Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers. This week I’m featuring Anthony the Great.
Abba Anthony, the “Father of the Monks,” was born of wealthy parentage around 251 AD. Around the age of eighteen, his parents had both died, when he heard the words of Christ in the Gospel of Matthew, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possession and give the money to the poor…then come, follow me.” He promptly took this instruction seriously, sold all he had, gave it away, and retired to seek Jesus in the solitude of the desert. After a number of years, men and women began seeking out his counsel, and as a result monastic communities sprung up around him. Around 305 AD he took the call to be a spiritual father seriously and returned from solitude in order to counsel those around him. He would spend the rest of his life alternating between these two roles, that of a the recluse seeking God in the silence of the desert, and that of the spiritual father, offering wisdom and guidance for those that came to him.
“Never prefer gain for yourself over that which is beneficial for your brother,” Saint Anthony the Great constantly used to say.”
Anthony’s life was marked by many supernatural experiences. It was said of him, when he came out of the desert, that he “came forth initiated in the mysteries and filled with the Spirit of God.” He was known as one that healed the sick and cast out demons. This statement sums up the personality of Anthony, “And He (the Lord) gave grace to Antony in speaking, so that he consoled many that were sorrowful, and set those at variance at one, exhorting all to prefer the love of Christ before all that is in the world.” Anthony’s reputation was to console the sorrowful, reconcile those at odds, and to exhort people to love Christ. He demonstrated this consistently throughout his life. Anthony was known to have prophetic insight and to know of events before they were to take place. It was said that he was “Spirit-borne,” carried along by the Holy Spirit, knowing what was happening in the world and what was going to happen. In our time we would most likely have called him a prophet, he had all the marks of one.
With one so marked by heavenly encounters, it would be easy to miss the simple nature of the man and the wisdom that he offered. He deferred to those who were more suited in giftedness than him as is evident in the life of Paul the Simple. When a man possessed by a demon was presented to Anthony, he recognized the limit of his giftedness and passed the man on to Paul the Simple, knowing Paul was better suited to the task.
Anthony was also concerned about the interior life of his followers:
“The brothers praised a monk before Abba Anthony. When the monk came to see him, Anthony wanted to know how he would bear insults; and seeing that he could not bear them at all, he said to him, ‘You are like a village magnificently decorated on the outside, but destroyed from within by robbers.'”
He praised those who humbled themselves:
“One day some old men came to see Abba Anthony. In the midst of them was Abba Joseph. Wanting to test them, the old man suggested a text from the Scriptures, and, beginning with the youngest, he asked them what it meant. Each gave his opinion as he was able. But to each one the old man said, ‘You have not understood it.’ Last of all he said to Abba Joseph, ‘How would you explain this saying?’ and he replied, ‘I do not know.’ Then Abba Anthony said, ‘Indeed, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he has said: “I do not know.’”
When a certain monk named Abba Elias was tempted and fell into sin, he was cast out of the monastery that he had joined. He left the monastery and found Abba Anthony. Anthony permitted him to live near him for a little while. After some time had passed, and Anthony was confident the brother was to be restored, he sent him back to the monastery. The monastery however would not receive him. Upon hearing this Anthony sent them a message saying, “A boat was shipwrecked at sea and lost its cargo; with great difficulty it reached the shore; but you want to throw into the sea that which has found a safe harbour on the shore.” When the monks in the monastery realized that Anthony was speaking of the brother who had fallen to temptation, they immediately received him.
Another time, a monk was falsely accused by some brothers of falling into sexual sin. The brothers and the monk came before Anthony, the monk defending himself, the brothers making their case against the man. Another wise father, Abba Paphnutios said in a moment of spiritual discernment, “I have seen a man on the bank of the river buried up to his knees in mud and some men came to give him a hand to help him out, but they pushed him further in up to his neck.” To which Anthony responded, “Here is a real man, who can care for souls and save them.” The men were pierced to the heart at the words of Paphnutios and the admonishment of Anthony and at once asked forgiveness of the brother and restored him to his place as a monk.
Later in his life he fought agaist Arianism, a theological viewpoint that said Christ was created by God and was therefore less than God. Two years before the Arian heresy took hold, Anthony saw a vision. He described it as such: ‘Wrath is about to seize the Church, and it is on the point of being given up to men who are like senseless beasts. For I saw the table of the Lord’s House, and mules standing around it on all sides in a ring, and kicking the things therein, just like a herd kicks when it leaps in confusion. And you saw,’ said he, ‘how I groaned, for I heard a voice saying, “My altar shall be defiled.” Two years later the Arian controversy began.
One lasting impact of Anthony’s life was seen through his disciple Athanasius, one of the primary defenders or Trinitarian doctrine. Anthony was instrumental in supporting those who defended Christian theology in the early church. Athanasius set out the Athanasian creed, and credits Anthony as an incredible influence on his life.
“…we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal.” (Excerpt from the Athanasian creed)
Lessons from his life
Anthony had absolute reverence for Christ. His love and amazement at this mystery of God came through in what was written about him. Once, after having received a letter written by Constantine and his sons imploring the great Anthony to pray for them, Anthony remarked to his disciples, “Do not wonder that the emperor writes to us, a man even as I am; rather be astounded that God should have written to us, and that He has spoken to us by His Son.”
He taught frequently the principle “that the knowledge of ourselves is the necessary and only step by which we can ascend to the knowledge and love of God.” This is echoed in the great prayer of St Augustine, “Know God, know thyself.” The true path to depth of intimacy with the Godhead is through the murky waters of each individual’s interior life. Coming face to face with our own inner depravity, finding rest and peace in God’s ultimate victory over our sinful state, and resting in the Divine embrace through contemplative union was the goal of Anthony’s spiritual life.
Anthony said of his prayer life that the light of the sun robbed him of the pure sense of the interior light of Christ. As such, he spent many nights deep in contemplative prayer, enjoying the darkness and solitude of night in his quest for intimate knowledge of our Lord and Savior.
Of interesting note, Anthony taught on the subject of a demonic network, explaining how the pagan spiritualists were able to know things before they happened:
“For what wonder is it, if with more subtle bodies than men have, when they have seen them start on their journey, they (the demons) surpass them in speed, and announce their coming? Just as a horseman getting a start of a man on foot announces the arrival of the latter beforehand, so in this there is no need for us to wonder at them. For they know none of those things which are not yet in existence; but God only is He who knows all things before their birth. But these, like thieves, running off first with what they see, proclaim it: to how many already have they announced our business— that we are assembled together, and discuss measures against them, before any one of us could go and tell these things.”
“For having seen that there has been much rain in the regions of Ethiopia, and knowing that they are the cause of the flood of the river before the water has come to Egypt they (the demons) run on and announce it. And this men could have told, if they had as great power of running as the demons.”
“Thus in days gone by arose the oracles of the Greeks, and thus they were led astray by the demons. But thus also thenceforth their deception was brought to an end by the coming of the Lord, who brought to nought the demons and their devices. For they know nothing of themselves, but, like thieves, what they get to know from others they pass on, and guess at rather than foretell things. Therefore if sometimes they speak the truth, let no one marvel at them for this. For experienced physicians also, since they see the same malady in different people, often foretell what it is, making it out by their acquaintance with it.”
A kind, humble, compassionate, and discerning man, Anthony left his mark on Christianity in the men and women he mentored and led, and in the movement that calls him the “first master of the desert and the pinnacle of holy monks.” He stood up for those who were falsely accused, he walked in great wisdom and encouraged many people towards deep intimacy with God, he influenced Christian theology and spirituality. He lived to be 105, passing away to be with the Lord in 356.
They said that a certain old man asked God to let him see the Fathers and he saw them all except Abba Anthony. So he asked his guide, ‘Where is Abba Anthony?’ He told him in reply that in the place where God is, there Anthony would be.
Such was his reputation, “Where God is, there Anthony would be.”