Saint of the Day – 17 January – St Anthony Abbot (c 251-356) Monk and Hermit. Also known as: Anthony of Egypt• Anthony of the Desert• Anthony the Great• Anthony the Hermit• Father of Western Monasticism. Patronages – against eczema, epileptics; against epilepsy, against ergotism, against pestilence, against skin diseases, against skin rashes, of amputees, anchorites, animals, basket makers and weavers, brushmakers, butchers, cemetery workers, domestic animals, farmers, gravediggers, graveyards, hermits, hogs, pigs, swine, monks, relief from pestilence, swineherds, Hospitallers, Tempio-Ampurias, Italy, diocese of 9 cities. Attributes – bell, pig, book, Tau cross, Tau cross with bell pendant.
The biography of Anthony’s life by Athanasius of Alexandria helped to spread the concept of Christian monasticism, particularly in Western Europe via its Latin translations. He is often erroneously considered the first Christian monk but as his biography and other sources make clear, there were many ascetics before him. Anthony was, however, the first to go into the wilderness (about ad 270), which seems to have contributed to his renown. Accounts of Anthony enduring supernatural temptation during his sojourn in the Eastern Desert of Egypt inspired the often-repeated subject of the temptation of St Anthony in Western art and literature. St Anthony is appealed to against infectious diseases, particularly skin diseases. In the past, many such afflictions, including ergotism, erysipelas, and shingles, were referred to as St Anthony’s fire.
Anthony was born in Egypt in 250. At age 20, when his parents died, Anthony made sure his younger sister’s education could be completed in a community of holy women. He then sold all his possessions and left for a life of solitude in the desert. There an elderly hermit taught him about prayer and penance. For 20 years, he lived in isolation. Anthony wanted to know God deeply. He did penance by taking only bread and water once a day at sunset. The devil appeared to him in terrible shapes to tempt him. But Anthony had great confidence in God. Anthony’s unusual life did not make him harsh but radiant with God’s love and compassion.
Stories of Anthony’s holiness spread and people came to learn from him how to become holy. Some admirers wanted to stay, so Anthony—at age 54—founded a type of monastery consisting of hermitages near one another. Anthony wrote a rule that guided the monks. Later when Anthony heard of the persecutions of the Christians, he wanted to die a martyr. At 60, he left the desert to minister to the Christians in prisons, fearlessly exposing himself to danger. He came to realise that a person can die daily for Christ by serving him in ordinary ways with great love.
So he returned to the desert to his life of prayer and penance. His life of solitude was again interrupted, however, when at age 88 he had a vision in which he saw the harm Arian followers were doing to the Church by denying the divinity of Christ. Anthony left for Alexandria to preach against this heresy. At age 90, another vision sent Anthony searching the desert for Saint Paul, the first hermit. These two holy men met and spoke of the wonders of God. Anthony is said to have died peacefully in a cave at age 105.
The life of Anthony will remind many people of St Francis of Assisi. At 20, Anthony was so moved by the Gospel message, “Go, sell what you have, and give to [the] poor” (Mark 10:21b), that he actually did just that with his large inheritance. He is different from Francis in that most of Anthony’s life was spent in solitude. At 54, he responded to many requests and founded a sort of monastery of scattered cells. Again like Francis, he had great fear of “stately buildings and well-laden tables.” Like Francis and of course, many saints, Anthony too desired martyrdom.
Anthony is associated in art with a T-shaped cross (which St Francis adopted), a pig and a book. The pig and the cross are symbols of his valiant warfare with the devil—the cross his constant means of power over evil spirits, the pig a symbol of the devil himself. The book recalls his preference for “the book of nature” over the printed word.