A Variety of Names. St. Anthony (251-356) is known by a number of different titles: St. Anthony, the Abbot; St. Anthony, the Father of Monks; St. Anthony, the Patriarch of Monks; St. Anthony, the Hermit; St. Anthony of Egypt; St. Anthony of the Desert, and St. Anthony the Great. He is commemorated each year on January 17. He is not to be confused with St. Anthony of Padua (1195-1231) who lived over 800 years later and is remembered on June 13.
The Early Years. St. Anthony was born in Koman near Memphis in Upper Egypt around 251 AD. His parents died when he was a late teenager, and he was left to care for his younger sister and the family home. When he was twenty he reflected on how the apostles left everything, sold their possessions, and followed Jesus (Lk 5:11; 18:28; Acts 2:45; 4:34-35), and then, at church shortly thereafter he heard the gospel, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell all that you have and give to the poor” (Mt 19:21). It seemed to Anthony that God was speaking directly to him. He had inherited approximately 200 acres of fertile farmland which he proceeded to sell, along with most of the family possessions, and distributed it to the poor, and he retained a small amount to care for his sister and himself. Not long afterward, he was in church again and heard the passage, “Do not worry about tomorrow” (Mt 6:34). At this he sold the rest, took his sister to a convent to be raised by a community of sisters, and decided to live a simple, solitary life.
Life as a Hermit. In 272, Anthony moved a short distance from his home into the desert to live an austere life of self-denial alone in a tomb in a cemetery. He was guided by the Bible verse, “If anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat” (2 Thes 3:10b), so he did manual labor to support himself, and spent the remainder of his time in prayer and Scripture reading. He memorized many passages. He struggled mightily with temptation and had violent bouts with the devil. He lived a strict ascetical lifestyle. He did works of penance, particularly severe fasts, eating only bread and water once a day. He wore sackcloth as his outer cloak, and a hair shirt for his undergarment which constantly irritated his skin. In 285 he moved further into the desert to live in an abandoned fort in even greater solitude.
A Magnet and Guide. Others were so attracted to Anthony that they joined him in the desert. In 305 he organized a monastery at Fayum with a rule that the monks should live in solitude except for communal worship. Sometime after 312, he organized a second monastery at Pispir. He instructed the monks to take up hobbies such as weaving baskets and mats to prevent idleness and ward off temptation. The monks regarded Anthony as an abbot, and history regards him as the founder of monasticism.
Desert Departures. Anthony left the desert twice, but only briefly. He always desired to be a martyr so he went to Alexandria in 311 during the height of the Emperor Maximin’s persecution against Christians. The oppression started to subside around the time of his arrival, he was never harmed, and returned to the desert. Later he returned to Alexandria in 355 to help St. Athanasius fight the Arian heresy, after which he once again returned to solitude. He died in the desert in 356 at the age of 105.
Patronage and Symbol. St. Anthony is the patron saint of grave diggers and weavers, and his symbol is a T-shaped or Tau Cross. He is invoked for release from worldly attachments.