Memorial of St. Anthony of Egypt (Anthony the Abbot)
Patron of Gravediggers, Founder of Western Monasticism
You’ve probably heard of St. Anthony. You know, the guy who helps you find your car keys when you left them at the gym as I almost did this morning. Yeah, this saint isn’t him. That dude (Anthony of Lisbon and Padua) is celebrated in June. True, he’s probably the most famous Anthony in history and definitely one of the top five all-time popular saints of the Church. Who then is this guy? Would it help set the picture if I told you that the other Anthony took his name from the one we’re going to learn about now? OK, well, we’re going to learn about him anyway.
Born in 251 in Upper Egypt, Anthony was from a very wealthy and very virtuous Christian family. We actually know a good deal about his life because he was so well famous that other men who would become saints wrote biographies of him. The basic story is this. When Anthony was a young man of, say, 18, his parents died and left him two things. The first was a fortune of immense proportions. The second was the care of a younger sister (to whom most say he was particularly devoted). A devout man himself, Anthony read the Scriptures in search of guidance. He came to this passage:
Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.
He found a group of, well, we won’t call them nuns for that term did not yet exist as we know it; but holy women who had chosen to live together and pray and work together for mutual aid. He asked them to raise his sister, leaving them enough to provide for her well-being. He then gave the rest of his fortune to the poor. Every. Last. Penny. Then he did something almost unheard of. He wandered out into the desert to be alone. He did this in search of a greater union with God. The idea was the he could draw closer to the things of heaven by moving away from the things of earth. He must have had some success with this life as a hermit. Surely he did encounter other humans out in the desert. The Stylytes and other hermits must have made contact with him, not to mention passing caravans. Plus, he had to provide for his bodily needs so there must have been some contact. Still, he was happy just out there all alone.
And then after about twenty years fame of his piety and miracles attributed to his prayers creeped their way back into the cities of Egypt. People began flocking to him. They, too, wanted to live as he did. The thing is, it’s kind of hard to approach someone living alone and ask how they’re managing to live alone. “Excuse me. I’d like to be your hermit apprentice” doesn’t really work. The solution he found was to write down is rules for living (it came to be called “a rule” as a rule) and gave it to those who desired to follow him. Finally, a greater solution was reached when Anthony agreed to live in a quasi-hermitage. It’s called a cenobitic lifestyle. Groups of these, now we’ll call them monks, lived alone in complete isolation but would come together for prayer and meals so they weren’t completely schizoid’ed out by the solitary confinement.
The desert air must have agreed with him. He lived to be 105 years-old! And a millennium later a young Portugese Augustinian priest, dissatisfied with his own religious order sought comfort in the arms of a new movement in the Church — the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans). That man, Fernando, would take for himself the name Antonio and come to eclipse his namesake in popularity. But the Church in her wisdom has never forgotten the first Anthony. And we celebrate him to this day almost 1800 years on as the founder of Western monasticism (a tradition which has blessed the Church ever since).
Passage from Matthew 19:21