Friday, September 28, 2012

Saint Anthony

The Classical and Middle Ages generated more Saints Anthony that you can shake a crozier at:
Anthony of Antioch (d.302)
Anthony the Hermit (c.468-c.520) aka Anthony of Lérins
Anthony of Kiev (c.983-1073) aka Anthony of the Caves
Anthony of Rome (d.1147) aka Anthony Rimlyanin
Anthony of Padua (c.1195-1231) aka Anthony of Lisbon
Anthony of Florence (1389-1459)
But if you wanted to talk about an Anthony, wouldn't you pick the one they called "the Great"?

St. Anthony the Great (c.251-356) was mentioned in yesterday's post, supporting St. Athanasius against Arianism. He was a Coptic Christian from Egypt, but is recognized as a saint by the Coptic, Roman Catholic, Bulgarian Orthodox, and Eastern Orthodox churches.

His denomination-crossing significance derives from his status as the first monk. To be honest, there were monks—ascetics, men who chose to deny themselves worldly pleasure in order to study and pray—before him, but his decision to go out into the desert of Libya to get away from civilization was the example that made other ascetics take note.

It was about the year 270 that he heard the words from the Gospel of Matthew 19:21 at mass: "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give it to the poor." He was moved to act immediately: he convinced his sister to join a local group of nuns, sold his considerable property, gave the money to the poor (except for a small amount he set aside for his sister's needs), and headed into the desert. He fasted during daylight hours, lived on bread and salt and water, slept on the ground, resisted devilish temptation, and fought demons.

The Enemy subjected him to the temptations of the flesh and the anxieties of the world like thoughts of his family and loved ones, urging him to return to the world (as we are told by his biographer, St. Athanasius):
But the more the Evil One brought unto him filthy and maddening thoughts, the more Saint Anthony took refuge in prayer and in abundant supplication, and amid them all he remained wholly chaste.
Monastery of St. Anthony
Stories of Anthony's great devotion and asceticism were taken back to civilization by visitors, and more and more people came to learn from him and share in his growing reputation for holiness. But Athanasius tells us that Anthony was horrified by this, lest he himself be exalted as more worthy than other men. The so-called "first monk" never founded a monastery, never gathered followers, never preached a set of rules for others to live by. He pursued his own path to faith. On his death bed, he instructed the division of his garments to others, and requested to be put into an unmarked hole in the ground by two friends, Marcarius and Amatas, and the location left unrevealed to prevent veneration.

That didn't stop others from using him as a focal point, however. Shortly after his death at the age of 105, his followers started to dig and expand a spring in the cave where he lived, creating an oasis. Around this they began to build a monastery. The Monastery of St. Anthony still stands today, the oldest and largest Coptic monastery in Egypt. Its extreme isolation saved it from being a target of Arab conquest. It has changed and expanded greatly over the centuries, but can still be found 1300 feet above sea level in the desert southeast of Cairo.

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