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St. Anthony the Great.

Known as the Father of Monasticism, St. Anthony was born in 251 and died in 356 and is believed by many to have been the originator of the monastic way of life, and of the brand of asceticism practised by himself and his followers in the Egyptian desert. In fact, when he determined to turn his back on the world and devote his life to God, there were already solitary ascetics in Egypt, and he started by learning from an old man who lived near his home, then went to visit other ascetics in the area. Later, he moved off into the desert by himself and his practices became more extreme.

He shut himself up in an old fortress, arranging to have bread and water delivered to him once every six months. He stayed there for nearly twenty years without ever coming out, fasting. praying and fighting temptations from the devil. His friends came Christian asceticism took off in a big way in the fourth century, with St. Anthony by from time to time, fearing he was dead, only to hear him chanting the psalms. When he finally emerged, he was famous, which is hardly surprising.

Indeed, to voluntarily spend nearly twenty years shut up alone, seeing no-one, and eating the minimum of food, and then emerge unscathed is an amazing feat in itself. But Anthony believed that by doing this he would draw nearer to God - and it would appear that it worked. His life of fasting, praying, chanting psalms and fighting with the devil made Anthony into a holy man who impressed all who knew him. After he came out of the fortress, he increased his ascetic practices: he fasted all the time, kept nightly vigils, wore a garment made of animal skins with the hair turned inside and refused to wash his body, and only washing his feet when necessary. No-one ever saw him naked until the day he died.

It was undoubtedly Anthony’s asceticism, rather than simply his holiness which made people flock to imitate him. His followers, many of them living in poverty in the surrounding area, left their homes, settled in the desert and adopted his ascetic practices.

Although Anthony became famous in Egypt during his lifetime, it was the biography written by St. Athanasius of Alexandria shortly after his death which really made his name. It was a best seller, written in Greek, translated into Latin, and widely read in both East and West, and its influence was tremendous.

Anthony’s disciples, too, became famous. Known as the Desert Fathers, they were admired not only for their asceticism but for their simplicity and lack of learning: Anthony believed that education was not necessary to an ascetic life, and some of his most famous disciples were illiterate; however, they attracted many visitors to the desert, people of culture who came to learn asceticism from these humble and uneducated monks. Records were made of their sayings which became popular, remained so until the Middle Ages, and are still read today.

Is Anthony’s experience believable? Yes – just. If At the time, it must have appeared awe-inspiring , but in the following two centuries, there were more and more accounts of extreme asceticism practised by the monks, and it would be foolish to dismiss such stories out of hand. We can only marvel at their endurance – and, if some of the stories strain our credulity, there are enough to convince us of the existence of this extraordinary phenomenon.


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