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St. Anthony the Great: The Father of Monks

St. Anthony the Great (ca. 251–356) is the father of all monks. While he was neither the first monk nor the author of a rule for monks, St. Anthony was remarkable not only because he literally moved into the desert to live and to pray, but also because he endured unimaginable evil.

In his book titled Life of Antony, St. Athanasius explains that St. Anthony grew up in a relatively wealthy household, but decided to become a monk when he heard a passage from the Gospel According to St. Matthew: “Jesus said to him, ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me’” (19:21). Later, St. Anthony decided to embrace the ascetical life when he heard the verse: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day” (Matthew 6:34).

Beyond the stories of how he embraced a life of manual labor, silence, and prayer, St. Athanasius recounts how the devil repeatedly attacked St. Anthony not only in his thoughts, emotions, and prayers, but also with extreme physical violence. Here is an example:

"[…] Antony departed to the tombs, which happened to be at a distance from the village; and having bid one of his acquaintances to bring him bread at intervals over many days, he entered one of the tombs, and […] remained within alone. And when the enemy could not endure it, but was even fearful that in a short time Antony would fill the desert with the discipline, coming one night with a multitude of demons, he so cut him with stripes that he lay on the ground speechless from the excessive pain. […] the torture had been so excessive that no blows inflicted by man could ever have caused him such torment. But by the Providence of God […] the next day his acquaintance came bringing him the loaves. And having opened the door and seeing him lying on the ground as though dead, he lifted him up and carried him to the church in the village, and laid him upon the ground. And many of his kinsfolk and the villagers sat around Antony as round a corpse. But about midnight he came to himself and arose, and when he saw them all asleep and his comrade alone watching, he motioned with his head for him to approach, and asked him to carry him again to the tombs without waking anybody" (Life of Antony, 8).

The reason St. Anthony was able to endure such evil was that he had achieved apatheia, which is a state of purity that enables someone to not only exercise personal self-control (enkrateia), but also the total freedom from desires, fears, and all bodily and mental movements. It is the path through which someone is able to see God. As a result of this kind of spiritual depth, St. Anthony became the spiritual father of numerous monks and laymen (despite a desire for complete solitude). Since St. Athanasius published the Life of Antony, Christians over time have befitted from its apologetic, parenetic, catechetical, and demonological value.

So ask yourself this: how often do you seek solitude to pray? How committed are you to any form of asceticism in your life? Do you attend to the spiritual needs of others? Are you selfless when doing so? Let us pray for each other so that we may all decide to live our lives in this way.


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