Who was Anthony the Great?
Anthony the Great or Saint Anthony was a Christian monk who has been revered as a saint since his death. He was from Egypt. Owing to his importance in Christian monasticism, he is often referred to as the Father of All Monks. He was a disciple of St. Paul of Thebes and his teachings are considered to be among the first attempts to generate guidelines on how to live as an ascetic. In fact, many people went on to follow him and lived close to him, a phenomenon that came to be popularly known as “populating the desert.” Anthony began to practice an ascetic lifestyle at the young age of 20. He went on to live alone after 15 years, thereby embracing complete solitude in the mountains. His biography was first written by bishop Athanasius of Alexandria. This biography helped in spreading Christian monasticism in Western Europe through its Latin versions. Anthony’s feast day is celebrated on 17th January in both Catholic and Orthodox churches. He is still revered in many parts of the world. People pray to him for relief from infectious skin diseases.
Childhood & Early Life
Anthony was born in Coma, Egypt, on 12th January 251, to a wealthy family of landowners. He had a sister. As a child, Anthony was very obedient and serious. He loved to attend church services every time and even listened to the Holy Scriptures attentively.
His parents died when he was 20 years old, leaving behind a lot of wealth and an unmarried sister for him to look after. After hearing a gospel message that highlighted the importance of charity during one of his church visits, he went on to donate all his possessions to the poor and left his sister under the care of the church.
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Life As a Hermit
It is believed that Anthony did not move out of his native village for the next 15 years till 286. He spent his initial years as a disciple to a local hermit and worked as a swineherd during this period.
Eventually, he left for Nitrian Desert which became his home for the next 13 years. This place, which was nearly 95 km away from Alexandria, is the home of the famous monasteries of Nitria, Kellia and Scetis. During this phase, he was on a strict ascetic diet and ate only a limited amount of bread, salt, and water, and never touched meat or alcohol.
In 284, he moved to one of the tombs that were near his village and lived with other people in the village. However, after 2 more years, when he was 35, he decided to move to complete solitude and be as far away as possible from people.
He reached a place called Pispir which was near the Nile. Over there, he lived in an abandoned and secluded Roman fort for the next 20 years. He got his food from various people who threw it to him over the wall.
He was often visited by pilgrims. Initially, he refused to meet them. As a result, many of them started living in caves and huts near his place to get to meet him at some point in time.
In 305, he came out of this reclusive life. Surprisingly, he was completely healthy, both physically and mentally, which was unexpected given his meagre diet.
The last 45 years of his life were spent in an inner desert between the Nile and the Red Sea where he fixed up a home on top of a mountain. A monastery in his name still stands there; it is called Der Mar Antonios. Unlike in the past, in this period of life he let his disciples see him without any restrictions, and that too frequently.
During his life as a hermit, he had experienced a lot of supernatural incidences, according to various sources. Once in the desert he reportedly met two creatures called Centaur and Satyr. Both the creatures were extremely weird in their appearances.
Another incident states that Anthony the Great once battled demons in a cave. These demons beat him to death. However, he was miraculously brought back to life. When the demons came to kill him again, a sudden flash of bright light sent the demons away. This bright light was believed to have been sent by the Lord himself.
Death & Legacy
During his final days, Anthony the Great could sense that his death was nearing and he instructed his disciples to give his staff to Saint Macarius. He also told them to give one sheepskin cloak to Saint Athanasius and another cloak to Saint Serapion.
Anthony died on 17th January 356, at the ripe age of 105, in Mount Colzim in Egypt.
In 361, his remains were discovered and were transferred first to Alexandria and then to Constantinople. This was mainly done to escape the destruction that was caused by the Saracens.
In the 11th century, the emperor who was ruling over Constantinople gave the remains to a French count called Jocelin. Jocelin transferred the remains to a place called La-Motte-Saint-Didier. At this place, Jocelin tried to build a church but couldn’t complete it as he died before the construction even started. The church was finally erected in 1297 and became a popular center for pilgrims. The church was called Antoine-I’Abbaye.
Anthony the Great was also worshipped for his healing powers, especially against skin diseases such as ergotism, also called “St. Anthony’s Fire”. Two noblemen who benefited from his healing powers and got cured completely went on to establish a hospital called Hospital Brothers of St. Anthony which specialized in skin diseases.