Anthony of the Desert and the Invitation to Sanctity

Anthony Abbot, Anthony the Great, Anthony of the Desert, Anthony of Egypt: Whatever you call him, his legacy is enormous. Born in Egypt nearly two centuries after the resurrection, he became the Father of Western Monasticism, and established a way of holy living for monks, abbots, contemplatives and saints of all kinds. 

Anthony was from a moderately wealthy background, orphaned as a young man and forced to put all of his trust in God as he faced life alone as the caretaker of his sister. 

Importantly, Anthony shows how much the Church needs not just saints, but popular saints.

It didn’t take long for the Church to understand that the lives of committed Christian men and women uniquely capture the imagination of the faithful. After all, the Gospel stories about Jesus in the New Testament are immediately followed by stories of the early saints in the Acts of the Apostles. Popular saints continued to lead the Church in the centuries afterward. An early example might be when St. Anthony of Egypt (251-356) helped the Bishop of Alexandria in his fight against the heresy of Arius (256–336).

Arius claimed that Jesus was not co-equal with God the Father and his false doctrine spread like wildfire through the early Church. The works of St. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, refuted Arius — but his most effective blow against the heresy came, not from these books, but from a biography. Athanasius’s book The Life of St. Anthony was the bestseller of early Christian literature, “going viral” as it was translated into several languages, spreading far and wide.

It’s not hard to see why. The story reads like a superhero saga, with Anthony fighting epic battles with Satan and gaining remarkable victories. In his Confessions, St. Augustine describes how two officials he knew read the book and were moved immediately to become Christians. 

This is exactly the kind of reaction Athanasius hoped for the book. “I feel that, once you have heard the story, you will not merely admire the man but will wish to emulate his commitment as well,” he writes in an early chapter.

People were captivated by the story of God calling St. Anthony in the middle of his ordinary circumstances.

The story begins when Anthony was orphaned as a young man and was left in charge of his sister. 

“Now it was not six months after the death of his parents, and going according to custom into the Lord’s House,” Athanasius recounts, “he communed with himself and reflected as he walked about how the Apostles left all and followed the savior.”

As he was thinking these things, he entered the Church and heard the Gospel story of the Rich Young Man.

In the story, Jesus tells his would-be follower, “If you would be perfect, go and sell what you have and give to the poor; and come, follow me and you shall have treasure in heaven.” 

Anthony experienced the words as a personal invitation from God, and responded by distributing his property, finding a new caretaker for his sister, and going out into the desert to live in a cave and battle with the devil through fasting and prayer.

Anthony’s life shows how attractive fidelity to Christ is.

As Anthony lived alone in the desert, a strange thing began to happen.

First, pilgrims began to visit him and bring him their sufferings. “Anthony healed not by commanding, but by prayer and speaking the name of Christ,” wrote Athanasius, “so that it was clear to all that it was not he himself who worked, but the Lord who showed mercy by his means and healed the sufferers.”

Anthony tried his best to avoid people in the desert, “rejoicing in the contemplation of divine things, but grieving when troubled by much people.” But soon, other hermits began to gather with him and, almost unwittingly, he became an abbot.

“By frequent conversation he increased the eagerness of those already monks, stirred up in most of the rest the love of the discipline,” writes Athanasius, “and speedily by the attraction of his words cells multiplied, and he directed them all as a father.”

In a time before mass communication, people came from far away to visit Anthony, and Athanasius thinks he knows why. “For from whence into Spain and into Gaul, how into Rome and Africa, was the man heard of who dwelt hidden in a mountain, unless it was God who makes his own known everywhere?”

Athanasius says of saints, “Even if they work secretly, even if they wish to remain in obscurity, yet the Lord shows them as lamps to lighten all, that those who hear may thus know that the precepts of God are able to make men prosper and thus be zealous in the path of virtue.”

St. Anthony of Egypt’s life inspire people to say “I can do that, too.” In each age, saints tell the true story of the Church and ask: Will you join them?

Image: Saint Anthony, Master of the
Osservanza, 15th century, wiki-media.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.