The original desert father

Another of my entries for the Zondervan Dictionary of Spirituality,this one features “the original desert father,” Antony of Egypt. Antony, too, features in my Patron Saints for Postmoderns.

Antony of Egypt (251-356). Egyptian monastic pioneer. He is often (though incorrectly) called the first monk and founder of monasticism: he himself imitated a tradition of “holy solitaries”—men who lived ascetic lives at the edges of Egyptian towns. His innovation was that when he heard the word of the Gospels preached—“Sell all you have, give to the poor, and come, follow me”—he sold his belongings, gave away the proceeds, and moved out into the desert to live as a hermit. This he did decades before Constantine’s legalization of Christianity—so spiritual declension of the church under state sponsorship was not the initial impetus for Christian monasticism. Athanasius’s Life of Antony is our only source on the Egyptian monk’s life, aside from a few “sayings” and a small set of letters. Athanasius’s book paints a prototypical holy man.

During an initial desert solitude of some two decades, Antony lived a life of severe asceticism and battled (physically as well as psychologically) with demons. But for the remainder of his long life (he died at 105), his holiness proved a magnet for pilgrims of all sorts, and he was repeatedly called back from the remote desert. On these trips, he guided communities of monks in the desert’s fringe (Athanasius portrays him as the spark that lit a monastic exodus to the desert), where he also did miracles of prophecy and healing. During the Great Persecution under Diocletian (303 – 313) he returned to the city to stand in the Roman courts in solidarity with Christians destined for martyrdom—miraculously, without himself being martyred.

When confronted by Pagans and Arians, he confounded them with Spirit-led wisdom. He even presided in courtrooms, where he solved difficult cases and healed relational breaches. After his death, the Life became the model for all saints’ lives that followed. It was instrumental in the conversion of Augustine of Hippo, and to this day it is used as a touchstone for monastic reform movements. In short, Antony’s life illustrates the paradox of monasticism: by isolation from mainstream society, the monk gains spiritual authority and power to heal society.

P. Brown, “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity,” in Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity (1982); D. Chitty, The Desert a City: An Introduction to the Study of Egyptian and Palestinian Monasticism Under the Christian Empire (1966); The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, B. Ward, ed. (1987). R. Williams, Where God Happens (2007).

One response to “The original desert father

  1. Thank you. St. Anthony’s monastic life might also illustrate a paradox of every Christian life: life for this world does not come from this world.

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