The Catholic Defender: Saint Anthony of Egypt
Anthony was born around 251, to wealthy parents who owned land in the present-day Faiyum region near Cairo.
During this time, the Catholic Church was rapidly spreading its influence throughout the vast expanses of the Roman empire, while the empire remained officially pagan and did not legally recognize the new religion.
Around the year 270, two great burdens came upon Anthony simultaneously: the deaths of both his parents, and his inheritance of their possessions and property.
These simultaneous occurrences prompted Anthony to reevaluate his entire life in light of the principles of the Gospel– which proposed both the redemptive possibilities of his personal loss, and the spiritual danger of his financial gains.
A disciple of St. Paul of Thebes, Anthony began to practice an ascetic life at the age of 20 and after 15 years withdrew for absolute solitude to a mountain by the Nile where he lived from about 286 to 305.
Accordingly, with some of his family's wealth, he made arrangements for his younger sister to be cared for by a group of women who had made perpetual vows of chastity. Then, he sold the rest of his land and possessions and distributed the proceeds among the poor.
Attending church one day, he heard –as if for the first time– Jesus' exhortation to another rich young man in the Biblical narrative: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Anthony told his disciples in later years, that it was as though Christ has spoken those words to him directly.
During the course of this retreat, he began his legendary combat against the Devil, withstanding a series of temptations famous in Christian theology and iconography. About 305 he emerged from his retreat to instruct and organize the monastic life of the hermits who imitated him and who had established themselves nearby.
When he was around 33 years old, a group of his patrons found him in serious condition, and took him back to a local church to recover.
The life of Anthony will remind many people of Saint Francis of Assisi. At 20, Anthony was so moved by the Gospel message, “Go, sell what you have, and give to [the] poor” (Mark 10:21b), that he actually did just that with his large inheritance.
He is different from Francis in that most of Anthony’s life was spent in solitude. He saw the world completely covered with snares, and gave the Church and the world the witness of solitary asceticism, great personal mortification and prayer.
But no saint is antisocial, and Anthony drew many people to himself for spiritual healing and guidance.
At 54, he responded to many requests and founded a sort of monastery of scattered cells. Again, like Francis, he had great fear of “stately buildings and well-laden tables.”
At 60, he hoped to be a martyr in the renewed Roman persecution of 311, fearlessly exposing himself to danger while giving moral and material support to those in prison.
At 88, he was fighting the Arian heresy, that massive trauma from which it took the Church centuries to recover. “The mule kicking over the altar” denied the divinity of Christ.
The early monks who followed Anthony into the desert considered themselves the vanguard of God’s army, and, by fasting and performing other ascetic practices, they attempted to attain the same state of spiritual purity and freedom from temptation that they saw realized in Anthony. Anthony’s spiritual combats with what he envisioned as the forces of evil made his life one long struggle against the Devil.
According to St. Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, the Devil’s assault on Anthony took the form of visions, either seductive or horrible, experienced by the saint. For example, at times the Devil appeared in the guise of a monk bringing bread during his fasts or in the form of wild beasts, women, or soldiers, sometimes beating the saint and leaving him in a deathly state.
Anthony endured many such attacks, and those who witnessed them were convinced they were real. Every vision conjured up by Satan was repelled by Anthony’s fervid prayer and penitential acts. So exotic were the visions and so steadfast was Anthony’s endurance that the subject of his temptations
“Do not be astonished if an emperor writes to us, for he is a man,” Anthony told the other monks. “But rather: wonder that God wrote the Law for men, and has spoken to us through his own Son.”
Anthony wrote back to Constantine, advising him “not to think much of the present, but rather to remember the judgment that is coming, and to know that Christ alone was the true and Eternal King.”
Anthony is credited with assisting in a number of miraculous healings, primarily from ergotism, which became known as "St.Anthony's Fire". He was credited by two local noblemen of assisting them in recovery from the disease.
Anthony is associated in art with a T-shaped cross, a pig and a book. The pig and the cross are symbols of his valiant warfare with the devil—the cross his constant means of power over evil spirits, the pig a symbol of the devil himself.
St. Anthony may have been up to 105 years old when he died, sometime between 350 and 356. In keeping with his instructions, two of his disciples buried his body secretly in an unmarked grave.