17 January 2022

With the Saints through Christmas (23):
17 January 2022, Saint Anthony of Egypt

Salvador Dali’s ‘Temptation of Saint Anthony’ … a modern representation that builds on the rich iconography of the past centuries

Patrick Comerford

This looks like being a busy day, yet again. But, before this day gets busy, I am taking some time early this morning for prayer, reflection and reading.

I have been continuing my Prayer Diary on my blog each morning, reflecting in these ways:

1, Reflections on a saint remembered in the calendars of the Church during the Season of Christmas, which continues until Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation (2 February);

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

This morning (17 January 2022), I am reflecting on the life of Saint Anthony the Great, or Saint Anthony of Egypt.

Saint Anthony is the best-known of the Desert Fathers. He moved to the desert ca 270-271 and became known as both the father and founder of desert monasticism. The biography of Saint Anthony by Saint Athanasius of Alexandria helped to spread monasticism, particularly in Western Europe through Latin translations.

Sometime ca 270, Saint Anthony heard a Sunday sermon stating that perfection could be achieved by selling all one’s possessions, giving the proceeds to the poor, and following Christ (see Matthew 19: 21). He followed the advice and made the further step of moving deep into the desert to seek complete solitude.

Saint Anthony lived in a time of transition for Christianity. The Diocletian Persecution in 303 was the last great formal persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. Ten years later, Christianity became legal in Egypt under Diocletian’s successor, Constantine I.

Those who left for the desert formed an alternative Christian society, at a time when it was no longer a risk to be a Christian. The solitude, austerity, and sacrifices of the desert were seen by Saint Anthony as an alternative to martyrdom, which was formerly seen by many Christians as the highest form of sacrifice.

By the time Saint Anthony died in 356, thousands of monks and nuns had followed his example by moving to live in the desert. His biographer, Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, wrote: ‘The desert had become a city.’

Desert monasticism appeared almost simultaneously in several areas, including Egypt and Syria. Saint Paul of Thebes is often credited with being the first hermit monk to go to the desert. He is also known as Saint Paul the First Hermit or Saint Paul the Anchorite.

Familiar stories from The Life of Saint Paul the First Hermit, written in Latin by Saint Jerome ca 375/376, include: the meeting of Saint Paul and Saint Anthony, the raven who brought them bread, Saint Anthony being sent to fetch the cloak given him by ‘Athanasius the Bishop’ to bury Saint Paul’s body, Saint Paul’s death before he returned, and the grave dug by lions.

So, Saint Paul of Thebes is known to posterity because Saint Anthony was told in a dream ca 342 about the older hermit and went into the Desert to find him.

Saint Jerome also tells the story of how these two Desert Fathers met when Saint Paul was aged 113. They conversed with each other for one day and one night.

The Synaxarium shows the saints inviting each other to bless and break the bread as a token of honour. Saint Paul held one side, putting the other side into the hands of Father Anthony, and soon the bread broke through the middle and each took his part.

When Saint Anthony next visited him, Saint Paul was dead. Saint Anthony clothed him in a tunic he was given by Saint Athanasius of Alexandria and buried him, with two lions helping to dig the grave. Saint Anthony returned to his monastery taking with him the robe woven with palm leaf. He honoured the robe so much that he only wore it twice a year, on Easter Day and the Day of Pentecost.

Over time, the model of Anthony and other hermits attracted many followers, who lived alone in the desert or in small groups. They chose a life of extreme asceticism, renouncing all the pleasures of the senses, rich food, baths, rest, and anything that made them comfortable. Thousands joined them in the desert, mostly men but also a handful of women. Religious seekers also began going to the desert seeking advice and counsel from the early Desert Fathers.

Saint Anthony of Egypt is commemorated in the Church Calendar on 17 January.

An image of Saint Anthony above the entrance to Saint Anthony’s Church in Mitropolis Square, Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

John 2: 18-22 (NRSVA):

18 Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ 19 Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding-guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.

21 ‘No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. 22 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.’

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (17 January 2022) invites us to pray at the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity:

Today we pray for Christians across many churches, denominations and continents. May we work together to share the love of Jesus Christ with each other and with those who feel outside of the Church.

Yesterday: Saint Fursey

Tomorrow: Martin Luther King

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Saint Paul of Thebes (right) being visited in the Desert by Saint Anthony … notice the raven and the desert lions

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