Anthony of the Desert
My desire to imitate Christ drove me to live in the desert for over 80 years. I am Anthony. You might know me as Anthony of the Desert. Or maybe as Anthony the Great. I’ve always been bewildered by that title since I’m anything but great. Even as a child I was quite obscure. You might even say shy.
I was born in Egypt in 251. My parents were Christian and quite well off. I avoided school because the other boys were too rough for me. So I never learned to read or write. I preferred to just stay at home, except on Sundays. I loved going to church. In fact, I was so eager to get there that I used to run on ahead of my family.
But this calm and serene life ended abruptly. Both my parents died before my 20th birthday. My younger sister and I were left totally alone in our grief. During this time I found great comfort in the church.
A Life Changing Moment
One day during the service I was contemplating on the blessed apostles. I thought about how they renounced everything to follow Christ. I considered how their followers sold all their possessions so they could care for the poor. My meditation was interrupted by the Gospel reading of the day. “If you wish to be perfect, go sell everything you have and give it to the poor. Then take up your cross and come after me.”
I knew it was a sign for me. That particular reading didn’t just happen by accident. So I left the church and immediately set about to sell my parent’s large estate including the 300 fields my father had owned and all the lovely furnishings in their house. I gave everything to the poor except for a small amount that I set aside for my sister’s needs.
Another day when I was at church, I was struck by different Gospel reading. “Take no thought for tomorrow.” Immediately I knew that even what little I had kept back for my sister should also be given to the poor. I told her that we must be obedient to Christ and trust him in all things. She knew how much I loved her and how devoted I was to Christ. So she readily agreed with me and I placed her in a nearby convent.
Alone in the Desert
From that day forward I became a solitary monk and my only care was for my soul. I trained myself in strict abstinence and self-denial. I lived alone in a hut outside the village since Egypt didn’t have any monasteries yet.
I learned to pray without ceasing for I had heard the words, “Pray continually and let it not become tedious for you.” My life was a continual fast and I only allowed myself to eat bread and a little salt. I never ate before sunset and often I went two or three days without food. I also denied myself sleep and when I did rest I laid on the floor or on a mat of rushes.
After a while, I felt the need for greater quiet and solitude, so I withdrew to a graveyard to live. During this time Satan tormented me relentlessly. Once he visited me in the form of a woman trying to tempt me. But I had the mind of Christ and that quenched the coals of Satan’s tempting. So then he decided to torture me with pain. Once he beat me so severely that when my friend found me, he thought I had been left for dead. But I was alive in the power of Christ. In time I would laugh at the taunts of the devil saying, “I belong to Christ Jesus so get away.” And the devil would flee.
When I was about 35 I felt called to seek complete solitude. So I lived in some ruins on top of a mountain for over 20 years. During this time many came seeking my guidance but I refused to meet them. The only person I saw was a man who brought me bread every six months. I stored up the loaves and sometimes they stayed fresh for a whole year.
In the year 305 I came down from the mountain to establish the first of several monasteries. Each monk had his own hut but the group was organized into a community. I remained in solitude but I did come and visit them from time to time, always with great joy.
When I was around 90 years old, I paid a visit to another hermit, a holy man named Paul. Like me, his parents had both died when he was young. Threats of persecution and death forced him to live alone the desert of Egypt. For sixty years a raven had brought him a half a loaf of bread every day. On the day I visited him, the raven brought a full loaf. It took us a long time to start eating because we each wanted the other to go first. Finally we broke the bread together.
In my 100th year, the church was reeling from heresy. So Bishop Athanasius and other church leaders from Alexandria asked me to come and preach. So many people ran out to greet me when I entered the city that I was astounded. Even the pagans showed me great honor. I preached the one true faith and the bishop told me that more heathens became Christian in those few days than were usually converted in a whole year.
Later when I returned to the monastery, the Emperor Constantine wrote to me requesting prayer. Because I was not educated, I didn’t want to answer his letter. But the other monks urged me to reply since the emperor was a Christian. So I responded encouraging him to remember the final judgment and to know that Christ alone is the true and eternal king.
As I felt my death approaching, I asked my fellow monks to bury my body in a secret place on the mountain. My clothes were my only possessions. I instructed the monks to give my two sheepskin tunics and my cloak to Athanasius and another bishop to show that I was united in faith and communion with the church. The monks were allowed to keep my sackcloth for themselves.
I went to live with my Lord Jesus Christ when I was 105 years old. My dying wish was that my story be told and retold. In that way others could learn about holiness of life and believe in our Savior Jesus Christ who will one day lead us into the kingdom of heaven.