Saint of the week

St Antony the Abbot, 17th January

Often referred to as the first monk, St Antony discovered his vocation while attending church and hearing the words of Our Lord to the rich young man: “Go, sell what you have, and give it to the poor and you shall have treasure in heaven.” St Antony felt convinced that these words were addressed to him personally.

He was born to Christian parents in Memphis, Upper Egypt, in 251 and their early deaths left him the heir to a substantial fortune while still a teenager. After he was powerfully moved by the Gospel he gave this away, reserving initially only what he needed for himself and the care of his sister, before finally giving up everything and adopting the life of a hermit.

From that point he concentrated on prayer, reading and manual labour, he ate very little and he cultivated the virtues so that he became a model of humility and charity. During these early years he was also severely tested by the Devil, including physical attacks that left him almost dead. After the final and most grievous of these, he cried out to God: “Where were you, my Lord and Master? Why weren’t you here at the beginning of this conflict to render me assistance?”

In response, he heard the reply: “Antony, I was here the whole time; I stood by you and beheld your combat and because you have manfully withstood your enemies I will always protect you and will render your name famous throughout the earth.”

After 13 years living as an ascetic in solitary places around the town of Koman, St Antony crossed the eastern branch of the Nile and settled in some mountain-top ruins where he lived for the following 20 years, seeing hardly anyone.

But in the year 305, when he was 54 years old, St Antony came down from the mountain to found his first monastery in the Fayum, which consisted of a scattered network of cells. St Antony exhorted the ascetics gathered around him to pay scant attention to the care of the body, to treat each action as if it were the last of their lives and to perfect their fasting, prayer, humility and good works with the love of God.

Then in 311 the hermit left his monastic life to venture into Alexandria to encourage the Christians being persecuted by Maximinus. He wore his white sheep-skin tunic and appeared in the sight of the governor yet he evaded arrest. After the persecution abated, St Antony went on to found another monastery at Pispir, near the Nile, before returning to his life of solitude, occupying himself manually by cultivating a small garden on his desert mountain and by making mats.

He would make another public appearance after he was drawn into the Arian controversy following a dream in which he saw mules kicking down an altar. This left him in a state of horror and he drove anyone who denied the divinity of Christ from his community. The bishops turned to him for help and in 355 he went back to Alexandria to preach against the heresy, likening Arians to heathens because they too “worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator”. He converted many, was said to have worked miracles and, as St Athanasius (who would later write a life of him) escorted him to the gates of the city, he exorcised a girl of an evil spirit.

In 337 the Emperor Constantine and his sons Constantius and Constans wrote to him asking for his prayers. He replied in a letter reminding them to constantly remember the judgement to come, which St Athanasius preserved.

St Jerome mentions seven other letters of St Antony to his monasteries and before he died he also made a visitation of his monks.

He gave instructions that he should be secretly buried near his cell on Mount Kolzim on the Red Sea and bequeathed one sheepskin tunic to his friend St Anthanasius as a public testimony of their unity in faith and communion. Another sheepskin he left to Bishop Serapion and to his monks he left his sackcloth. He died in 356, probably on January 17th, when ancient martyrologies commemorate him. He was 105 years old.

In art, St Antony is constantly depicted with an Egyptian T-shaped crutch or cross, possibly denoting his age and abbatial authority and he is sometimes carrying a book, a little bell – and is accompanied by a pig. This animal served originally as a possible reference to his battles with evil but it later also became associated with the Hospital Brothers of St Antony, who were sometimes allowed to feed their swineherds in oak forests in gratitude for acts of charity they performed within Medieval communities. The pigs also explain why St Antony later became patron saint of butchers and brush-makers (from hogs-hair bristle).