Feast Day: January 17
Anthony (Antonius) comes from ana, above, and tenes, holding, meaning one who holds on to higher things and despises worldly things. Anthony was born in the village of Koman, Upper Egypt in 250. He was born into a wealthy Christian family, and when his parents died in 269, he and his sister were left alone.
About six months after his parents’ deaths, while in church, he was struck by the words from the Gospel of Matthew: “If you will be perfect, go sell all you have, and give to the poor; and come, follow me and you will have treasure in heaven.” Anthony felt as if God were speaking directly to him. He immediately left the church and gave all his property to the poor people of his village. Then, after providing for his sister, he left home to follow Christ.
Having sold or given away all his possessions, he became the disciple of a local hermit. When this proved not a strict enough way of life, he retired farther into the desert for twenty years and became known for his innumerable miracles. In the desert Anthony fought one of life’s great battles—the battle with oneself. He faced his fears, his disappointments, his weariness, and his sins. Though the devil continually tempted him, Anthony became a stronger person. Eventually he emerged from the desert and founded monasteries, or collections of hermits’ huts. He also took part in a disputation with the Arians in Alexandria, supporting Athanasius, after which he retreated again to a remote hut on top of a mountain. But even there disciples sought him out, asking for a “word of wisdom.” These “words” were collected and included in the “Sayings of the Desert Fathers,” endlessly repeated, translated, copied, and published, as in recent times in Thomas Merton’s Wisdom of the Desert.
Anthony’s spiritual teaching has come down in a number of surviving letters, which confirm much of the material in Athanasius’ Life as authentic in tone. He emerges as above all a teacher of charity, with strictness of principle softened by gentleness of application. Despite his quest for solitude, he saw relationships with others as the key to the spiritual life: “If we gain our brother, we gain Christ; but if we scandalize our neighbor, we sin against Christ.”
People from all over Egypt and throughout the world heard of this holy man living in the desert. Everyone who met this shy, quiet monk went away with a renewed desire to love God and live their lives joyfully without fear. Thousands came to his door to see him and ask his advice. Some adopted his life style and many became monks. As a result, Anthony is called the Father of Monasticism. St. Athanasius’ Life of him became one of the most popular books in medieval monastery libraries, thereby making Anthony the inspiration for countless monks.
In the 105th year of his life, the blessed Anthony embraced his brethren and expired in peace during the reign of Constantine, which began about the year 340. He died on Mt. Kolzim and in Eastern Churches is revered as “first master of the desert and pinnacle of holy monks.”
Burns, Paul. “Butler’s Saint for the Day.” Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2007.
Hoagland, Victor, C.P., ed. “The Book of Saints: The Lives of the Saints According to the Liturgical Calendar.” New York: Regina Press, 1986.
Voragine, Jacobus de. “The Golden Legend-Readings on the Saints-Volume I.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.