O Father of Monks!
He was born in Upper Egypt around 251 in Coma, the son of fairly wealthy Christian landowners. After their death, around 269, he paid attention when the Gospel was being read in church and applied to himself literally the words, "Go sell all you have and give to the poor." He disposed of his property and undertook a life of solitude and discipline under the guidance of another recluse near his village. This is known as 'anachoresis', which means 'withdrawal from the world'. Initially, he took himself to a deserted cemetery and lived in the deserted pagan tombs. Some years later, having put his sister in the care of some nuns, he went to live alone in the desert, some three days march from the Nile. This was around the 'Outer Mountains' at Pispir. He lived an ascetical life of solitude here for twenty years.
However, his reputation for holiness drew people to himself who gathered around him in caves, creating a sort of mass eremetical life. As such in 306, he accepted disciple and founded his first 'lavia' or collection of hermits' cells. At the age of sixty, St Antony withdrew even further to the 'Inner Mountains' at Colzim in search of greater solitude, taking only his disciple Macarius, but even here monks came to him seeking counsel. His 'apophthegms' or sayings have been passed down in the 'Wisdom of the Desert Fathers'. In Colzim, he found physical work for himself by cultivating a garden and weaving rush mats, thus anticipating the later pattern of work and prayer in Benedictine monasticism.
He died, probably on 17 January in 356, at the age of one hundred and five and he was buried, at his own request, secretly on his mountain-top by his disciples. He sent his sheep-skin tunic and cloak to St Athanasius who then wrote an account of his life in Greek. This was immediately translated into Latin and circulated widely, making it a highly influential book on Christian spirituality and in hagiography. It was probably influential in the conversion of St Jerome and almost certainly marked a turning point in the conversion of St Augustine, influenced the Rule of St Benedict and the writings of Thomas a Kempis. Antony was a direct influence on Peter Damian and the Camaldolese monks, on the Carthusians and, centuries later, on Bl Charles de Foucauld.
Following are some extracts from the 'Life of Antony' and the 'Wisdom of the Desert Fathers', sayings attributed to St Antony of Egypt:
"Some leave home and cross the seas in order to gain an education, but there is no need for us to go away on account of the Kingdom of God nor need we cross the sea in search of virtue. For the Lord has told us, 'The Kingdom of God is within you.' All that is needed for goodness is that which is within, the human heart."
Antony also said, "I saw the devil's snares set all over the earth, and I groaned and said, 'What can pass through them?' I heard a voice saying, 'Humility'."
Antony said, "Now I no longer fear God, I love him, for love casts out fear" (cf 1 Jn 4:18).
He also said, "Our life and our death are with our neighbour. If we do good to our neighbour, we do good to God; if we cause our neighbour to stumble, we sin against Christ."
Pambo said to Antony, "What shall I do?" Antony said, "Do not trust in your own righteousness. Do not go on sorrowing over a deed that is past. Keep your tongue and your belly under control."
May we all learn from such wisdom and draw on the example of St Antony as so many saints throughout the centuries have! St Antony of Egypt, pray for us.