What is it about Antony of Egypt (251–356)that has inspired so many Christians to pursue holiness and catapulted many into the monastic life? although this desert hermit wasn't the inventor of monasticism, Antony is acclaimed as its father, and his influence spans Eastern and Western Christendom. The great Western theologian Augustine of Hippo converted to Christianity shortly after learning about Antony and his followers from a friend who had read The Life of Antony by fourth-century bishop Athanasius. Augustine said, "These men have none of our education, yet they stand up and storm the gates of heaven while we, for all our learning, lie here groveling in this world of flesh and blood."

The following excerpts from Athanasius'Life of Antony describe how Antony, after having spent 20 years living alone in desert cave, unwittingly gained his first followers and what he taught them about the Christian life.

The fruits of Antony's solitude

And so for nearly twenty years he continued training himself in solitude, never going forth, and but seldom seen by any. After this, when many were eager and wishful to imitate his discipline, and his acquaintances came and began to cast down and wrench off the door by force, Antony, as from a shrine, came forth initiated in the mysteries and filled with the Spirit of God.

Then for the first time he was seen outside the fort by those who came to see him. And they, when they saw him, wondered at the sight, for he had the same habit of body as before, and was neither fat, like a man without exercise, nor lean from fasting and striving with the demons, but he was just the same as they had known him before his retirement. And again his soul was free from blemish, for it was neither contracted as if by grief, nor relaxed by pleasure, nor possessed by laughter or dejection, for he was not troubled when he beheld the crowd, nor overjoyed at being saluted by so many. But he was altogether even as being guided by reason, and abiding in a natural state.

Antony attracts followers

Through him the Lord healed the bodily ailments of many present, and cleansed others from evil spirits. And He gave grace to Antony in speaking, so that he consoled many that were sorrowful, and set those at variance at one, exhorting all to prefer the love of Christ before all that is in the world. And while he exhorted and advised them to remember the good things to come, and the loving-kindness of God towards us, "Who spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all," he persuaded many to embrace the solitary life. And thus it happened in the end that cells arose even in the mountains, and the desert was colonized by monks, who came forth from their own people, and enrolled themselves for the citizenship in the heavens… .

And having returned to his cell, he applied himself to the same noble and valiant exercises; and by frequent conversation he increased the eagerness of those already monks, stirred up in most of the rest the love of the discipline, and speedily by the attraction of his words cells multiplied, and he directed them all as a father.

Antony counsels those who come to him

So after certain days he went in again to the mountain. And henceforth many resorted to him, and others who were suffering ventured to go in. To all the monks therefore who came to him, he continually gave this precept: "Believe on the Lord and love Him; keep yourselves from filthy thoughts and fleshly pleasures, and as it is written in the Proverbs, be not deceived 'by the fullness of the belly.' Pray continually; avoid vain glory; sing psalms before sleep and on awaking; hold in your heart the commandments of Scripture; be mindful of the works of the saints that your souls being put in remembrance of the commandments may be brought into harmony with the zeal of the saints."

And especially he counseled them to meditate continually on the apostle's word, "Let not the sun go down upon your wrath." And he considered this was spoken of all commandments in common, and that not on wrath alone, but not on any other sin of ours, ought the sun to go down… . It is good to hear the apostle and keep his words, for he says, "Try your own selves and prove your own selves." Daily, therefore, let each one take from himself the tale of his actions both by day and night … "until the Lord come who searcheth out hidden things" as saith the blessed apostle Paul. For often unawares we do things that we know not of; but the Lord seeth all things. "Therefore committing the judgment to Him, let us have sympathy one with another. Let us bear each other's burdens: but let us examine our own selves and hasten to fill up that in which we are lacking."

Giving Thanks

This was the advice he gave to those who came to him. And with those who suffered he sympathized and prayed. And oft-times the Lord heard him on behalf of many: yet he boasted not because he was heard, nor did he murmur if he were not. But always he gave the Lord thanks and besought the sufferer to be patient, and to know that healing belonged neither to him nor to man at all, but only to the Lord, who doeth good when and to whom He will. The sufferers therefore used to receive the words of the old man as though they were a cure, learning not to be downhearted but rather to be long-suffering. And those who were healed were taught not to give thanks to Antony but to God alone.

Read more of Life of St. Antony online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Or order the book through ChristianBook.com. The collection, Early Christian Lives, includes Athanasius' Life of St. Antony along with many other biographies of early monastic leaders.

Christian History & Biography's issue 64 covers St. Antony and the desert fathers.