Saint Antony’s Day is observed by some churches on January 17, in honour of St Antony (St Anthony) who died in 356AD.
It was St Athanasius (295-373) who wrote the biography of this ‘founder of Christian monasticism’. Anthony was born in 251AD at Coma, near Heracleopolis Magna in Fayum, Egypt, to a prosperous family. When he was 20 his parents died, leaving him their considerable wealth. Upon hearing a sermon on Christ’s words, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell all thou hast” that he took the message as a person injunction and did exactly that.
In devoting himself to the practice of religion he adopted a hermit-like existence. Initially he copied the practice of those who lived austere lives of self-denial, either at home or in basic dwellings on the edge of their town. Anthony studied the other ascetics to copy their lifestyle.
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Then he decided to move into a tomb near his native village. In that place he endured many encounters with demons in the form of strange animals, which inflicted injuries onto him and almost took his life.
After 15 years of living in a tomb (“fighting off demons and wild beasts”), aged 35, he crossed the Nile and moved to an abandoned fort – “and for 20 years saw not another living person”. Food was thrown to him over the wall, so he would not see the face of another man.
Then his fame began to spread, since such a lifestyle was regarded as a sign of holiness! Disciples began to gather around him, even though he refused to see them. He finally gave in to their cry for his leadership and so, for the last 45 years of his life he organised and taught his followers. And thus, Monasticism was born.
When Antony emerged form his self-inflicted solitary confinement people were surprised that he was not emaciated, but vigorous in body and mind.
After a few years he sought solitude again, establishing a monastery, named Der Mar Antonios, between the Nile and the Red Sea. He readily accepted visitors, but sought to maintain a withdrawn life.
However he did travel to the cities at times, including in 311, to strengthen the Christian martyrs in Alexandria. He sought martyrdom during this period of persecution in Alexandria, but no-one was brave enough to slay this ‘holy’ man. So he went back to his desert … and demons … and disciples, where he died at the age of 105.
In his constant spiritual warfare with demons he tells of encounters with “a strange creature, half horse, half man” and “a little man with horns on his head and goat’s feet,” to mention but a few.
Such claims, though fanciful to some, are given currency by the testimony of Anthony’s life. He was a man of high character and even temper, not given to wild eccentricities, apart from his asceticism.
Records of his life reveal that he had a commanding personality and high character.
Newman, in his “Church of the Fathers” says of Anthony, “His doctrine surely was pure and unimpeachable; and his temper is high and heavenly, without cowardice, without gloom, without formality, without self-complacency. ….. being full of confidence, divine peace, cheerfulness, and valorousness”. Anthony displayed enthusiasm but he was neither fanatical nor morose. Moderation and discretion were virtues he esteemed.
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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com