St. Antony the Great (251-356) is traditionally considered the “founder” of Christian monasticism, although this is a difficult thing to be sure of. One of the stories about him, in fact, tells of his pride about how he was the first-ever monk, and then an angel told him about this guy Abba Paul who’d been a hermit way longer than he had, so he went off to visit St. Paul the Hermit on St. Paul’s deathbed.
Whether or not he was the first or not, he was part of a movement to the desert that was beginning at the time. There had already been the occasional Egyptian person or village that would disappear into the desert whenever socio-economic times got hard. At the time went St. Antony started out for the tombs and the mountains of the Egyptian wilderness, people were first getting the idea of this retreat (anachoresis) as an act of Christian piety and part of the path self-renunciation as a replacement of martyrdom.
St. Antony’s anachoresis was inspired by the command of Jesus to the Rich Young Ruler to sell all he had and give to the poor, then to follow Jesus. St. Antony figured this was a good principle for all serious Christians, so he sold off his inheritance, leaving behind enough for his sister to live on. Then he went visiting Christian ascetics in the town where he lived and learning from them about how to live.
Soon, he heard the verse about not worrying about tomorrow, so then he got rid of the stuff that was supporting his sister and put her in a house of virgins (inchoate nunneries). Then he went off into the desert to live alone. Of course, living alone is hard to achieve for spiritual masters, because somehow word always get round that you’re out living in a cave or a tomb or an abandoned temple somewhere, so you start to get a bit of a following. Over the years, Antony lived in tombs, on a mountain, and on a second mountain, each time moving farther and farther from society and receiving fewer and fewer guests — or at least hoping to receive fewer and fewer guests.
In these days of incipient monasticism, the concept of the hermit as a man who was complete and utterly cut off from the rest of the world was an ideal but never achieved (I’m not sure any hermit ever achieved it). We see that St. Antony had disciples, such as his successor Ammonas, as well as those to whom he gives his discourse in The Life of St. Antony by St. Athanasius.
In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Apopthegmata Patrum), Antony is frequently quoted as providing a pithy saying or two, demonstrating that he was part of the new monastic movement wherein a newer monk would approach a more experienced monk and say, “Abba, give me a word.” The more experienced monk, the Abba, would then give a brief saying or discourse to the less experienced. Antony is also quoted in John Cassian’s Conferences concerning discretion, saying that discretion is the most important tool of the monk.
St. Antony did more than give advice to his disciples, however. As we saw in my last post, he was engaged in the battle with demons. In this battle, according to St. Athanasius, he received literal blows from demons and found himself almost physically defeated, but he continued on nonetheless. The idea is that the desert is the property of the demons, their last retreat and lair. By going there, St. Antony and the other monks are encroaching on their turf; turf wars ensued, with the monks victorious through many battles. Eventually, St. Antony was left alone by the Devil and his minions.
Although called “unlettered” in St. Athanasius’ biography, this does not mean St. Antony was illiterate. It likely means he was not literate in Greek or Latin, that he was not schooled in the classics of the Hellenistic world. Modern philology has determined that seven Coptic letters attributed to St. Antony are most likely by this monk himself. Whether he wrote them with his own hand or dictated them is impossible to say. In these letters, we get a picture of a man who was concerned for the care of souls, deeply orthodox in theology, but not uninfluenced by Valentinian Gnosticism in aspects of his spirituality.
This does not, however, mean that Egyptian monasticism was Gnostic by any means. There are similarities between Celtic Christianity and Buddhism, for example; yet there are also similarities between the Celts and St. Maximus the Confessor. The Coptic monks tended to be orthodox in their theology, as evidenced by their harbouring of St. Athanasius when he was on the run. They ran into theological difficulties with Anthropomorphism (imagining God to have a body like a man) and Origenism (the antithesis, all-too-often accompanied by Origen’s heterodox teachings on Christology and souls). However, St. Antony shows no influence of the heterodox aspects of Origenism or Gnosticism in these letters.
Here is some wisdom of St. Antony:
Advice given to those troubled by demons: Have faith in Jesus; keep your mind pure from wicked thoughts and your body free from all sordidness. In accordance with the divine sayings, do not be seduced by the fullness of the stomach. Detest pride, pray frequently, recite the psalms in the evening and in the morning and at noon, and meditate on the commands of the Scriptures. Remember the deeds done by each of the saints so that the memory of their example will inspire your virtue and restrain it from vices. (Life of Antony 55, trans. White)
Wherever you go, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, have [before you] the testimony of the holy Scriptures. (The Sayings, Latin systematic collection [I think], trans. Ward)
I beseech you, beloved, by the name of Jesus Christ, do not neglect your own salvation, but let each one of you rend his heart and not his garment (Joel 2:13), for fear lest we should be wearing this monastic habit in vain, and preparing for ourselves judgment. (Letter 2, trans. Chitty)
Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. . . . Without temptations no-one can be saved. (The Sayings, Greek alphabetical collection [#5], trans. Ward)
I no longer fear God but love him, for love casts out fear. (The Sayings, Greek alphabetical collection [#32], trans. Ward)
If you are interested in learning more about St. Antony, I recommend the translation of St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony in Carolinne White, Early Christian Lives, published by Penguin Classics.
I read Derwas J. Chitty’s translation of the Letters of St. Antony, published by SLG Press.
Sister Benedicta Ward, SLG, has a Penguin Classics translation of the Latin systematic Sayings called The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks as well as of the Greek alphabetical (by author) sayings called The Sayings of the Desert Fathers published by Cistercian.