Anthony was born in Coma in Lower Egypt in AD 251 to wealthy landowner parents. When he was about 18 years old, his parents died and left him with the care of his unmarried sister. Shortly thereafter, he decided to follow the Evangelical counsel of [Mt 19:21] Anthony gave away some of his family's lands to his neighbors, sold the remaining property, and donated the funds thus raised to the poor. He then left to live an ascetic life, placing his sister with a group of Christian virgins, a sort of proto-convent.
For the next fifteen years, Anthony remained in the area, spending the first years as the disciple of another local hermit. There are various legends associating Anthony with pigs: one is that he worked as a swineherd during this period.
Anthony is sometimes considered the first monk, and the first to initiate solitary desertification, but there were others before him. There were already ascetic pagan hermits (the Therapeutae), and loosely organized cenobitic communities were described by the Hellenized Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria in the 1st century AD as long established in the harsh environment of Lake Mareotis and in other less accessible regions. Philo opined that "this class of persons may be met with in many places, for both Greece and barbarian countries want to enjoy whatever is perfectly good." Christian ascetics such as Thecla had likewise retreated to isolated locations at the outskirts of cities. Anthony is notable for having decided to surpass this tradition and headed out into the desert proper. He left for the alkaline Nitrian Desert (later the location of the noted monasteries of Nitria, Kellia, and Scetis) on the edge of the Western Desert about 95 km (59 mi) west of Alexandria. He remained there for 13 years.
According to Athanasius, the devil fought Anthony by afflicting him with boredom, laziness, and the phantoms of women, which he overcame by the power of prayer, providing a theme for Christian art. After that, he moved to a tomb, where he resided and closed the door on himself, depending on some local villagers who brought him food. When the devil perceived his ascetic life and his intense worship, he was envious and beat him mercilessly, leaving him unconscious. When his friends from the local village came to visit him and found him in this condition, they carried him to a church.
After he recovered, he made a second effort and went back into the desert to a father mountain by the Nile called Pispir (now Der-el-Memun), opposite Arsinoe. There he lived strictly enclosed in an old abandoned Roman fort for some 20 years. According to Athanasius, the devil again resumed his war against Anthony, only this time the phantoms were in the form of wild beasts, wolves, lions, snakes, and scorpions. They appeared as if they were about to attack him or cut him into pieces. But the saint would laugh at them scornfully and say, "If any of you have any authority over me, only one would have been sufficient to fight me." At his saying this, they disappeared as though in smoke. While in the fort he only communicated with the outside world by a crevice through which food would be passed and he would say a few words. Anthony would prepare a quantity of bread that would sustain him for six months. He did not allow anyone to enter his cell; whoever came to him stood outside and listened to his advice.
Then one day he emerged from the fort with the help of villagers, who broke down the door. By this time most had expected him to have wasted away or to have gone insane in his solitary confinement. Instead, he emerged healthy, serene, and enlightened. Everyone was amazed that he had been through these trials and emerged spiritually rejuvenated. He was hailed as a hero and from this time forth the legend of Anthony began to spread and grow. Anthony went to Fayyum and confirmed the brethren there in the Christian faith before returning to his fort.
Amid the Diocletian Persecutions, Anthony wished to become a martyr and in 311 went to Alexandria. He visited those who were imprisoned for the sake of Christ and comforted them. When the Governor saw that he was confessing his Christianity publicly, not caring what might happen to him, he ordered him not to show up in the city. However, the Saint did not heed his threats. He faced him and argued with him in order that he might arouse his anger so that he might be tortured and martyred, but it did not happen.
Father of Monks
The former main altar of the hermitage church in Warfhuizen
in the Netherlands with a mural of Anthony the Abbot and a reliquary
with some of his relics
. Since then they have been moved to a new golden shrine on a side altar especially made for them
At the end of the persecutions, Anthony returned to his old Roman fort. By this time, many more had heard of his sanctity and he had many more visitors than before. He saw these visits as interfering with his worship and went further into the Eastern Desert. He traveled for three days before reaching a small oasis with a spring and some palm trees and chose to settle there. Disciples soon found him out and his number of visitors again continued to grow.
Anthony had not been the first ascetic or hermit, but he may properly be called the "Father of Monasticism" in Christianity, as he organized his disciples into a worshipful community and inspired similar withdrawn communities throughout Egypt and, following the spread of Athanasius's hagiography, the Greek and Roman world. His follower Macarius the Great was particularly active in continuing his legacy.
Anthony anticipated the rule of Benedict by about 200 years, engaging himself and his disciples in manual labor. Anthony himself cultivated a garden and wove rush mats. He and his disciples were regularly sought for words of enlightenment. These statements were later collected into the book of Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Anthony himself is said to have spoken to those of a spiritual disposition personally, leaving the task of addressing the more worldly visitors to Macarius. On occasions, he would go to the monastery on the outskirts of the desert by the Nile to visit the brethren, then return to his inner monastery.
A background story of one of the surviving epistles, directed to Constantine I, recounts how the fame of Saint Anthony spread abroad and reached Emperor Constantine. The Emperor wrote to him offering praise and requesting prayers. The brethren were pleased with the Emperor's letter, but Anthony did not pay any attention to it, and he said to them, "The books of God, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, commands us every day, but we do not heed what they tell us, and we turn our backs on them." Under the persistence of the brethren who told him "Emperor Constantine loves the church", he accepted to write him a letter blessing him, and praying for the peace and safety of the empire and the church.
According to Athanasius, Saint Anthony heard a voice telling him "Go out and see." He went out and saw an angel who wore a girdle with a cross, one resembling the holy Eskiem (Tonsure or Schema), and on his head was a head cover (Kolansowa). He was sitting while braiding palm leaves, then he stood up to pray, and again he sat to weave. A voice came to him saying, "Anthony, do this and you will rest." Henceforth, he started to wear this tunic that he saw, and began to weave palm leaves, and never was bored again. Saint Anthony prophesied about the persecution that was about to happen to the church and the control of the heretics over it, the church victory and its return to its former glory, and the end of the age. When Saint Macarius visited Anthony, Anthony clothed him with the monk's garb and foretold him what would happen to him. When the day drew near for the departure of Saint Paul the First Hermit in the desert, Saint Anthony went to him and buried him, after clothing him in a tunic which was a present from St Athanasius the Apostolic, the 20th Patriarch of Alexandria.
In 338, he left the desert temporarily to visit Alexandria to help refute the teachings of Arius. Although not particularly learned, Anthony was able to confound the Arians.
When Saint Anthony felt that the day of his departure had approached, he commanded his disciples to give his staff to Saint Macarius, and to give one sheepskin cloak to Saint Athanasius and the other sheepskin cloak to Saint Serapion, his disciple. He further instructed his disciples to bury his body in an unmarked, secret grave.
He probably spoke only his native language, Coptic, but his sayings were spread in a Greek translation. He himself wrote letters in Coptic, seven of which are extant. His biography was written by Saint Athanasius and titled Life of Saint Anthony the Great. Many stories are also told about him in various collections of sayings of the Desert Fathers.
Though Anthony himself did not organize or create a monastery, a community grew around him based on his example of living an ascetic and isolated life. Athanasius' biography helped propagate Anthony's ideals. Athanasius writes, "For monks, the life of Anthony is a sufficient example of asceticism." Asceticism is a lifestyle characterized by abstinence from worldly pleasures, often for the purpose of pursuing spiritual goals.
The biography of Anthony's life by Athanasius of Alexandria helped to spread the concept of Christian monasticism, particularly in Western Europe via its Latin translations. He is often erroneously considered the first Christian monk, but as his biography and other sources make clear, there were many ascetics before him. Anthony was, however, the first to go into the wilderness (about ad 270), a geographical move that seems to have contributed to his renown. Accounts of Anthony enduring supernatural temptation during his sojourn in the Eastern Desert of Egypt inspired the often-repeated subject of the temptation of St. Anthony in Western art and literature.
Anthony is appealed to against infectious diseases, particularly skin diseases. In the past, many such afflictions, including ergotism, erysipelas, and shingles, were referred to as St. Anthony's fire.