The man acclaimed as "the father of monasticism" never dreamed of the huge impact he would have. But the new mode of discipleship he helped bring to birth in Egypt in the early 300s A.D. turned out to be one of the most momentous innovations in the church's first thousand years. 

The book that started it all

Alexandrian bishop Athanasius (298-373) was exiled five times from his beloved church at the hands of Arian-sympathizing emperors. In one of these exiles, the staunchly orthodox, diminutive firebrand fulfilled a long-time dream by traveling to the desert to share the life of the hermits there. During what became a lengthy ascetic sojourn, he wrote what historian Derwas Chitty correctly calls "the first great manifesto of the monastic ideal." This was not some tidy, orderly rule of life, but rather a biography of the most gripping sort—of the best-known early monk and first "desert father," Antony of Egypt (251-356).

Antony was the son of a prosperous Egyptian peasant-farmer. Shortly after his father died, he heard at a church service the gospel words "Sell all you have, give to the poor, and come, follow me." In response, he sold his birthright—200 acres of lush, fertile Nile valley land—and began to live as a solitary at the edge of his small town.

This sort of hermit lifestyle was already a known practice in Egypt by Antony's youth, and it fascinated the young man. He apprenticed himself to a local holy man, absorbing from his elder everything he could learn about the ascetic life. Askesis meant "training"—especially the body-building the Greeks had always been so keen to practice in their "gymnasiums." It never entailed merely giving up things, like food or sexual relationships. Rather, it was a mode of exercising ...

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