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Saint of the week

The hermit who lived for 15 years in a tomb

St Anthony of Egypt (January 17) inspired a new ideal by seeking spiritual growth in the desert

By on Wednesday, 12 January 2011

St Anthony, painted by Fra Angelico in 1436

St Anthony, painted by Fra Angelico in 1436

Anthony of Egypt (c 251-356) has been called the founder of Christian monasticism. While he was by no means the first ascetic or hermit, he did inspire a new ideal by seeking spiritual growth in the desert.

Yet, while fellow hermits went to live near him in order to profit from his example, Anthony never sought to create a community living under a common rule, in the manner pioneered by St Pachomius early in the fourth century. Anthony himself probably spoke only Coptic.

His posthumous reputation owes everything to the Life written in Greek by
St Athanasius around 360. Within a few years Athanasius’s text had been translated into Latin by St Evagrius of Antioch, in which form it became one of the key Christian texts of the medieval world.

Anthony was born into a prosperous Christian family in upper Egypt. Until the age of 20 he lived at home, and applied himself to his studies.

The death of his parents left him possessed of a large fortune, and responsible for the care of a younger sister. One day, though, Anthony was struck to the quick by the Gospel reading of the story of Christ and the rich young man: “Go, sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.”

Anthony became one of the rare Christians who have followed that command to the letter. Placing his sister in the care of religious women, he began to live as a penniless hermit.

Assailed by temptation at every turn, especially regarding sex, he believed himself attacked by demons. He held firm to his purpose, however, living for some 15 years in a tomb near his native village.

Then, seeking a more absolute solitude, he withdrew east of the Nile to a mountain called Pispir (now Der el Memun), where he lived in an abandoned Roman fort. For 20 years, it is said, he saw no one, food being thrown to him over the wall.

Around 305 Anthony emerged, seemingly none the worse for his ordeal, and devoted himself to the instruction of the disciples who flocked to him. In 311 he appeared in Alexandria to combat the Arian heresy.

Subsequently he withdrew to the desert near the Red Sea, where he lived to the age of 105, dividing his time between prayer, manual work and the instruction of his ascetic followers.

“He was like a physician given by God to Egypt,” wrote St Athanasius. “For who met him grieving, and did not go away rejoicing? Who came full of anger, and was not turned to kindness? What monk who had grown slack was not strengthened? Who came troubled by doubts and failed to gain peace of mind?”