January 16, 2017

Saint Anthony of Egypt, Abbot, "Father of All Monks"

Saint Anthony of Egypt
Saint Anthony [of Egypt], Fra Angelico, 1436.

January 17th, is the memorial of Saint Anthony of Egypt (c 251-356), also known as St. Anthony the Great, Anthony of the Desert, or Anthony the Anchorite. the 4th century hermit, abbot and Desert Father credited as the father of Christian monasticism. While not the first ascetic, he did inspire a new ideal; achieving spiritual growth by practicing extreme self-denial in the desert. His life of prayer and mortification in imitation of our Lord exercised a profound influence upon proceeding generations. He is venerated in both the Eastern and Western Church, especially amongst Egypt's Coptic Christians, whose language (Coptic) he spoke.

Anthony was born in Coma, Egypt (near Cairo) in 251 to a wealthy family. At the age of 20, his parents died, leaving him with the care of his unmarried sister. Following their untimely deaths, Anthony dedicated himself to studying Scripture and discerning God’s will. One day at Mass, he heard these words from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 19: "If you wish 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." Anthony said later, it seemed as if Christ was speaking to him personally.

In response, Anthony obeyed the Savior's command to the letter. Placing his sister in the care of religious women, he gave his inheritance to the needy, and lived in the desert as a hermit. For 15 years, he residing in a tomb near the village of Coma where he was attacked by demons who tempted with impure desires. Eventually, seeking greater solitude, he withdrew to the mountain called Pispir (present day Der el Memun), and continued his practice of rigid self-denial. During this time, he interacted with no one except for a handful of his disciples.

In letters to his followers, St. Anthony explained his reason for rejecting worldly comforts: "Let us not think as we look at the world that we have renounced anything of much consequence for the whole earth is very small compared with heaven. Therefore, let the desire of possession take hold of no one. For what gain is it to acquire those things which we cannot take with us afterwards when we die we shall leave them behind very often to those to whom we do not wish. Why not, rather, get those things which we can take with us; prudence, justice, temperance, courage, under-standing, love, kindness to the poor, faith in Christ, freedom from wrath, hospitality. If we possess these, we shall find that they will prepare for us a welcome there in the land of the weak-hearted."

In 305, Anthony ended his self imposed solitude to shepherd the community of hermits that had grown around him. His decision to be a spiritual father, or "Abbot" was the beginning of Christian monasticism. In 311, he journeyed to Alexandria to help oppose the Arian heresy. The rest of his life was divided between prayer, manual work and the instruction of his fellow ascetics. Popular piety attests he lived to be 105 years old. Anthony requested that he be buried secretly in an unmarked grave. Almighty God, who brought the Abbot Saint Anthony to serve you by a wondrous way of life in the desert, grant, through his intercession, that, denying ourselves, we may always love you above all things.

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