Today the church remembers a saint pivotal to the Christian movement who doesn’t get a lot of press, but continues to get a lot of emulation: Saint Antony, Abbot in Egypt, Earnest Seeker and Embracer of Extremes.
We should cut to the chase: Saint Antony of Egypt is the founder of Christian monasticism.
Born in Egypt in 251 A.D. at the outset of this new way of living in the world, Antony heard the Gospel edict, “Go and sell all you have and give it to the poor” (Matt. 19:21) when he was just a young man and, for better or worse, took it very seriously.
He sold everything…and he had a lot. His family was extremely wealthy, and he inherited quite the ancient fortune.
Nevertheless, Saint Antony didn’t see much wiggle room in the Gospel call, and so he sold it all and went to live the solitary life in Upper Egypt as an anchorite, ascetic, and prayerful penitent, dedicating his life to following the Divine.
To put bread on his table he wove baskets and sold them at the local market, and he lived in total solitude for twenty years.
The thing is: he saw how living alone could be dangerous for some. It only took him twenty years to figure it out, but in this spiritual experiment he found that loneliness was a sordid companion and had dangers of its own. To combat that the dangers of solitude, Saint Antony gathered the other lonely anchorites and ascetics who were emulating his lonely life and knit them together into a community that could hold one another accountable while also providing some friendship. He drew up some organized rules for their life together, and created a pattern of life that included work, prayer, and worship. In this community fraternal love and a reasonable sense of order created the scaffolding not only for helping those seeking to dedicated their life to following the Divine more sustainable, but inadvertently created a model of being that has grown into a network of souls dedicated to living a life of devotion lasting thousands of years.
For Saint Antony, though, solitude was not so bad. After organizing this initial monastic order, he once again retreated into the womb of his own being, spending the remainder of his life alone in a cave on Mount Kolzim in the Eastern Desert near the Red Sea. People would seek out his lonely cave, asking advice and desiring to glean the pearls of wisdom that fell from his spiritually well-seasoned tongue. He occasionally would also venture out to visit his followers in their little pockets of apocalyptic people and hermitages. He even made the trek to Alexandria in his old age to argue against the heresy of Arianism, though he was more measured in his words.
Funny thing about Saint Antony: he was never ordained and never took any holy orders. He was a lay person his whole life, and had lived over a century when he took his last breath. The Monastery of St. Antony still exists today and remains a pilgrim point for many in the monastic world, and he is commonly now known as Saint Antony the Great.
Saint Antony of Egypt is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that sometimes loneliness for clergy can be a killer, and we need to have some formal structures in place to combat this. I’ve seen this in my own life…and continue to see it all around me.
Let those with ears to hear, hear.
-historical bits gleaned from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations
-icon written by Fr. Theodore Koufos over at Legacy Icons