The Communion of Saints: St. Anthony of the Desert

st-anthony-the-greatToday’s saint is St. Anthony the Great/of Egypt/of the Desert/the Abbot.  No, this isn’t the St. Anthony you pray to in order to find your lost remote control.  If anything, I guess St. Anthony would be the one you pray to in order to become lost – lost in the love of Christ.

St. Anthony of the Desert was one of the most influential men in the early Church, but not for the typical reasons.  He wasn’t a great writer, a great speaker, or a martyr – he was the greatest of the Desert Fathers, a movement of people who sought solitude from the busy and corrupt life of the world to embrace simplicity and prayer.  Today, we would call this movement “monasticism” – monos is the Greek word for “alone.”  St. Anthony was far from alone; he just sought different company.

Most of what we know about St. Anthony comes from The Life of Anthony, a biography written by St. Athanasius, who knew and followed Anthony himself.  Anthony was born in Lower Egypt in 251 to wealthy landowners.  He was born and raised a Christian.  His parents died at an early age, and left him the wealth of the family, along with custody of his sister.

One day during Mass in 313, Anthony heard the famous quote of Christ speaking to the rich young man in the Gospel of Matthew: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The young man in the story turned away sad, but Anthony felt compelled to take his place and do as Christ asked. He gave away part of the family estate and sold the remaining 207 acres, donating the funds to his sister and to care for the poor.  He entrusted his sister to a community of Christian women, and went off to follow Christ in the solitude of the Nitrian Desert, where he spent the remainder of his life. Anthony wandered the deserts, living in an abandoned Egyptian fortress, absorbed in prayer and entirely dependent on God.  He spent his days practicing discipline (imagine a life-long Lent!), and with fasting and purity of heart, he faced his temptations.

Even though he longed to be alone, such an extreme example of asceticism, prayer, and dependence on God attracted a lot of followers.  People followed him out into the desert for a number of reasons. Some came to ask him questions and seek spiritual counsel.  Some sought to follow his example, and he encouraged others to form supportive monastic communities. Some travelled all the way out into the desert just to argue with him about the faith.  At one point, a group bishops even journeyed into the desert to summon him to the Council of Nicaea in 325 to give witness to his faith and inspire the Church.

St. Anthony, in drawing so close to Christ in solitude, chose to leave his earthly life the same way. He wanted to die alone – not out of a loneliness or depression, but to be in his uniquely intimate relationship with the one who created him.  Two other monks, Macarius and Amatas, were helping to take care of him by this point, and Anthony left what few belongings he had to them and his followers. He then gave them a blessing, they left him, and he died in 356 at the age of 105.

The truth is, not all of us are called to be monks – some are, but not all.  Still, there is something admirable and inspiring about St. Anthony’s radical dedication to prayer and love of Christ.

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