Father of the Monks
Saint Anthony was the first Christian to live a life of consecrated solitude.
As a hermit in the desert he lived a long and saintly life that influenced
countless people both in his time and for generations thereafter, even to this
His life had a tremendous impact on the history of early Christianity, which is
the basic history of all Christian churches all over the world.
The story of his life was written by one of Christianity’s most renowned
leaders, Saint Athanasius the Apostolic who was his disciple and had a very
close relationship with him.
Saint Anthony is generally considered to be the father of the monastic family.
He was born about 251 A.D. of well-to-do parents in Coma (Kemn-el-Arouse) in
the middle of Egypt.
When he was eighteen years of age his parents died, leaving him guardian of his
younger and only sister, Dious. Six months later Anthony entered the church to
hear the Gospel, in which our Lord speaks to the rich young man, “If you would
be perfect, go sell all you have, give to the poor and come follow me.”
He took this advice as a personal invitation addressed to him by God. He sold
about 300 acres of fertile land, gave most of the money to the poor keeping
only a little for his sister. Then he placed his sister in the charge of a
community of virgins. He was now free to devote his life to asceticism under
the guidance of a holy man living near Coma. This was the custom of young
ascetics to stay under a master in order to learn the principles of
spirituality, prayer and fasting.
After a while, Saint Anthony left on his own for the western desert. He took
shelter in an abandoned tomb carved in the side of a mountain. A good friend
used to bring him bread and water from time to time. In his solitude he was
fighting off the temptations of the flesh and attacks of demons.
He was about thirty-five years old when he left his retreat to move to the east
bank of the Nile to the “Outer Mountain” at Pispir (Vista) where he lived in
complete solitude. After twenty years, his reputation attracted many followers
who settled near him, and wished to copy his holy life. Saint Anthony became
their spiritual leader, teaching them constantly by word and by example the
ascetic life. Five years later, he again retired into solitude in the “Inner
Mountain” (Mount Qolozum).
As Saint Anthony lived in solitude, he was tempted by boredom and
discouragement. His soul fell into such weariness and confusion of thought
that he began saying, “Lord, I want to be saved but these bad thoughts do not
leave me alone; what shall I do? How can I be saved?”
After a little while, he began to walk in the open and saw someone as if it was
himself, sitting and working – making mats of palm leaves – and then rising to
pray. This was an angel sent by the Lord to teach Anthony how to live in the
desert. The angel repeated what he was doing several times until Anthony
understood that he had to combine manual work and prayer in order to overcome
Living in solitude (anchoritism) made Saint Anthony a spiritual father beyond
all others. He escaped from cares of the world but not from the love for his
brothers. Thus he was obliged to visit Alexandria during the persecution
against the Christians, engineered by Maximin Daja in 316. He spent his time
ministering to the oppressed and afflicted in prisons. When the persecution
ended, he returned to his cell to be a daily martyr of his conscience, fighting
always the battles of the faith.
Once again, he visited Alexandria to support Pope Athanasius against the heresy
of Arius in 352. Pagans and Christians alike rushed out to greet the holy old
man, but he soon returned to the desert, for he felt like a fish out of the
Saint Anthony founded no monastery. His rule consisted simply of prayers and
manual work. He told his disciples that just as Christ was a carpenter and Paul
was a tent maker, they also had to keep their hands busy to escape temptations.
He also assigned a uniform to the monks. This was a garb of white linen
reaching below the knees. A wide thick belt of leather helped the monk to keep
erect. This pattern is seen today in many monastic orders all over the world.
From every part of the world, people came to him, even to the innermost part of
the desert, seeking cures of the body, mind, and soul; and as they did at
Pispir, monks came to him for his sympathy and practical advice.
Once Saint Athanasius had invited Anthony to Alexandria and they were joined by
Didymus, a man of great learning who had lost his eyesight. The conversation
turned to the Holy Scriptures, and Anthony could not help admiring the blind
man’s ability and praised his insight. The he said, “You do not regret the loss
of your eyes, do you?” At first Didymus was reluctant to answer, but when the
question was repeated, he frankly admitted that his blindness was a great grief
to him. Whereupon, Anthony said, “I am surprised that a wise man like you
should grief at the loss of a physical organ which he shares with everyone, and
not rejoice rather in having the gift which only saints and apostles have been
In 356 A.D., Saint Anthony died at the age of one hundred and five, but his
place of burial was never revealed by the two monks, Marcarius and Amatas, who
His monastery produced many great saints including Saint Hilarion of Gaza,
Saint Macarius of Scete, Saint Amoun of Nitria and Saint Paul the Simple.
Intimacy with God made Saint Anthony as tenderhearted as the Master he served.
Consequently, his influence extended beyond his lifetime, and the Universal
Church still reveres him as one of the great saints.
His life was written by Saint Athanasius while he was in Rome, and it was very
influential in spreading the ideas of monasticism throughout the Christian
world. According to Saint Athanasius, Saint Anthony was a man of “divine
wisdom” and of grace, although he never learned to read or write.
May the prayers and supplications of this great Saint Anthony, the Father of the Monks, be with us. Amen.