January 17 – Anthony of Egypt

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Anthony of Egypt, reformer of the Church & First Desert Father

There are few more important figures in the history of early Christianity than Anthony of Egypt. By his actions as a desert anchorite he paved the way for the practice of Christian life to develop a genuine monastic ideal. Alone in his cell on Mt Colzim in the Eastern Desert of Egypt, inland from the Nile, he refined asceticism to the point where it became the template for all of monasticism in both Europe and Greece.

Born into a farming family on the Nile in 251 AD, in a village called Coma, Anthony embraced the ascetic life after an early encounter in his local church with a Gospel text that urged him to break with his material ways. “If you be perfect, go sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Matt. 19:21). He received the calling and acted accordingly. At the age of 20, he chose to become a solitary living in a hut outside his village.

Thus began one of the most revolutionary lives in the history of Christianity. No man before Anthony has set such store in the practice of anchoresis (solitary life) and in metanoia (repentance or a turning-about). These became the touchstones of his life as an anchorite, firstly outside his village, later inside an Egyptian tomb for 25 years, and finally as a hermit on Mt Colzim for a period of more than 50 years. He ate little, slept even less and, over the years, turned himself into a ‘metanoic’ man.

His encounter with the mystical impulse was fulsome and unremitting. As St Athanasius, his great chronicler, remarked, he was capable of “going out of himself” and remaining in a state of ecstatic trance for long periods. At other times he experienced challenging battles with demons, which gave us the iconic motif of the so-called “Temptations of Saint Anthony” as depicted in so much of European art. Somehow he was able to overcome these bouts of accidie (spiritual boredom), which themselves were probably the remnants of the psychological taboos of the old Pharaonic religion of his time, in order to become a man of truly luminous statue in the eyes of his contemporaries.

His example made it possible for other men to embrace the anchoritic life. In the years following his death in 256 AD, thousands of men took to the desert up and down the Nile. These actions alone undermined Roman exploitation (through taxes) of Egypt, and the now outmoded Classical ideal then still in vogue in Alexandria. His simple premise that a man could lead an autarchic life in the middle of urban existence set the scene for the great monasteries of Europe to emerge as the founding ideal of early medievalism.

Great saints, such as Francis of Assisi, Ignatius, and much later Simone Weil in the 20th century, sought guidance from his actions. Christ’s life now possessed a practical expression not so much in the value of good works, but in the search for a mystical alignment between a man and his God. Jesus was the intercessionary figure in this respect; but Anthony was his exemplar. Out of this man’s life a new society was born: one that owed its allegiance to no man save he who was prepared to dedicate himself to cultivating what Novalis called “the blue flower” of ascesis.

James Cowan