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Christian History Home > 1999 > Issue 64 > The Best There Ever Was

The Best There Ever Was
Modern Christian hermits still look to him for inspiration, as did the entire Middle Ages, but today we hardly know him. What did the illiterate recluse, known as Antony of the Desert, do to earn such adulation?
Mark Galli | posted 10/01/1999 12:00AM

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Crossing the dry Egyptian desert, a band of philosophers finally arrived at the "inner mountain," the monastic abode of a Christian named Antony. The skeptical scholars asked the illiterate old man to explain the inconsistencies of Christianity, and after they got started, they ridiculed some of its teachings—especially that God's Son would die on a cross.

Antony, who spoke only Coptic (not Greek, the international language of the day), answered through an interpreter. He began by asking, "Which is better—to confess a cross, or to attribute acts of adultery and pederasty to those whom you call gods?" After questioning further the reasonableness of paganism, he moved to the central issue.

"And you, by your syllogisms and sophisms," he continued, "do not convert people from Christianity to Hellenism, but we, by teaching faith in Christ, strip you of superstition. … By your beautiful language, you do not impede the teaching of Christ, but we, calling on the name of Christ crucified, chase away the demons you fear as gods."

A crowd of seekers stood by, waiting to see Antony, and among them were some men who were "suffering from demons." Antony asked that the men be brought forward. He called on Christ, made the sign of the cross over them three times, and, according to one ancient account, "immediately the men stood and were sound, coming to their senses and giving thanks to God."

The Greek philosophers were astonished, but Antony quickly said, "Why do you marvel at this? Is it not we who do it, but Christ, who does these things through those who believe in him."

The philosophers then departed, embracing Antony as they left, saying they "had benefited from him."

This story, and others like it, show that by the end of his life, the solitary Antony had gained a reputation across the Mediterranean world. Not only simple people but the sophisticated and mighty sought him out. His life and words inspired fellow Christians to greater devotion and, sometimes, moved pagans to convert. But it wasn't his wisdom and eloquence that astounded people as much as his laser-like devotion to Christ.

This devotion expressed itself in a way that was as impressive to his age (as well as to Christian Europe for another 1,000 years) as it is strange and off-putting to us today. The way is called asceticism, or originally, "the discipline," and the institution it created is called monasticism.

Although Antony is sometimes considered the founder of monasticism, he was not. But he put monasticism on the Christian map because of his extraordinary practice of monastic disciplines. In the novel and movie The Natural, baseball player Roy Hobbs longs to be "the best there ever was." It terms of how early and medieval Christians understood the spiritual life, Antony was indeed considered the best there ever was.

Antony was born in A.D. 251, an "Egyptian by race" (all quotations are from Athansius's The Life of Antony, from which the above account comes as well). Egypt was under Roman control and Christians were still subject to periodic bouts of persecution. But Egypt was also home to one of the most vibrant Christian communities in the empire and had already produced two of the church's greatest minds—Clement and Origen. Consequently, many Egyptians of wealth and influence were finding their way into the church.

Such was the case with Antony's parents, who were "well born and prosperous," and who raised Antony in the faith; Antony regularly attended church with his parents.

Though he was not interested in learning how to read or speak anything but his native Coptic, early on he showed a keen interest in hearing Scripture read.

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