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Anthony the Great

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Saint Anthony the Great, Father of all Monks
Saint Anthony the Great (251 - 356), Christian saint, also known as Saint Anthony of Egypt, Saint Anthony of the Desert, Saint Anthony Abbot, Saint Anthony the Anchorite, and given the name The Father of All Monks was a leader among the Desert Fathers, who were Christian monks in the Egyptian desert in the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D. He is probably the most famous and well known of the ascetics and was an inspiration to the formation of the first Christian monasteries.

His feast day is celebrated on January 17th in some churches, but celebrated on Tobi 22 (January 31) in the Coptic Orthodox Church to which he belongs.

The Legend of Saint Anthony

He was born near Heraclea in Upper Egypt in 251 to rich parents who loved the church and the poor. When he was twenty years old, his parents departed, and he had to take care of his sister. In 285, he entered the church one day and heard the words of the Christ in the Gospel, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven; and come, follow Me." (Matthew 19:21) He returned to his house, and decided to fulfill this commandment, as he considered it to be directed to him personally. He gave his wealth to the poor and needy, and he took his sister and placed her with some virgins.

At that time, monasticism had not yet been established. All those who wanted to live a solitary life went and lived on the outskirts of cities. This was what Saint Anthony did as he dwelt alone, worshipping and living an ascetic life.

According to his biographer Saint Athanasius the Apostolic, the devil fought him by afflicting him with boredom, laziness, and hallucinations of women and demons. He overcame the devil's snares by the power of prayer. After that, he went to one of the tombs, and he resided therein and closed the door on himself. Some of his friends used to bring him food. When the devil perceived his ascetic life and his intense worship, he was envious of him, and he beat him mercilessly, then left him unconscious. When his friends came to visit him and found him in this condition, they carried him to the church. After he somewhat recovered, he went back to the same place. The devil again resumed his war against Saint Anthony, only this time the phantoms were in the form of wild beasts, wolves, lions, snakes and scorpions. They appeared as if they were about to attack him or cut him into pieces. But the Saint would laugh at them scornfully and say, "If any of you have any authority over me, only one would have been sufficient to fight me." At his saying this, they disappeared as though in smoke, and God gave him the victory over the devils. He was always singing this psalm, "Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered; let those also who hate Him flee before Him." (Psalm 68:1)

Saint Anthony would prepare a quantity of bread that would sustain him for six months. He did not allow anyone to enter his cell, and whoever came to him, stood outside and listened to his advice. He continued in this condition of solitary worship for 20 years in an abandoned Roman fort in a distant part of the Sahara Desert.

Then by God's command, he emerged, with the help of villagers to break down the door. By this time most had expected him to have wasted away, or gone insane in his solitary confinement, but he emerged healthy, serene, enlightened and seemingly otherworldy. Everyone was amazed he had been through these trials and emerged spirtially rejuvinated. He was hailed as a hero and from this time forth the legend of Anthony began to spread and grow. He next went to Efiom (today Al Fayyum) and confirmed the brethren there in the Christian faith, then returned to his refuge. During the time of persecution, he longed to become a martyr. He left his refuge and went to Alexandria. He visited those who were imprisoned for the sake of Christ and comforted them. When the Governor saw that he was confessing his Christianity publicly, not caring what might happen to him, he ordered him not to show up in the city. However, the Saint did not heed his threats. He faced him and argued with him in order that he might arouse his anger so that he might be tortured and martyred. But God preserved him all along, according to His will, for the benefit of many, and so the Governor left him alone.

Then the Saint went back to his refuge according to God's will, and many came to visit him and to hear his teachings. He saw that these visits kept him away from his worship. As a result, he went far away to the Eastern Desert. He travelled to the inner wilderness for three days, until he found a spring of water and some palm trees, and then he chose to settle there. On this spot now stands the monastery of Saint Anthony the Great. The Lord drove away all the wild beasts from this place, for his sake. On occasions, he would go to the monastery on the outskirts of the desert by the Nile to visit the brethren, then return to his inner refuge.

The fame of Saint Anthony spread abroad and reached Emperor Constantine. The Emperor wrote to him, offering him praise and asked him to pray for him. The brethren were pleased with the Emperor's letter, but Saint Anthony did not pay any attention to it, and he said to them, "The books of God, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, commands us everyday, but we do not heed what they tell us, and we turn our backs on them." Under the persistence of the brethren who told him, "Emperor Constantine loves the church," he accepted to write him a letter blessing him, and praying for the peace and safety of the empire and the church.

One day, Saint Anthony was bored, and he heard a voice telling him, "Go out and see." He went out and saw an angel who wore a girdle with a cross, one resembling the holy Eskiem, and on his head was a head cover (Kolansowa). He was sitting while braiding palm leaves, then he stood up to pray, and again he sat to weave. A voice came to him saying, "Anthony, do this and you will rest." Henceforth, he started to wear this tunic that he saw, and began to weave palm leaves, and never got bored again. Saint Anthony prophesied about the persecution that was about to happen to the church and the control of the heretics over it, the church victory and its return to its former glory, and the end of the age. When Saint Macarius visited Saint Anthony, Saint Anthony clothed him with the monk's garb, and foretold him what would be of him. When the day of the departure of Saint Paul the Anchorite, the First Hermit in the desert, drew near, Saint Anthony went to him. Saint Anthony buried Saint Paul the Anchorite after he had clothed him in a tunic which was a present from St Athanasius the Apostolic, the 20th Pope of Alexandria.

When Saint Anthony felt that the day of his departure had approached, he commanded his disciples to give his staff to Saint Macarius, and to give one sheepskin cloak to Saint Athanasius and the other sheepskin cloak to Saint Serapion, his disciple. He further instructed his disciples to bury his body in an unmarked, secret grave, lest his body become an object of veneration. He stretched himself on the ground and gave up his spirit.

Saint Anthony the Great probably lived about 105 years and died in the year 356. Probably he spoke only his native language, Coptic, but his sayings were spread in a Greek translation. He himself left no writings. His biography was written by Saint Athanasius the Apostolic and titled Life of Saint Anthony the Great. Many stories are also told about him in various collections of sayings of the Desert Fathers.

Some of the stories included in Saint Anthony's biography are perpetuated now mostly in paintings, where they give an opportunity for artists to depict their more lurid or bizarre fantasies. Many pictorial artists, from Hieronymus Bosch to Salvador DalÝ, have depicted these incidents from the life of Anthony; in prose, the tale was retold and embellished by Gustave Flaubert.

Not to be confused with Anthony of Padua (1195-1231).

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