclopedia of Ancient Literature.

The historical Saint Anthony died in 356 CE. He was certainly not the first solitary monk, but in no small measure due to Saint Athanasius, Anthony became the model for the tradition of Christian anchorites—monks who chose to spend long devotional periods in isolation. Shortly after Anthony’s death, Athanasius, who was the patriarch or bishop of Alexandria and who had known Anthony well, responded to requests from monks who wished to know more about the famous holy man and penned the saint’s biography. It became an instant classic and the prototype for many subsequent spiritual biographies of real and of fictive Christians who, in their lives, actions, and commitments—and in their deaths and often their martyrdoms—emulated Christ’s pattern for living, overcoming temptation, dying, and subsequent elevation to immortality. Beyond the ancient works that emulate it, Athanasius’s book anticipates such comparatively modern descendants as John Foxe’s continually updated Book of Martyrs, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and the 15th-century. Florentine playwright Antonia Pulci’s plays of Saint Francis, Saint Theodora, Saint Guglielma, and Saint Anthony the Abbot. The last-named work retells Anthony’s story with Florentine local color.

Reared with a younger sister in a Christian, Egyptian family, the devout Anthony lost his parents when he was about 20 years old. Deeply moved by the concern of the early church for the care of the poor, he established his sister in a community of religious women, sold all he had, and distributed the money to the needy. He then modeled his life on that of a virtuous anchorite and other holy persons in the vicinity, working with his hands to earn his food and committing the Scriptures to a capacious memory.

As Athanasius tells the story, Anthony’s reputation for goodness soon attracted the attention of the Devil, who began to tempt Anthony with guilt for abandoning his sister and with fond recollections of the more comfortable life he had led before following the Lord’s assigned path for his life. Satan sent lascivious thoughts that Anthony overcame with the help of constant vigilance, Christ, the Scriptures, prayer, and fasting.

The Devil and his minions did not, however, cease their assaults on Anthony, even after he isolated himself in a tomb where he prayed and fasted. The forces of evil assaulted Anthony physically, but Anthony, now 35, resisted so heroically that his Lord appeared to him and promised to sustain him forever.

Overcoming the temptations of silver and gold that Satan placed in his way, Anthony barricaded himself inside a deserted fortress with just enough bread to sustain life for six months. He arranged to have this simple diet replenished twice yearly, and for years he subsisted on bread and water. demons continued to try to assault him, but, as promised, Anthony was now invulnerable to their attempts. For 20 years, he continued in this fashion, his isolation broken only by occasional visits from friends. Finally, however, his friends tore the door from his dwelling, and Anthony came forth looking as fit and well as he had 20 years before. Many chose to emulate him, and the desert was filled both with monasteries and with the cells of anchorites.

Anthony illustrated the efficacy of prayer by wading untouched across a crocodile-filled stream with a group of his friends. He began preaching to others who had chosen to live the monastic life, encouraging them to contemplate the life everlasting instead of the short span of human existence. He exhorted the monks to persevere in their discipline and not to relax even for a moment. Virtuous living was all that mattered. He explained that everything God created began as good. The demons that assail human beings chose to become bad.

A lengthy sermon follows. It encourages Anthony’s listeners to believe in the sufficiency of the Scriptures and revealed truth for every human need. Other education is superfluous since the Scriptures are all one requires to stand firm against the infinitude of temptations with which legions of demons continually try to mislead human beings. He also exposes the deceptions practiced by false prophets who wish to make money by impressing the credulous with fakery.

Anthony identifies the oracles of Hellenistic religion with demons. Even when, he says, demons come in the guise of angels, they can be driven off by prayer. Good spirits, on the other hand, can be recognized by the calm that accompanies their presence. He then details some of his own experiences in his struggles against the temptations of demons.

When Athanasius has finished describing the success of these struggles, he turns his attention to the benefit that members of Anthony’s congregation derived from the saint’s sermon. They loved virtue more, put away conceit, and became more careful in identifying and resisting temptation. When his sermon was finished, Anthony resumed and intensified his monastic discipline, but he nevertheless frequently shared the company of other anchorites.

Athanasius next reports Anthony’s response to the persecution of the Christians of Alexandria under the pagan governor of Syria and Egypt, Gaius Galerius Valerius Maximianus, who championed resurgent paganism, martyring a few Christians but more often enslaving or mutilating them. Athanasius says that Anthony sought martyrdom, but that the Lord protected him for the benefit of others. Back in his cell, Anthony daily suffered the pangs of martyrdom as he struggled with his conscience and his sense of unworthiness. He practiced an ever more rigorous asceticism, wearing a hair shirt and never bathing so that he was tormented by vermin nesting next to and within his skin. He also moved to a more isolated dwelling place on a mountain near an oasis on a caravan route, and there he tended a small garden whose produce sustained him and relieved the hunger of the travelers that passed his way. As he grew older, passersby also brought him gifts of edibles.

Next Athanasius attributes a series of wonders to Anthony. He tamed wild beasts that harassed him at the behest of demons. He saved himself and a company of parched monks from dying of thirst by causing water to miraculously spring forth in the desert. Returning with those monks to their cloister, Anthony encountered the sister from whom he separated so many years before and found that she had become the leader of a community of nuns.

Accounts of the wonders that Anthony accomplished continue. He healed the sick; he knew the details of faraway events as they were happening; he cast out demons. All the while, he resisted the unflagging efforts of the Devil and his minions to distract him from his holy work. Anthony eventually achieved both inner and outer peace, and he punctiliously observed the mandates and orthodoxies to which Athanasius himself subscribed. Except for exhorting such heretics as the Meletian schismatics, the Arians, and the Manichaeans to reform their beliefs, he had no business with them.

During his rare appearances in populated communities, many came to see or touch Anthony, and he cast out demons and cured many of their physical and spiritual disabilities. He confounded a pair of Greek philosophers who came to test him with his wisdom, advising them to become Christian.

Speaking to two Greeks through an interpreter, Anthony conducted a scathing critique of classical Greek myth and its irrationality. He also defended faith as a more reliable test of knowledge than dialectic—that is, more reliable than arguing according to formal systems of logic and syllogism. He also pointed to the success of Christianity in gaining converts as opposed to the dying, polytheistic religions. He underscored his point by casting out demons from several sufferers brought to him for that purpose.

Sometimes when Anthony was speaking with visitors, he would suddenly fall silent and seem to be distracted. When this happened, he envisioned things either occurring elsewhere or things that would happen in the future. He predicted, for instance, the coming temporary ascendancy of the Arian heresy over orthodox Christianity.

After recounting more of Anthony’s healings and predictions, Athanasius turns to the manner of his death, which the author also deems remarkable. At age 105, as he felt the approach of death, Anthony imparted his final advice to his visitors: Keep your soul from foul thoughts and avoid falling victim to any of the heresies afflicting orthodox Christianity. Concerned lest his body be mummified or otherwise treated in a manner that he considered irreverent, he commanded his followers to bury him secretly and tell no one where, since at the day of judgment he expected to resume his flesh. He gave one of his sheepskins and a worn-out cloak to Bishop Athanasius.

To the monks for whom he had written this life of Anthony, Athanasius addresses a final exhortation to share what he has written, not only among themselves and with other Christians, but also with pagans who may profit from learning of Anthony’s life and be converted.

Athanasius. The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus. Translated by Robert C. Gregg. New York: Paulist Press, 1980.

———. The Life of Saint Anthony. Translated by Robert C. Gregg. Edited by Emilie Griffen. San Francisco, Calif.: Harper, 2006.

Pulci, Antonia. Saint Anthony the Abbott. Florentine Drama for Convent and Festival: Seven Sacred Plays. Translated by James Wyatt Cook. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Text Citation (Chicago Manual of Style format):

Cook, James Wyatt. “Life of Saint Anthony.” Encyclopedia of Ancient Literature

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