Anthony, the spiritual father of some of the greatest figures of early Christian North Africa, was the barely literate son of a prosperous Egyptian village merchant. The religious tutor of such leading personalities as Athanasius, Jerome, Basil, and Augustine of Hippo, as an orphan of twenty, he was struck by the biblical admonition, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell all that thou hast.” This is what Anthony did, living from simple gardening and the charity of others for the rest of his life.
Anthony began his new life by moving to an ancient Egyptian tomb not far from his village, where he lived for several years, prayed intensely, and fasted. In addition to welcoming visions of angels, he wrestled with powerful demons that, following an attack, left him for dead. Athanasius, responsible for the Creed that bears his name and Anthony’s first biographer, wrote:
All at once the place was filled with the phantoms of lions, bears, leopards, bulls, serpents, asps, scorpions, and wolves. And each moved according to the shape it had assumed …. And the noises emitted simultaneously by all the apparitions were frightful and the fury shown was fierce …. Anthony, pummeled and goaded by them, made bold to say, “Do not delay! Up and at me! If you cannot attack, why excite yourself to no purpose?” So, after trying many ruses, they gnashed their teeth, because they were only fooling themselves and not him.
In about 294 A.D. Anthony, after having made sure things were running well in the monastery he had established, headed east toward the Red Sea to a desolate place near a spring of fresh water, where he established a new hermitage. Passing caravans and shepherds left him gifts of dates, bread, and, delicacy of delicacies, packets of onions. There may have been as many as ten thousand monks and twice that number of nuns living in the desert in Anthony’s time. The desert, it must be emphasized, was not the empty place of a Clint Eastwood film. Its trade routes were numerous, and its oases were well known.
Soon fame of Anthony’s teachings spread; the distant Emperor Constantine asked for his prayers, and there are early records of people renting camels to make the long trip to his hermitage. Wild animals were his constant companions. A charming story recounts Anthony’s relationship with the animals in an era when bearbaiting and torturing of animals was a widespread form of entertainment:
At first wild animals in the desert coming for water often would damage the beds in his garden. But he caught one of the animals, held it gently, and said to them all: “Why do you harm me when I harm none of you? Go away, and in the Lord’s name do not come near these things again.” And ever afterwards, as though awed by his orders, they did not come near the place.
Such tales of monks’ encounters with animals were numerous: an aging monk fed a starving lion with dates, another shared his evening meal regularly with a she-wolf, still another taught an ibex, a desert antelope, which plants to eat and which to avoid.
Before he died, at the venerable age of 105, Anthony gave away his few earthly possessions: his hair shirt, which he wore as a means of constant mortification of the flesh, an old cloak, and the two sheepskins on which he slept or which he used for covering at night. He wrote, “So farewell, ye that are my heartstrings, for Anthony is going and will not be with you in this world any more” and asked his two closest followers to “shelter in the ground, hide in the earth the body of your father. And please do your old friend’s bidding in this also: that none but you only shall know the place of his grave.”
* Anthony of the desert, the desolate places sprang to life, and beauty appeared in the barren landscape; wild creatures sought your presence, and you welcomed them. So might we follow you and Christ to the desert places and find them a source of life. Amen. *
James Wellard, Desert Pilgrimage (London: Hutchinson of London, 1970), 77. See also Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
This article is reproduced, with permission, from African Saints: Saints, Martyrs, and Holy People from the Continent of Africa, copyright © 2002 by Frederick Quinn, Crossroads Publishing Company, New York, New York. All rights reserved.
Encyclopaedia Britannica (complete article): Saint Anthony of Egypt