Why is Saint Anthony the Great Considered the Father of All Monks?

St. Anthony was a beacon of ascetic-monastic life, paving the way for countless souls who would choose to leave the world to meet their Creator through a path of penance.   

Newsroom (18/01/2022 09:00 AM, Gaudium PressThe history of this Saint begins around the year 251, in Egypt. It is known that his parents were Christians, had good financial conditions, and educated their children in the way of holiness.

When his parents died when he was about twenty years old, he was left to take care of his younger sister and the household.

Complete abandonment into the hands of Providence

One day when he was on his way to church, he was thinking especially about the way of life of the Apostles, who abandoned everything in order to follow Our Lord Jesus Christ. When he arrived at the temple, he entered at the very moment when a passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew was being read: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me” (19:21).

Moved by a grace, Anthony understood that these words once spoken by Our Lord to the rich young man were, at that moment, addressed to him.

Resolute and filled with enthusiasm, he immediately distributed the inheritance left by his parents and sold his possessions. Part of the amount received, he gave to the poor, and the rest he set aside for his sister, thus becoming an excellent executor of the advice given by the Divine Master.

Some time later, he heard during Mass the following passage from the Gospel: “Do not worry about tomorrow” (Mt 6:34). He then decidedly distributed what was left of his fortune and entrusted his sister to some Christian virgins, to be educated by them.

In this way, faithfully following the voice of grace, he began to follow the path that the Holy Spirit had destined for him, and outwardly embraced the ascetic life that in a certain way already dwelt in his heart.

Quest for Perfection

After renouncing the world, Anthony sought the means necessary to put his ideal into practice. First, he sought advice from an old man who lived near his home village, who led a solitary life and was known to be very pious. Following his example, the saint sought a secluded place to live, outside the village.

During this period he tried to visit men of fervor, in order to mirror himself in their works and emulate the virtues he discerned in them. For this reason, he was known as the “friend of God”. His love for the Creator made him see in every good deed done by others a revelation of the Lord.

Anthony advanced resolutely in the ascetic life: renunciations, sacrifices, and prayers filled his day, in addition to the time he dedicated to manual work, making mats. However, great struggles still awaited him on the path of penance he had embraced.

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First battles against the devil

The angel of darkness, seeing his virtuous practices, began to tempt him more and more explicitly. In order to make him abandon the solitary life, he reminded him of the goods he had left behind, the care of his sister, and the pleasures of the world.

On the other hand, he showed him the difficulties in the practice of virtue, the weakness of the body, and the frequent adversities that man must face due to his evil tendencies, the fruit of original sin. To these assaults of the infernal enemy, he vigorously resisted, with the help of grace, through prayer.

He also suffered countless temptations against the angelic virtue of purity. The battle was uninterrupted: using evil devices, the father of lies disturbed him day and night with lewd thoughts and imaginations.

To win such battles, Anthony raised his thoughts to Our Lord and the nobility of the human soul created by God. In addition, he redoubled his faith, prayers, fasting and mortification, convinced that this was a never-ending struggle that he had to fight as long as he was on earth.

Alone in a Tomb

Always desirous of getting closer to God and of new battles against the evil one, Anthony decided to isolate himself in two unusual places.

First, he decided to live in a tomb located at the edge of the desert. Some authors say that it was an Egyptian tomb, noting that such places were thought to be the dwelling place of evil spirits.

Having advised a friend to bring him food periodically, he entered the tomb and closed it. The enemy, however, “fearing that the desert would soon become a city of ascetics, one night entered the tomb with a multitude of demons and struck it so hard that it lay flat on the ground.

The next day, his friend found him collapsed and, thinking him dead, took him to the village church.

However, when he regained consciousness, Anthony begged him to take him back to the tomb, where he remained alone. As the attack resumed, the evil spirits appeared to him in the form of ferocious animals: by divine permission, lions, bears, leopards, bulls, wolves, scorpions, and serpents tormented him by means of horrible noises and aggression. 

Anthony “groaned in physical pain, but remained vigilant in soul” and mocked his tormentors. Lifting his eyes, he saw the ceiling open and a light penetrating the room. The demons fled, and the saint felt comforted in his sorrow when he recognized Our Lord’s presence.

He then asked him why He had not come to his aid before, to which He replied, “I was here, Anthony. I was waiting to see you fight. Since you resisted and did not let yourself be defeated, I will always be your help, and I will make your name famous everywhere.”

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Such confrontations, far from shaking him, increased his desire to progress more and more on the path to perfection. With this in mind, he decided to enter the desert.

Life in the desert

Already at the beginning of his journey, the enemy wanted to tempt him by presenting him with gold and silver in the desert soil. Undeterred by this deception, Anthony proclaimed in a loud voice that nothing would be able to divert him from his purpose, and went on his way, full of contempt for Satan and trust in God.

At one point he spotted the ruins of an abandoned fort located near the Nile River, high on Mount Pispir, now known as Dayr al-Maymūn. Having established his new abode there, Anthony closed the entrance. He had taken with him some bread typical of the region, made to last for long months, and twice a year he received new provisions that were thrown over the wall. He did not allow anyone to enter.

Anthony spent about twenty years in this place, without ever leaving. Outside, you could hear the screams of the demons who tormented him, but he remained unmoved and continued to pray and practice his penances.

Teacher of the Monks and Consolation of the Afflicted

The life of Antony, famous for his sacrifices and renunciations, became known to many who, captivated by his reputation for holiness, came to him in the desert.

A small colony of ascetics began to form around Antony. Although they lived separately, they sought sanctification under the guidance of the holy hermit, who, abandoning his solitude, became their teacher and spiritual father.

Many others came to him for advice and to ask for his help in their difficulties.

The Emperor Constantine the Great even sent him a letter asking him how he should govern in the true Spirit of the Lord. The monk of the desert, after hearing the solemn reading of the missive, dictated a short answer: “Practice humility and despise the world, and remember that on Judgment Day you will have to account for all your actions.

Among the miracles attributed to him, it is said that during a trip with some disciples, Anthony made water appear in the middle of the desert to quench the thirst of all those who were about to die.

He also healed the sick, consoled the afflicted, reconciled enemies, and exorcised demons. He, who in isolation had overcome diabolical attacks, now freed many souls from the power of the tempter.

A few years passed, and Anthony yearned to resume his life of solitude… However, the former places he inhabited had been converted into small communities of disciples. As he was searching for a solution, he heard a voice say to him, “Go to the inner desert.”

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God then inspired him to follow a caravan of Saracens that was heading there. After three days of traveling, he saw a high mountain and recognized it as the place the Lord wanted: it was Mount Colzim, where he lived until the end of his days.

Called to Defend the True Faith

Years later, at the request of Patriarch Athanasius, Antony went to Alexandria again, but this time to defend the true Church against the poison of heresy.

It was Arianism, a false doctrine already condemned by the Council of Nicaea, which denied the divinity of the Word and threatened to spread throughout the Christian world. The monk in the desert, who in his mystical communications had contemplated the divinity of Our Lord, was the witness that Holy Church needed at this moment.

Soon after his arrival, Christians and heretics gathered in the city basilica to listen to him. As the Holy Patriarch began his speech in praise of the divine nature of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, a rebellious man rudely interrupted him with protests, claiming that the Lord was only a man created by God. When Antony heard what he was saying, he stood up and shouted in a loud voice, “I have seen Him!”

Such testimony, endowed with the timbre of truth, gripped those present. “More than the beautiful and logical doctrine expounded at the Council, the imposing voice of this man, for whom the truth of Christ’s divine nature had become almost self-evident by virtue of a supernatural vision, was the greatest blow that heresy received.”

Last Years

After exhorting God’s people to be faithful to the true religion and to fight heresies and their authors, the monk of the desert returned to his dwelling on Mount Colzim.

His last years were spent in meditation and asceticism. He grew wheat and baked his own bread. From time to time some disciples visited him, who also took care of bringing him food. He remained constant in a life of austerity, between penances and prayers, and in a growing mystical conviviality with God.

Near death, and over a hundred years old, Anthony was assisted by two disciples. According to tradition, he delivered his soul to God on January 17, the date on which the Church celebrates his memory.

May his example sustain all those who, in our days, wage even greater battles against the enemies of God and his Church, reminding them of the Savior’s unfailing promise: “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18).

Text adapted from the magazine Heralds of the Gospel n. 229, January 2021.

Compiled by Camille Mittermeier


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