Early Christian History

St Anthony of the Desert

St Anthony, also known by the epithet “the Great,” played a pivotal role in early Christianity, having founded the Christian monastic movement. While Anthony was not actually the first ascetic — he himself claimed that was Paul the First Hermit — he was the one with the fame and reputation for sanctity which really launched monasticism.

Monastic and Asectic Traditions

Anthony did not invent monasticism per se. Ascetics had existed in the region, centuries before. They were a particular phenomenon of the Greek/Hellenic world; Pythagoras, for example, was the legendary founder of a movement whose members lived in ascetic colonies. Some Greek philosophical schools also lived in asectic communes.

While their lifestyle details varied, they all lived in sparse conditions, with no luxuries, ate restrictive diets (often vegetarian, sometimes limited to only a few items such as the proverbial bread and water. They emphasized study, meditation, and work — everyone contributed to the community’s needs. Many were self-sufficient, growing their own food, making their own tools, etc. Generally, they denied themselves any and all “creature comforts” so that they could focus on metaphysical, rather than physical, matters.

This philosophy reached into the cultures that Hellenism contacted. The Essenes of the Levant appear to have been a Judaic sect which espoused an ascetic lifestyle. The therepeutae described by Philo of Alexandria were ascetic hermit-scholars who lived in the outskirts of Egyptian cities. It is this Egyptian hermit tradition which appears to have inspired Paul the Hermit and St Anthony.

Anthony Secluded

Anthony was born into a family of means, but upon reaching adulthood and inheriting his parents’ fortune, he received a message from Christ, telling him to sell all he had, give the funds to the poor; he did so. Inspired by earlier Christian hermitic ascetics, he settled, alone, in a cave to the west of Alexandria, then moved south, to an abandoned Roman fort overlooking the Nile. In both places, he was fed by the largesse of local villagers. Presumably this means that the ascetc-hermit custom was something they’d been exposed to.

In the Roman fort, legend has it, Anthony was assailed by demons. Villagers rescued the beaten hermit and nursed him back to health. In the process they grew fond of him and prized his wisdom. Upon his return to seclusion, they began coming more frequently to receive his teaching and counsel. On one occasion he emerged from seclusion; the villagers, who’d never actually seen him, having fed him through a small slot in a wall, had expected him to be a virtual skeleton. But Anthony was actually hale and healthy, to their astonishment. He traveled to a handful of Christian communities to inspire them, then returned to the fort.

Anthony’s World Expands

Eventually the visiting supplicants — who by then were coming from long distances, having heard his reputation for sanctity — interfered with his meditations. Ironically enough, Anthony had a restless mind, and these contacts proved to be a nagging distraction. He left, heading further east into the desert wilderness, eventually finding a small oasis and settling there. Only occasionally did he return to the fort for brief visits with others.

At one point he decided to be martyred, and headed for Alexandria. He visited Christian prisoners and preached publicly. Eventually Anthony confronted the city’s governor and tried to antagonize him into ordering his execution, but the governor didn’t fall for it. He returned to the fort, his mission thwarted.

During a vision, Anthony was inspired to wear a distinctive, plain tunic, and spend his idle time (which was considerable) weaving palm-leaves. These became symbols by which he was known, and in fact, affected later monastic tradition, such as the common monk’s robe (even though it evolved beyond Anthony’s own simple tunic).

Ultimately, Anthony was never martyred as he’d wished to be. Instead, he simply gave up his own spirit at the age of 105, having ordered that his body be buried in secret so that it wouldn’t be venerated.

Monastic Tradition

Anthony’s visitors carried his ideas to other Christians around Egypt, and even beyond. It appears that, by the end of his life, Anthony had attracted a small community to the Roman fort he’d lived in for so many years. Near the end of his life they began adopting his lifestyle. After his death they occupied the oasis he’d found and eventually established a monastery, in his name, which still stands.

Anthony did not make any true effort to start an ascetic Christian movement. His asceticism was deeply personal and individual. But others were inspired by him and they picked up where he left off, creating a movement inspired by him; among them were St Serapion, the closest thing to a disciple that the reclusive Anthony had, St Marcarius, and St Pachomius. Much later, his reputation would inspire figures such as St Benedict of Nursia, who’s generally credited with establishing western Christian monasticism.

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