St. Antony was an early and celebrated champion of the ascetic life as well as a pioneer of Christian monasticism. Born in Egypt to wealthy Christian parents, he was transformed one day after hearing the Gospel text in which Jesus instructed a rich young man to sell all he had, give to the poor, and find treasure in heaven. To Antony it seemed this message was addressed personally to him.
After selling his property, Antony set out for the desert, where he embraced a solitary and ascetic life. Aside from hunger and lack of sleep, he contended with many psychological and spiritual ordeals. Constantly assailed by demons, which appeared in various guises—some hideous and others alluring—he sought to still his passions and tap into the source of life. After twenty years of isolation he welcomed a community of monks, who were drawn by his magnetic example. He served as abbot of this early monastery and eventually established a network of similar communities.
Despite his deprivations, Antony remained a picture of health, “neither fat from lack of exercise, nor emaciated from fasting and combat with demons,” and lived to the age of 105. Soon after his death an account of his life by St. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, became hugely popular, feeding an appetite for stories of spiritual heroism, and serving as a prototype for later saints’ lives. Aside from dramatizing Antony’s adventures in self-denial, it emphasized his humanity, his psychological insight, his capacity for compassion and joy.
“He was never troubled, his soul being calm, and he never looked gloomy, his mind being joyous.”
—St. Athanasius, from The Life of Antony