This St. Anthony was the son of well-to-do Egyptian Christian parents. He could have afforded a broad education, but he detested school and preferred his own company. This was perhaps providential, considering his monastic calling.
When Anthony was about 20, both his father and his mother died, leaving him a good estate and a young sister to raise. Now, one day when he was attending Mass, he heard read the scripture message in which Jesus told the rich young man, “Go, sell what you have, and give it to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven.” Anthony took this literally, and disposed of most of his property for the benefit of the poor. Not long afterward, he heard read Christ’s other words, “Be not solicitous for tomorrow.” That passage prompted him to get rid of the rest of his property, entrust his sister to the care of some pious women, and go off to be tutored by a holy man of the locality in the virtues of poverty, chastity and obedience. Then he moved farther from his home town, and there for over a dozen years he wrestled to bring his will into subjection by prayer, abstinence and manual labor.
St. Athanasius, the first writer to recount the life of this contemporary fellow countryman, tells of the battles that Anthony fought with the devil during these years. Satan left no means untried to tempt him in body and soul, and even beat him within an inch of his life. God seemed far away from the hermit during those awful hours. When the trial was finally over, Anthony asked Him, “Why were you not here to help me?” God answered, “Anthony, I was here the whole time; I stood by you and watched your combat; and because you have manfully withstood your enemies, I will always protect you, and render your name famous throughout the earth.”
After that, Anthony went into a more remote mountain country, where he spent the next 20 Years. But about the year 305, to satisfy the pleading of other ascetics he founded a monastery for them at Fayum.
The several monasteries that St. Anthony founded were not of the type we have today. They were more like colonies of hermits, each of whom worked and prayed in his own cell. They came together only for common devotions. Anthony himself visited them only occasionally. But when he gathered them for a conference, he counseled them out of his own rich experience. “Do every action as if it were the last in your lives,” he would say. Or, “The Devil dreads fasting, prayer, humility and good works.” Or, “If prayer becomes too difficult, turn for a while to manual labor.”
The Roman persecutions were still on in those days, and in 311, Emperor Maximinus started a new one in Alexandria. Despite his dislike of crowds, St. Anthony felt duty-bound to go to Alexandria for a while and encourage those Christians on trial for their faith. He thus exposed himself to martyrdom, but the governor ignored him. God evidently preferred to have him continue his living martyrdom. Only once after that did he return to Alexandria. When the Arian heresy broke out, he went there at the request of the bishops to defend the divinity of Christ. At that time crowds of citizens joyfully gathered to see and hear this already legendary man, and many were converted. But when some invited him to stay, he replied, “As fish die if they are taken from the water, so does a monk wither away if he forsakes his solitude.” He worried that in future days his monks might become citified and tepid. His wisdom and meekness impressed people, and all who spoke to him went home full of comfort.
A few months after returning to his cell, Anthony took ill and bade a gentle farewell to his monk companions. He died quickly and calmly at 105. Old age was certainly the cause of death, for despite his long austerity he had never been sick or lost his vision or even lost one of his teeth.
St. Paul said, “Our battle is not against human forces, but against the principalities and powers, the rulers of this world of darkness, the evil spirits in regions above.” (Ep., 6:12). Creatures do tempt us, but it is because Satan uses them as instruments. We seem to have forgotten sin in our times. But St. Anthony still reminds us that it exists, and shows us how to repudiate Satan, the mortal enemy that seeks to destroy us.
–Father Robert F. McNamara