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THE LIFE OF ANTHONY THE ABBOT

Father Francis's picture
Saint Anthony the Abbot

“Go, sell what you possess and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven.” This was the Gospel text which the future St. Anthony the Abbot happened to hear when he was 20, shortly after his parents had died leaving him a vast fortune. He immediately sold his possessions and donated most of the proceeds to the poor. Later, hearing the Gospel verse, “Do not be anxious about tomorrow,” he regretted having kept a little. He now gave this away, too, and dedicated himself entirely to God, becoming an early and celebrated champion of the ascetic life as well as a pioneer of Christian monasticism.

He went into the Egyptian desert to experience the life of a hermit, making his home in an old burial cave where he lived in great simplicity and solitude for many years. He hoped to reach a condition of holiness by separating himself from all distractions, but found that even in the desert temptation reached him.

His trials were a popular topic of medieval art, with one of the most famous paintings being “The Temptation of Anthony” by the Flemish artist Hieronymus Bosch, which shows Anthony being attacked by a variety of hideous devils. The painting is full of images of corruption, vice masquerading as virtue and the dangerous attractions of evil. These devils were manifestations of Anthony’s own sinful thoughts and he struggled against them through prayer, fasting and great spiritual suffering. When at last he overcame the temptations he cried out to Jesus, “Where were You, Lord, when I needed You?” The Lord told him, “Anthony I was here all the time, but I wanted you to fight and conquer your enemies.”

He gave up the solitary life in order to establish the very first Christian monastery. His example of holiness became widely known, to the extent that even the Emperor Constantine wrote to him for advice. When some of the monks showed surprise at this, Anthony remarked that the emperor was only a man, and was it not far more wonderful that God should have spoken to us through His Son?

Anthony never forgot his experiences in the desert and warned his monks never to underestimate the power and skill of Satan, who will attack under many different guises. He warns us, too, that we should never think of ourselves as being beyond temptation, for it is when we believe we are strong that the Devil finds our weakness. Anthony recommended the sign of the Cross as a sure defence against evil: it is a reminder of how Jesus died on the Cross for us and of the love that the Blessed Trinity has for each one of us. We owe a great debt of love to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and our sign of the Cross can begin and end our day and every work we do.

Born in Egypt in 251 Anthony lived to the grand old age of 105 and died in the year 356.

We ask Anthony to draw men and women of our day to see the emptiness of pursuing their lives of selfish ease and unnecessary luxury with no regard for God or others. May he confirm each one of us in our vocation to know, love and serve Him in this world, and to be happy in the next.