The Monk Anthony, a very great ascetic, the founder of wilderness-monastery life and as such the father of monasticism, is entitled “the Great” by Holy Church.
He was born in Egypt in the village of Coma, near the Thebaid wilderness, in the year 251. His parents were pious Christians of illustrious lineage. From his youth Anthony was always serious and given over to concentration. He loved to visit church services and he hearkened to the Holy Scripture with such deep attention that he remembered what he heard all his entire life. The commandments of the Lord guided him from the time of his very youth.
When Saint Anthony was about twenty years old, he lost his parents, but in his care remained his sister, a minor in age. Visiting the church services, the youth was pierced through by a reverent feeling towards those Christians who, as it relates in the Acts of the Apostles, sold off their possessions and the proceeds thereof they applied in following after the Apostles. He heard in church the Gospel passage of Christ, spoken to the rich young man: “If thou wouldst be perfect, sell what thou hast and give it to the poor; and thou wilt have treasure in heaven; and come follow after Me,” (Mt. 19:21). Anthony understood this as spoken to him personally. He sold off his property that remained to him after the death of his parents, he distributed the money to the poor, he left his sister in the care of pious virgins in a monastic setting, he left his parental home, and having settled not far from his village in a wretched hut, he began his ascetic life. He earned his livelihood by working with his hands, and alms also for the poor. Sometimes the holy youth also visited other ascetics living in the surrounding areas, and from each he sought to receive direction and benefit. And to a particular one of these ascetics he turned for guidance in the spiritual life.
In this period of his life the Monk Anthony was subjected to terrible temptations by the devil. The enemy of the race of man troubled the young ascetic with thoughts, and with doubts about his chosen path, with anguish over his sister, and he attempted to incline Anthony towards fleshly sin. But the monk preserved his firm faith, he incessantly made prayer and intensified his efforts. Anthony prayed that the Lord would point out to him the path of salvation. And he was granted a vision. The ascetic beheld a man, who by turns alternately finished a prayer, and then began to work – this was an Angel, which the Lord had sent to instruct His chosen one. The monk thereupon set up a strict schedule for his life. He partook of food only once in the entire day, and sometimes only once every second or third day; he spent all night at prayer, giving himself over to a short sleep only on the third or fourth night after unbroken vigil. But the devil would not desist with his tricks, and trying to scare the monk, he appeared under the guise of monstrous phantoms. The saint however with steadfast faith protected himself with the Life-Giving Cross. Finally the enemy appeared to him in the guise of a frightful looking youth, and hypocritically declaring himself beaten, he reckoned to sway the saint into vanity and pride. But the monk expelled the enemy with prayer.
For yet greater solitude, the saint re-settled farther away from the village, in a graveyard. On designated days his friend brought him a scant bit of food. And here the devils, pouncing upon the saint with the intent to kill him, inflicted upon him terrible beatings. But the Lord would not allow the death of Anthony. The friend of the saint, on schedule taking him his food, saw him as though dead laying upon the ground, and he took him away back to the village. They thought the saint was dead and began to prepare for his burial. But the monk in the deep of night regained consciousness and besought his friend to take him back to the graveyard. The staunchness of Saint Anthony was greater than the wile of the enemy. Taking the form of ferocious beasts, the devils again tried to force the saint to forsake the place chosen by him, but he again expelled them by the power of the Life-Giving Cross. The Lord strengthened the power of His saint: in the heat of the struggle with the dark powers the monk saw coming down to him from the sky a luminous ray of light, and he cried out: “Where hast Thou been, O Merciful Jesus? Why hast Thou not healed my wounds at the very start?” The Lord replied: “Anthony! I was here, but did wait, wanting to see thy valour; and now after this, since thou hast firmly withstood the struggle, I shalt always aid thee and glorify thee throughout all the world.” After this vision the Monk Anthony was healed of his wounds and ready for renewed efforts. He was then 35 years of age.
Having gained spiritual experience in the struggle with the devil, the Monk Anthony pondered going into the deeps of the Thebaid wilderness, and in full solitude there to serve the Lord by deed and by prayer. He besought the ascetic elder (to whom he had turned at the beginning of his monastic journey) to go off together with him into the wilderness, but the elder, while blessing him in the then as yet unheard of exploit of being suchlike an hermit, decided against accompanying him because of the infirmity of age. The Monk Anthony went off into the wilderness alone. The devil tried to stop him, throwing in front of the monk precious gems and stones, but the saint paid them no attention and passed them on by. Having reached a certain hilly spot, the monk caught sight of an abandoned enclosed structure and he settled within it, securing the entrance with stones. His faithful friend brought him bread twice a year, and water he had inside the enclosure. In complete silence the monk partook of the food brought him. The Monk Anthony dwelt for 20 years in complete isolation and incessant struggle with the devils, and he finally found tranquillity of spirit and peace in his mind. When it became appropriate, the Lord revealed to people about His great ascetic. The saint had to instruct many layfolk and monastics. The people gathering at the enclosure of the monk removed the stones sealing his entrance way, and they went to Saint Anthony and besought him to take them under his guidance. Soon the heights on which Saint Anthony asceticised was encircled by a whole belt of monastic communities, and the monk fondly directed their inhabitants, teaching about the spiritual life to everyone who came into the wilderness to be saved. He taught first of all the need to take up spiritual efforts, to unremittingly strive to please the Lord, to have a willing and unselfish attitude towards types of work shunned earlier. He urged them not to be afraid of demonic assaults and to repel the enemy by the power of the Life-Giving Cross of the Lord.
In the year 311 the Church was beset by a trial – a fierce persecution against Christians, set in motion by the emperor Maximian. Wanting to suffer together with the holy martyrs, the Monk Anthony left the wilderness and arrived in Alexandria. He openly rendered aid to the imprisoned martyrs, he was present at the trial and interrogations, but the torturers would not even bother with him. It pleased the Lord to preserve him for the benefit of Christians. With the close of the persecution, the monk returned to the wilderness and continued his exploits. The Lord bestowed upon His saint a gift of wonderworking: the monk cast out devils and healed the sick by the power of his prayer. The multitude of people coming to him disrupted his solitude, and the monk went off still farther, into the so-called “interior of the wilderness,” and he settled atop a high elevation. But the brethren of the wilderness monasteries searched out the monk and besought him at least often to pay visits to their communities.
Another time the Monk Anthony left the wilderness and arrived amidst the Christians in Alexandria, to defend the Orthodox faith against the Manichaean and Arian heresies. Knowing that the name of the Monk Anthony was venerated by all the Church, the Arians circulated a lie about him – that he allegedly adhered to their heretical teaching. But actually being present in Alexandria, the Monk Anthony in front of everyone and in the presence of the bishop openly denounced Arianism. During the time of his brief stay at Alexandria he converted to Christ a great multitude of pagans. Pagan philosophers came to the monk, wanting by their speculations to test his firm faith, but by his simple and convincing words he reduced them to silence. The Equal-to-the-Apostles emperor Constantine the Great (+337) and his sons deeply esteemed the Monk Anthony and besought him to visit them at the capital, but the monk did not want to forsake his wilderness brethren. In reply to the letter, he urged the emperor not to be overcome with pride by his lofty position, but rather to remember, that even over him was the Impartial Judge – the Lord God.
The Monk Anthony spent 85 years of his life in the solitary wilderness. Shortly before his death, the monk told the brethren that soon he would be taken from them. Time and again he instructed them to preserve the Orthodox faith in its purity, to shun any association with heretics, and not to weaken in their monastic efforts. “Strive the yet more to dwell ever in unity amongst ye, and most of all with the Lord, and then with the saints, so that upon death they should bring ye into eternity by their blood, as friends and acquaintances,” thus were the death-bed words of the monk passed on in his Vita (Life). The monk bid two of his disciples, who had been together with him the final 15 years of his life, to bury him in the wilderness and not arrange any solemn burial of his remains in Alexandria. Of his two monastic mantles, the monk left one to Sainted Athanasius of Alexandria, the other to Sainted Serapion of Tmunta. The Monk Anthony died peacefully in the year 356, at age 105, and he was buried by his disciples at a treasured spot glorified by him in the wilderness.
The Vita (Life) of the famed ascetic the Monk Anthony the Great was written in detail by a father of the Church, Saint Athanasius of Alexandria. This work of Saint Athanasius is the first memorial of Orthodox hagiography, and is considered one of the finest of his writings. Saint John Chrysostom says that this Vita should be read by every Christian. “These narratives be significantly small in comparison with the virtues of Anthony,” writes Saint Athanasius, “but from them ye can conclude, what the man of God Anthony was like. From his youth into his mature years observing an equal zeal for asceticism, not being seduced by the avenues of filth, and not as regards infirmity of body altering his garb, nor the any worse for it in suffering harm. His eyes were healthy and unfailing and he saw well. Not one tooth fell out for him, and they only weakened at the gums from the advanced years of age. He was healthy of hand and of foot. And what they said about him everywhere, all being amazed at him, whereof even those that did not see him loved him – this serves as evidence of his virtue and love for God in soul.”
Of the works of the Monk Anthony himself, there have come down to us: 1) his Discourses, 20 in number, treating of the virtues, primarily monastic, 2) Seven Letters to monasteries – about striving for moral perfection and regarding the spiritual struggle, and 3) a Rule of life and consolation for monastics.
In the year 544 the relics of the Monk Anthony the great were transferred from the wilderness to Alexandria, and later on with the conquest of Egypt by the Saracens in the seventh century, they were transferred to Constantinople. The holy relics were transferred from Constantinople in the tenth-eleventh centuries to a diocese outside Vienna, and in the fifteenth century to Arles (in France), into the church of Saint Julian.