By Archimandrite Elpidios Vagianakis (in greek)
SAINT ANTHONY THE GREAT
FOUNDER OF CHRISTIAN MONASTICISM
(Commemorated on January 17th)
HIS CHILDHOOD YEARS
Saint Anthony was born in 251 A.D. in Koma, a small village in south Memphis in Egypt near the banks of the Nile River, during the era of the Roman Emperor Decius, a notorious persecutor of Christians.
His parents were rather wealthy but also devout Christians. By his nature little Anthony was an extremely sweet, polite, and humble child. Everyone loved him as their own child for the goodness and respect which he showed to all people.
He loved everyone, even the most scorned person. Whenever Anthony saw a poor, orphaned or sick child, he was inclined to assist them.
Even though he was so young, his words were full of wisdom and prudence.
But what most impressed everyone and made them refer to him as a child of God was his great devotion and tender love towards Jesus Christ. Whenever he spoke of Him, his heart would burn like lava in a volcano.
His greatest joy was attending divine services with his beloved parents in their small village church. There, he would listen carefully to the reading of the Gospels, which he had an eager desire to follow and apply precisely in his life.
When he prayed, his entire being literally became a single flame. Watching him one could see how the saints used to pray.
He was a man of temperance in his diet and very careful with the company he kept. He craved solitude most of the time in order to pray without disturbance. When other children were reading or playing, he would kneel in some corner and pray. He had such passion for prayer from the time he was a little boy and nothing else on earth could move him as much. Vainly his various friends and relatives tried to turn his attention elsewhere.
He saw all the joys of life as temporary and therefore they didn’t interest him, and so, even though he was very intelligent, he never went to school to learn how to read and write.
During this period not everyone in his small village had converted to Christianity and going to school caused him great distress because he was forced to learn about idolatrous beliefs with the other children, which conflicted with his Christian faith.
Moreover, his pious parents strived to educate and nurture their beloved boy only in the Christian culture and faith. They raised him with the sacred stories from the Bible and also of the holy Christian martyrs, who at that time watered the soil of the Roman Empire with their blood.
HE DISTRIBUTES HIS PROPERTY TO THE POOR
At the age of eighteen, Anthony lost his dear parents. Their death caused him great sorrow. He realized how futile this world is and how quickly a person passes through this temporary life.
Orphaned now with only his younger sister in the house for company, he fervently prayed to God to show him His will and how to follow it.
One Sunday, when he went to church with his little sister, he heard the passage from the Gospel in which a rich, young man asked Jesus Christ what he must do to become perfect and obtain salvation for his soul. In response, Christ said to the rich young man:
“If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” (Matt 19:21)
These words of Christ made a great impression on the young Anthony.
He was himself young and wealthy and shared the same agony and desire as the young man mentioned in the Gospel.
He understood the message, which the Lord had clearly sent him as an answer concerning his future path.
Immediately, he sold his possessions and donated most of the money to the poor and destitute in his neighborhood. Afterwards, he put aside a small portion for his sister’s needs.
But as his sister was equally pious, virtuous and deeply fond of her brother, she followed his example.
One day, while attending the divine service in church, they heard the Gospel teaching of Christ, saying:
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things.” (Matt 6:34)
As soon as they returned home, she gave him back the remaining money, so it could be distributed to the suffering poor.
HE LEAVES FOR THE DESERT
Having no remaining possessions, this brother and sister choose to totally dedicate themselves to God.
His sister entered a commune where virtuous Christian women lived in prayer, with one purpose: to do good deeds out of love to-wards their fellow men and obey God’s will.
Anthony started living a hermit’s life in a little hut he had built, outside his village.
During those days, there weren’t any monasteries like today, but only small hermitages, where holy souls lived ascetically in solitude and prayer.
In one such hermitage, not far away from the humble little hut of Anthony, lived an ascetic elder. His holy life attracted the young Anthony who asked him for direction in the ways of the virtuous ascetic life. Thus, the holy hermit became the first spiritual father and guide of Saint Anthony.
Anthony intensely desired to acquire virtues, so whenever he learned of some wise and holy elder, he would run close to him like a thirsty deer to a spring, to observe and then imitate his ascetic life.
All the hermits loved him because he struggled not only to imitate them, but also to surpass them! Thus, from one he discovered the grace of prayer, from another the grace of humility, from the next the grace of great abstinence, and generally from all, every talent that God had adorned each one of them according to their asceticism.
His diet was as little as possible, consisting of dry bread, vegetables and some water. He would go for days without eating at all. At nights, he laid awake making prostrations and praying before God. To remain awake he stood erect most of the time and he had a wooden stick to rest on, in order not to collapse from fatigue. Thus, his fiery and powerful prayer rose up like fragrant incense to the heavenly throne of God. Anthony struggled with all the strength of his soul to acquire the various virtues. With deep humility and much suffering, he proceeded steadily, step-by-step, on the difficult path of ascetic life. Jesus Christ blessed the young man and filled him with heavenly gifts. Within a very short time, all the virtues adorned the 20-year-old Anthony.
THE FIRST TEMPTATIONS
Due to Anthony’s spiritual progress and holiness, a demon became enflamed and wounded him and set evil traps to stop his efforts to live a hermit’s life. The first weapon he used was the confusion of thoughts.
He said cunningly and persuasively:
“Why are you so stupid? You left so much wealth to come here in the middle of the desert to die of hunger and cold. Your hut is damp and you don’t even have a mattress to rest your weary body on. You’re exhausting your body so much that after a little while you won’t be able to endure this hardship and you’ll die. We’ll see then what you’ll say to God when you have killed your body with this stupid asceticism. And why are you so ascetic? Will all the others who live in the world be lost, and only you be saved? Is what you’re doing right?”
But Anthony said within himself, rebuking the devil:
“I’m neither foolish for distributing my property to the poor, nor for struggling in asceticism for the sake of my beloved Jesus. It’s wonderful for somebody to struggle for the love of God, and thus acquire the divine virtues, by which he will be elevated and become His true child. And though my body suffers, it’s also been taught to obey and follow me towards a virtuous life, instead of enslaving me to the various passions that you stir up.”
The demon was shaken, but he continued his tempting assaults.
“Fine, you don’t care about yourself, but what about your sister? Don’t you feel sorry for abandoning her all alone at such a young age? Instead of standing by her, protecting and supporting her, you deserted her as if she was a stranger. How she suffers, the poor child! You’re a callous brother.”
Anthony again said within himself:
“Nobody can protect anyone else but God. You, cursed demon, I left my dear sister in the hands of the most powerful protector, our heavenly Father.”
The demon was greatly disturbed by the powerful, wise resistance of Anthony, but he didn’t quit the war against him. He thought that it would be embarrassing for such a young boy to defeat him. He set about implementing other evil schemes that he was sure would beat him.
The next temptation was very powerful. In order to take advantage of his youth, he disturbed him with shocking visions. He showed him places of entertainment where, among much wine and immodest music, young men and women performed lewd and demonic acts. Day and night the attacks continued. He hoped at some point to lure him in and then cast him down from the pillar of his virtues.
Anthony fought back like a lion. He resisted the assaults of these temptations. He extended and increased his fasting. He reduced the little food that he ate. The demon became furious and wouldn’t stop. He became more provocative. He appeared now before Anthony as a naked girl and induced him to sin. He said passionate things and words to him to excite his imagination.
Anthony suffered under the strength of this temptation. The war was extremely tough. The demon hoped to cause the downfall of the young ascetic. Anthony, weary from the fierce and merciless struggle, knelt with tears in his eyes, and cried out for help to his beloved Saviour:
“My Lord, Jesus Christ, help me, your humble servant. The demon, like a wild and starving animal wants to swallow me. To You, I entrust my soul and all my hopes. Don’t let me be lost!”
That was all it took! The saint’s prayer drove out the demon. He roared with rage at the power of Anthony’s prayer. He left for a while to prepare new snares. He would now use his most powerful temptation: pride.
He, therefore, appeared in the form of a sickly black youth and said to him:
“Anthony, I have wrestled with many people and I’ve beaten them all. Many of them I have deceived with my tricks and they’ve become my slaves. I’m tired of fighting with you. You’re stronger than I am. I salute you.”
“Who are you, appearing suddenly in front of me with such a wretched appearance?”
“I’m the spirit of lust, and my work is to cunningly produce fleshly desires in the youth and throw them into sin.”
Anthony didn’t become proud, as Satan had hoped, but wept with distress, seeing with what shrewdness the demon darkens the minds of men and seduces them to sin. He asked God to protect and enlighten all the children of the world and enable them to escape the snares of Satan. With disgust, he turned to the demon and said to him:
“Get away from me, Satan. With the help of God, I’m not afraid of you.”
These were the first great temptations and victories of Anthony.
HIS STRUGGLES AGAINST SATAN
Since Saint Anthony knew that the tricks of Satan were diverse, he never neglected to shield himself from them.
He continuously armed his soul with spiritual weapons. He frequently kept vigils all-night long. Once a day after sunset, he would eat a few vegetables and every two or three days some dried bread with water. He would sleep on the ground or an old mat for as long as his body could endure it, without becoming ill.
In this method, he subdued the disorderly impulses of the body. He didn’t torture his body because he hated it, but disciplined it in order to suppress the rebellion of his flesh.
He knew that Satan wouldn’t abandon the fight so easily. Therefore, he prepared himself for this moment with diligence. He didn’t want Satan to catch him off-guard.
To increase his asceticism he went and settled in a small space, in an old tomb far from the village.
A pious Christian, who greatly respected Anthony, brought him some food every few days.
Enclosed in this damp prison, he increased his ascetic struggles and prayers to God. He would raise his hands to heaven and stay in this position for many hours. He was so absorbed in this divine communication that he’d forget his earthly body.
The prayers of the saints aren’t just a formal repetition of certain words to God, but a powerful and essential relationship between God and the person concerned.
The praying saint transcended the narrow limits of this world and plunged into another spiritual dimension. There, he enjoyed an advanced taste of the supernatural grace of paradise, like what the saints experience in the Kingdom of God.
THE DEMONS LEAVE HIM UNCONSCIOUS
Satan didn’t remain indifferent to Anthony’s new spiritual struggles. He prepared new battles and new snares for him.
Once, in the middle of the night, while he was praying with deep repentance, entirely forgetting mundane affairs, a tremendous uproar took place. A large number of wild animals and reptiles appeared: snakes, tigers, scorpions, wolves, lions and many more. They started biting him and tearing at his flesh. They were the demons that wanted to terrify and chase him out of his solitude.
Anthony the Great saw the wild rage of the dark powers but he knew how to act. Showing great generosity and courage he shouted at them with all his might:
“I’m not afraid of you! You won’t beat me! Your screams only bring to light your great weaknesses.”
Anthony’s courage and patience made the devils furious. They rushed at him and started beating him. They gave him such a thrashing that his body was completely covered with wounds. Only when he was senseless and half-dead did the demons leave him.
The next morning, the Christian who brought Anthony his food, found him in this sorry state. At first, he thought that he was dead but when he saw that he was still breathing, he quickly carried him to friends to tend to him.
Anthony recovered overnight and with the help of his Christian supporter, returned to his small abode. After praying, he addressed the demons and shouted:
“Here I am! With the power of Jesus Christ, I’m not afraid of your satanic assaults or your beatings!“
The demons were irate. They appeared again as wild animals and reptiles, bellowing and hissing loudly. They gnashed their teeth viciously and tried to use their poison on him. The tomb was shaken to its foundation, as if a big earthquake had occurred. It was pandemonium. Various wild animals attacked him. The lion roared and jumped on him trying to eat him; the scorpion stung him; the bull tried to gore him with its horns; and all the others used every means to frighten him.
Anthony’s body was still tender from the previous assaults and he suffered greatly.
But he was not discouraged. He laughed at them and said:
“If you had a little power, only one of you would be enough to exterminate me, but because my Lord has deprived you of any power, you’re just trying to scare me by using different illusions, transforming into many wild animals. If you have the authority to exterminate me, do it now. Go ahead! Why do you look so upset?”
CHRIST PRESENTS HIMSELF
The words of the saint made the devils gnash their teeth viciously. Their hatred for the young ascetic was tremendous.
They started a new attack, but suddenly a heavenly, divine light shone through the roof of the damp tomb and the demons immediately disappeared.
An indescribable serenity and peace spread everywhere. The fresh wounds of our saint were miraculously healed! A vast joy filled up the heart and soul of the holy ascetic.
Anthony perceived the divine visit of his beloved Jesus and he gently moaned, saying:
“Where were you before this, my dear Jesus? Why didn’t you soothe my pains from the very beginning? For sixteen years now Satan has been inflaming me.”
Then he heard the sweet, affectionate voice of Jesus saying to him:
“I was here, Anthony, all the time, watching you even though you couldn’t see me. I was waiting to see if you would resist. Since you suffered all these martyrdoms faithfully for Me, I’ll be close to you forever and make your name renowned all over the world.”
Saint Anthony was filled with courage and heavenly power upon hearing these words.
He thanked God with tears of gratitude for giving him the necessary strength to win this battle. He had never before felt so capable and vigorous, as he did then in the Lord’s presence!
HE DEPARTS FOR THE INNER DESERT
After this significant divine intervention, Saint Anthony decided to go even further away from worldly matters.
It was 285 A.D. Our saint was about 35 years old.
Before he departed for the inner desert, he had met with his holy elder; his first instructor who’d initiated him into the ascetic life. He wanted his blessing and also to ask him if he was willing to come with him to the desert.
The old man blessed the young ascetic with all his heart, but he refused to follow him. In the first place, he was too old and couldn’t endure the hardships and secondly, it wasn’t a habit among the hermits of this era to go to the inner desert.
Saint Anthony, therefore, started off on his journey alone. He passed through the Nile River and turned towards the mountains on the right bank of the river, which face Arabia.
THE SILVER DISK AND THE GOLD
While he was walking slowly on the hot desert sand, saying his prayer, he heard a noise, like someone had thrown something. He immediately turned towards it and saw a silver disk glittering in the sand! Anthony the Great ignored it for a minute, then glancing nonchalantly at it again, he wondered:
“How did this disk get here? There’s no road here or path or even footprints from people passing by. If this disk was dropped by somebody, wouldn’t he have heard it fall and turned back around to get it? Demon, this is a trick of yours in order to tempt me with greed and deceive me! I’ll give this coin to you! Take it with you to the dark kingdom of Hell!”
As soon as he had said this, the disk disappeared. The demon was defeated but that didn’t stop his evil plotting.
* * *
As Anthony continued walking, a bright pile of gold appeared in front of him.
Saint Anthony was impressed with the amount of gold, but instead of showing any interest, he quickly ran away.
It was a victory for our saint over the craftiness of Satan, who had hoped to make him pause to admire the earthly wealth and entice him to greed.
Gold, a source of power and authority on earth, didn’t tempt our saint at all, who maintained his indifferent attitude. God allowed this trial to occur, to show all his children and the devil too, that perfect happiness can only be found in God.
For the saints, the true philosophy is to love. They don’t follow false things but instead permanent and eternal ones which give them real joy. This is why they scorn the false, carnal pleasures on earth and instead follow whatever is spiritual and heavenly, even offering their own lives.
WRESTLING WITH SATAN
He walked on into the desert until he came upon some ruins. It was an old abandoned fortress with a cool spring nearby. The spring could provide him with water and he was pleased with the tranquility of this location.
He entered the fortress and beseeched God to bless the place. Many reptiles and wild animals were living there, but as soon as Anthony entered the ruins, they fled like they were being chased by an invisible force.
Saint Anthony lived in this place for about 20 years, wrestling all alone with the dark powers of Satan.
Nobody can describe the countless satanic assaults that our saint endured here or the heroic victories he won! Night and day, he fought his enemies using his ceaseless, fiery prayer as a weapon!
The demons didn’t let up even for a second. They moaned like wild animals, hissed like poisonous reptiles, always ready to attack. They transformed themselves into beautiful women and sang erotic songs to scandalize him. They used every trick in the book, in order to push him off of the foundation of his great faith in God. But all in vain!
Anthony fought like a hero! He fasted, went nights without sleep, prayed continuously and courageously resisted all temptation. He mocked the demons and drove them out in the all-holy name of Christ.
Nowhere in the spiritual trials of humanity has anyone suffered and endured such satanic attacks and survived. Not only did he survive this spiritual warfare, but he won!
Saint Anthony’s achievements are admired by the entire Christian world. Tales of his victorious battles with Satan became part of everyday conversation during this time.
They all saw him as a tremendous, bright star of the church and called him, “Anthony the Great”!
They found out where he was living as a hermit and began to visit him! Many of them witnessed his great ascetic struggles for themselves.
Once, some pilgrims went to see him to benefit from his wisdom, but when they arrived at the fortress where he was living, they heard wild screams coming from within:
“Go away! The desert is ours. You won’t be able to endure our snares and assaults!”
At first the visitors thought that the voices were human, but shortly they realized that they were satanic.
Now they were frightened and sought Anthony’s help and protection. The saint approached them affectionately and told them:
“My dear friends don’t be afraid of these voices. Leave the demon to be beaten. The only thing you need to do is make the sign of the cross with deep faith and then walk without fear.”
The visitors happily returned home, spreading the name of the holy ascetic, Anthony, everywhere, for they had gotten a small taste of his superhuman struggle and benefited enormously from his teachings.
AN EXCELLENT TEACHER
With this admiration came many disciples, who wanted to imitate his holy life.
Other hermits thought he was a shining example, showing them with patience and love, the spiritual journey to draw near to God.
Enlightened by the Holy Spirit, his words became a valuable guide for those who longed to save their souls.
They sat close to him, attentive to his marvellous teachings. His fatherly admonitions soothed their souls, like a welcome breeze in the scorching heat.
He spoke to them of the true love of God and the holy sufferings of Jesus Christ with such faith and excitement that his listeners were deeply touched.
Those weighed down under the burden of their many sins, found peace of mind near him. He advised them not to be disheartened by their weaknesses, but to turn to their crucified Redeemer, contemplating His holy wounds, the crown of thorns, the sharp nails in His hands and feet, His side pierced with a spear; and to seek his mercy and forgiveness.
These lost and wandering sheep would return to their shepherd when confronted with our sinless Lord’s crucifixion.
His compassionate words made all the sinners repent, with tears of confession shining like pearls on their faces.
He reminded them of all the sinful people mentioned by Christ in the Holy Gospel: the prodigal son; Zacchaeus; the prostitute; the Evangelist Mathew, a former tax-collector; the Great Apostle Paul, a one-time persecutor of Christians; and so many others, who through their repentance, God not only forgave but made saints!
He tried not only to help the sinners repent but rekindle the flame of God’s love in their hearts.
When he talked about the love of God, his entire body was on fire and his face shone so brightly that nobody could look directly at him.
Like burning lava in the center of a volcano, Anthony’s love for Christ flowed from deep within his soul.
Whenever he said the name of our Lord aloud, his heart throbbed with emotion and his tender face was etched with tears.
Years after Anthony’s death, a later saint begged God to show him all the Christian saints. God answered his prayer and showed him all the orders of the saints in paradise. But Saint Anthony was nowhere to be found. Disappointed, he asked God to tell him where he was. Then a heavenly voice answered that Saint Anthony never left the side of His heavenly throne!
THE DESERT FILLS WITH MONKS
Such an exceptional and unique teacher couldn’t stay hidden. His fame spread everywhere and crowds came to see him and receive his blessing.
Young men, eager to dedicate themselves to Christ, abandoned worldly affairs and became monks. His hermitage soon became surrounded by these new ascetic monks, turning the desert into a city of newly-built monasteries.
Like the angels of heaven, Anthony’s disciples in the tranquility of the desert, praised and glorified God with hymns.
The demons fought them fiercely, but they weren’t afraid of them because they had an experienced fighter to lead them.
They sought to acquire his tested knowledge of fighting the demons.
Saint Anthony, with fatherly affection, frequently gathered all his spiritual children around him and advised them with examples from his own experiences.
“Be mindful, my dear children, of the craftiness and lies of Satan. Don’t believe what he says to you. Once a demon visited me and said: ‘Anthony, we came in here to bring you light, because we regret that you live in darkness.’ At that moment I didn’t talk to them. I closed my eyes and prayed, but when I opened my eyes, I couldn’t see any light. There was only absolute darkness. The frightened demons had disappeared.”
A monk then said to him, “Once, a demon was shaking my cell so strongly that for a moment I thought he was going to destroy it.”
“Don’t be afraid of these tricks, my brother. One time demons came to me too and shook my hermitage vigorously because they wanted me to flee in fear. Then, a very tall demon with a dreadful face, stood in front of me and said: ‘Anthony, I’m the power of God. What would you like me to give you?’ I understood right away the demonic plot, so I blew on him three times and shouted: ‘In the name of my Lord, Jesus Christ get out of here!’ I didn’t finish my prayer before the demon disappeared, leaving behind a terrible mess.”
Another disciple said to him, “Holy elder, whenever we fast the devil creates very enticing meals in our imagination and gives us such an appetite that we have neither the courage to say our prayers, nor to continue our fast!”
“My dear children, the devil knows too well that fasting is a very powerful weapon against him, and that’s why he tries to discourage you from this great practice. Through fasting, vigilance and prayer, God gives us substantial heavenly gifts. One day when I was fasting for many days and nights, a shameless demon came dressed like a monk with loaves of bread and said: ‘Anthony, don’t fast too much or you’ll become ill. Eat this bread that I’ve brought you, for strength.’ But I stood up instead, made the sign of the cross and prayed until the demon disappeared.”
The saint advised his spiritual children to guard all the thoughts entering their minds and confess them to experienced elders.
He said that thoughts were the easiest door for the devil to enter a soul. The devil uses thoughts as a way to disappoint us with our spiritual progress. He plants seeds of fear in us that we can’t succeed in our struggle with him and that we’ll eventually be beaten no matter what we do.
He fills our minds with proud thoughts; like that we’re “great saints”. If we don’t rely on the unshakable rock of humility, he would surely mislead us and we’d be lost; for selfishness alone is enough to send a soul to hell!
Saint Anthony said to his disciples, “Once the demons came to me and pretended to admire me greatly. They hoped to throw me into the fire of hell by inciting the passion of selfishness. They even knelt down in respect, because I’m supposedly a well-known saint, saying: ‘Anthony you’re a great saint and a fortunate man!’ I didn’t let them finish their words. With deep humility I cried out: ‘My Lord, forgive your sinful servant, for I’m the lowest of all the people on earth.’ Then I heard the demons moan and howl, like they were being whipped mercilessly. They exclaimed: ‘You burn us, Anthony, you burn us. You whip us with your great humility. We can’t endure it any more!’ ”
With his wisdom and many personal examples, Anthony the Great instructed not only his monks, but also all the pious Christians who took refuge in his remote hermitage.
CLOSE TO THE MARTYRS
While our saint was fighting ascetically in the desert, the church of Christ was being persecuted. Around the year 311 A.D. Emperor Maximinos ordered a great persecution of all Christians.
The church went through one of its bloodiest and most heroic periods. Innumerable Christians were arrested and martyred for Christ.
These persecutions spread to Egypt. The country of the Nile River was covered in the blood of martyrs. In the desert, Anthony the Great learned about the cruel torture which they endured and admired them greatly.
He abandoned the desert with some other monks and went to the holy athletes. His heart burned with an eager desire to suffer as a martyr himself for the love of Jesus.
He boldly entered the prisons and bolstered the martyrs with his stirring words. He praised them for their obvious long-suffering and filled their heart with courage and deep faith.
His presence increased their faith and they tolerated the cruel tortures with fresh courage. They stared fearlessly at the wild beasts racing towards them to tear them into pieces. They joyfully chanted the hymn of victory, while being crucified and burned like candles at the hands of the idolaters. They continued chanting doxologies to God and refused to renounce Christ, as they were placed in enormous kettles of burning tar.
Anthony the Great envied their torture. He also wanted to suffer and even die as a martyr for Christ. But that wasn’t God’s will. When the persecutions stopped, he returned to his beloved desert and hermit’s life. His spiritual disciples and the numerous ascetics nearby were waiting anxiously to see him again.
HE HEALS A WOMAN POSSESSED BY AN EVIL SPIRIT
As the fame of his holiness grew, the number of people who traveled to the remote desert increased because they wanted to see the great ascetic and hear his divine words.
One of these was a top-ranking officer, named Martinian, who beseeched Anthony:
“In the name of God, please help me. I have a daughter who is terribly possessed by Satan. Pray so that the demon will leave her.”
“My fellow man, what would you like me to do since I’m as sinful as you are? But if you believe in Jesus Christ, return to your house, pray with true faith to God, and your daughter will be healed.”
The officer simply believed Saint Anthony’s words. He returned to his house, said his heartfelt prayer to God to heal his beloved daughter.
Miraculously, the demon left and the child was healed.
From then on, many sick people started coming to the miraculous ascetic to be blessed, in the hope that they’d be cured of their various diseases. Among them were many people possessed by evil spirits, whom our saint liberated from the dark bonds of Satan.
HE LEAVES FOR THE FAR DESERT
So long as the people kept flocking to him in droves and his fame increased, our saint grew continuously more distressed. In order to evade the demon of pride, he secretly decided to depart from there and go far away to the Upper Thebaid. He took some dry bread and came down to the river to cross to the opposite bank. As he was waiting for the boat, he suddenly heard a voice say to him:
“Where are you going Anthony?”
“The people disturb me and ask me to work miracles far above my power. That’s why I’m leaving for the Upper Thebaid.”
“Even if you go to Thebaid, they’ll come to see you. If you want to have more tranquility, go to the inner desert.”
“Who’s going to show me the road, since I don’t know the way?”
“In a little bit, some Saracens are going to come. Follow them and they’ll guide you to a place of absolute serenity.”
Indeed, some Saracens arrived soon after and graciously agreed to lead him to the place he wanted to go.
Three days later, they arrived at a high mountain, known in those days as Kolzim, (but later called Saint’s Anthony Mountain), about 50 km from the Red Sea.
The place was very beautiful. It was full of date trees and bubbling springs. The Saracens left Saint Anthony here, after giving him some of their bread.
Anthony the Great loved this place very much. Here he would live all alone, with only his most beloved Lord as company. He prayed earnestly day and night, isolated from the outside world in absolute tranquility and severe asceticism. Here God revealed to him the mysteries of life and creation. Saint Anthony lived like an earthly angel; only concerned with the unceasing glorification of God.
After a short period of time his disciples learned where their beloved spiritual father was and immediately ran to be close to him. They were in need of his wise advice and miraculous blessing.
They also started taking care of his physical sustenance, regularly bringing basic foodstuffs. Saint Anthony grew very worried seeing how tired his monks were, after bringing these provisions from so great a distance.
Thankfully, this place was very fertile, so he asked them to bring tools for farming and some wheat to sow there. In this way, he became self-supporting, since with a little sweat he could earn his daily bread with his own hands.
He planted also some vegetables for his visitors.
The wild animals of the desert though, came to drink water, passing through his small garden and destroying both the garden and seedlings.
St. Anthony waited until he found one of the wild animals in the garden and approached it and spoke to it like a human:
“Why do you destroy my garden? I’ve never harmed you! In the name of Christ, go away and never come back.”
From then on, the wild animals left his garden in peace!
THE ASSAULTS OF THE DEVIL
Saint Anthony’s holy asceticism highly irritated the demons. They never stopped tormenting him, even for a second, and they hoped the day would come when they’d eventually triumph over him.
Once they made the wild lions and hyenas of the desert encircle him. They threatened to tear him into pieces. They were growling and licking their lips. Saint Anthony bravely went outside his hut and said to them:
“If God gave you the authority to eat me, come and do it. But if the devil asked you to, go away, because I’m a humble servant of Christ!”
As soon as he spoke, all the wild beasts left in an uproar and the saint thanked God for His heavenly protection.
Another time while he was weaving a basket in his hut, he saw the door opening by itself. He turned towards it and saw a strange wild beast. From the waist up, he was human, but below the waist, a donkey. He was Satan incarnate. Anthony made the sign of the cross and said to him:
“I’m a servant of Christ, if God has permitted you to harm me then do so, otherwise keep away from me.”
The wild beast turned on his heels with fear and trembling. He was in such a hurry to flee that he tripped and fell and died. His death was a symbol of Anthony’s triumph over all demons.
For 20 straight years, without any results, the demons fought and tormented him. Finally, they began to admit their shortcomings against the Christians.
* * *
The saint recalled, “One stormy winter night, it was pouring down rain and blowing wind. I heard somebody knocking. Thinking that it was just a visitor, I opened the door of my hut. In front of me stood a very tall demon who said:
‘I’m the devil incarnate. Tell me why the monks and other Christians blame me so unjustly? Why do they curse me? Why do they attack me constantly?’
‘Because you accuse and scandalize them,’ I responded.
But the devil confessed, ‘I’ve been weakened; I have no power anymore. They accuse and scandalize themselves.’
I told him, ‘You’ve always lied, but now you speak the truth. Our Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection has vanquished you and taken your power.’
And with that, our dark enemy left in shame.”
DIVINE GIFTS AND MIRACULOUS ACTIONS
With his great ascetic struggles and earnest prayer, he deadened any sexual urges and earthly desires and attained an impassioned state.
God filled him with heavenly gifts. These gifts and the miracles he was responsible for, with his prayer, were amazing. The following are a few examples.
A nobleman from the palace of the king, named Fronton, was suffering a terrible illness and slowly going blind. He came to the hermitage of the saint and asked for his help. Saint Anthony said to him:
“Go away quickly and you’ll be healed on your return!”
But Fronton didn’t want to leave before being healed.
The saint said to him again:
“As long as you stay here you won’t be cured. Therefore, go away now and before you get to Egypt you’ll be cured!”
The sick nobleman was finally persuaded and left. On his way back he was healed completely.
THE CURE OF A DISGUSTING ILLNESS
A girl, from Vusiri of Tripolis in Libya, was suffering from a serious and disgusting illness.
Her tears and the liquid coming out of her ears and mouth, turned into worms as they fell down to the ground. Her body was paralyzed and she was blind.
Her parents despaired, because no doctor could cure her. They heard about the miraculous Saint Anthony and decided to go with their daughter to see him in the desert and ask him to cure her.
Before they arrived, Anthony the Great said to his monks:
“Go to this sick girl; she’s already healed. They don’t need to trouble themselves to come here to see a sinful man like me. God has heard their prayer and had mercy on them.”
With just his word the miracle immediately took place. To the surprise of the parents, the girl rose from the stretcher she’d been carried on and began to walk by herself, without any trace of her horrible illness.
THE THIRSTY MONKS
One day, he was teaching his disciples, warning them about unclean thoughts, the start of carnal temptations, the base of all sins and gateway to hell, selfishness. Suddenly, he stood up and shouted at two monks:
“Quick, take a pitcher full of water and run past the two big hills. You’ll find two monks who are trying to come here. The first has already died of thirst. Run now to reach the other in time because he’s also in danger.”
The monks ran as fast as they could to the place the saint had described. After many hours they found the two monks. The first one had indeed perished so they buried him there. They revived the other one with food and water and carried him back to the monastery.
They all admired the great gift of foresight, with which God had adorned His chosen servant, Anthony. This same gift can be admired in the case of Eulogios.
THE LEPER AND EULOGIOS
Eulogios lived in Alexandria, in Egypt. He was very much a compassionate Christian, who helped every poor person he could, with joy and patience.
Once, he came upon an old abandoned leper, desperately begging for help. He took pity on him and brought him to his small house to care for him. He had to work all day in order to afford his care, and at night, he nursed the contagious leper, risking his own life.
In the beginning, the old leper was very happy that somebody was caring for him, but after a little while he became so crabby and impudent that he started insulting and degrading poor Eulogios. He soon became impossible for Eulogios to calm down.
For 17 long years the leper was so demonically ungrateful, that Eulogios’s life became unbearable. Many times he thought of throwing him out of the house but he pitied him and remained patient. Still, he couldn’t rid himself of these thoughts of getting rid of the leper, so he decided to seek Saint Anthony for his advice on the situation.
Thus, Eulogios followed other pilgrims going to meet the ascetic. They found Saint Anthony talking to a great number of visitors there. Suddenly, he stopped and went through the crowd towards Eulogios, and said:
“Eulogios, what are you looking for here? Return quickly to your task, so that you don’t lose your reward from God for those 17 years!”
Eulogios was at a loss. Saint Anthony, whom he had never met before, not only knew his name but also his problem. He returned to his small house at once to continue his benevolent care for the ungrateful leper. In three days the old leper died and Eulogios lived another 40 days before his own death.
HE FORCES OUT DEMONS
During his entire life, the demons never stopped harassing him, but they also were terrified whenever he raised his hands in prayer.
All the fires on earth, wouldn’t burn the demons, as much as one of Anthony’s prayers. When he commanded them to leave someone or somewhere, they had to obey.
One day, as he was going to visit some monasteries, he went aboard a small boat to cross to the other side. As they were crossing, an awful stench came to his nose and he wondered:
“What smells so bad around here?”
“Maybe some rotten fish?” someone suggested.
“No, I smell something much worse.”
At that moment, they were interrupted by terrible screams coming from a young man in the boat’s storeroom. A demon had entered him and was torturing him.
Saint Anthony said a prayer, made the sign of the cross over the young man and the demon came out. The man was restored to full health and serenity and he fell to his knees thanking the saint. Then everyone on board realized that the offensive odor the saint had smelled came from the dirty demon hiding in the body of the young man.
* * *
Another time, while the saint was in Alexandria visiting Christians there, a woman approached him in tears and begged him to heal her daughter, who was possessed by an evil spirit.
The demon was torturing the poor girl horribly. Once, the demon threw her into the fire to burn her and another time into a river, to drown her. Other times, the demon forced her to eat her own flesh or waste. It was an endless martyrdom, which made the distraught mother cry morning and night.
They brought the possessed daughter to the saint and as soon as the demon saw him, it groaned in terror and immediately fled, setting the girl free from her dark bonds.
HE SEES THE SOUL OF SAINT AMUN
His pure and unadulterated soul was full of so much power and grace that God blessed him with heavenly revelations and let him examine His mysteries thoroughly.
Once, he was discussing the joys of the heavenly kingdom with his disciples, when he saw a white soul ascending upwards. The soul was accompanied by the holy angels, chanting hymns of glory and gladness. A great celebration was taking place in heaven.
He was dumbstruck at the sight of this divine scene and silently begged God to reveal who this bright soul was.
A voice came down from heaven, saying:
“It is the soul of Amun.”
Amun was a holy monk, living as a hermit in the mountain of Nitria, (about a 13-day journey from saint Anthony’s hermitage). Amun was so holy that it was said that when he wanted to cross the Nile, he would simply walk across the water!
Noticing the wonder on his face, the disciples of Saint Anthony, asked him what he was looking at.
“Just now, Amun, a fellow ascetic and friend of mine, died. I saw his soul ascending to heaven and the holy angels celebrating joyfully!”
His disciples happened to note the time that the saint had this vision.
After about thirty days, monks from Mount Nitria visited the hermitage of Saint Anthony and mentioned the day and the time of Amun’s death.
To their great surprise they ascertained that it was exactly the same moment that Saint Anthony had seen the vision and thereafter, they were even more awestruck at the desert ascetic’s heavenly gifts.
HE IS NAMED GREAT
During Saint Anthony’s life, many people were curious why he was blessed with so many gifts and glorified so greatly, compared to the rest of the ascetics.
There are only a handful of saints who have earned the title ‘”Great” and Anthony is one of them.
What was the reason for this? What did he have in his heart, this humble, good-natured, affectionate spiritual father, which made him resemble our Lord, Jesus Christ, in word and deed?
If we could open and enter the heart of Saint Anthony, we would see only one image and name deeply engraved in his heart.
We would see the figure of his most beloved Savior and Redeemer: Jesus Christ!
It was impossible for someone to visit Saint Anthony and not feel his love for Christ, to kneel in front of him, confessing their sins and not to feel God’s boundless compassion.
His venerable face shone with a heavenly, divine light and his penetrating eyes made them believe that he loved them like no one else on earth!
With his inherent grace he shed light into the darkness of the soul and replaced pain with gladness, to turn away disappointment and to give his visitors serenity and peace!
Not only Christians, but idolaters highly respected him and often came to visit and hear his wise answers to their religious questions.
He challenged the pagan philosophers to prove the power of their idols, but they weren’t successful.
* * *
Once, they brought people possessed by an evil spirit for him to cure. He said to pagans:
“Do you want to test the power of your idols? Here are many sick people; cure them with the skill and power of your gods, so all of us will be persuaded that they’re great and true gods. If you can’t, leave them to me. Then you might recognize that the power of Christ, whom you mock and deny, is the true God.”
The philosophers confessed publicly that they were unable to do this.
The saint prayed, made the sign of the cross over the bodies of the troubled people and to the shock of the pagan philosophers, healed them.
He saw right into their souls, reading their thoughts and saying:
“Don’t marvel at what has happened. I haven’t worked this miracle by myself, Christ has!“
The philosophers went away afterwards, very pleased and confessing everywhere that they had benefitted very much from this encounter with the “man of God”.
THE KINGS WRITE LETTERS TO HIM
The fame of his holiness spread throughout the empire. Everyone wanted to see and hear the great ascetic of the desert. The pious Emperor Constantine the Great and his children, princes Constantios and Constance, wrote to him like a father.
He used to say to the monks, who admired him for his contact with the kings:
“What do you admire so much; that the king sends us letters? He is nothing but a man. You should admire the heavenly letter much more: the Holy Bible, which the Heavenly King, our God, has sent to all of us!”
He wrote to the king and the princes with humility, giving them fatherly advice to be just rulers and care for their poor and needy subjects.
The kings received his letters and happily tried to apply the saint’s spiritual advice.
HE FIGHTS THE HERESY OF ARIANISM
One day as Anthony the Great was sitting and weaving a basket with palm leaves, he saw a horrible vision. He was very upset and wept inconsolably with the things he had seen. He remained for a long time bitterly kneeling in prayer. His disciples were frightened and asked him what had happened and upset him. Then he told them:
“It is better for me to die, my children, than live and see all these things that God has revealed to me. There’s going to be a great heresy in the church. Men will seize and desecrate the church like animals. I saw mules standing around the holy altar, kicking and stomping. Then I heard a voice from heaven saying: ‘They will desecrate My sanctuary.’ ”
Two years later, the demonic heresy of Arius appeared. This heresy preached that Christ is not the Son of God and divine, but only a man!
This satanic heresy misled many people away from the true faith. With hatred and violence, its supporters seized many Orthodox Churches, which they desecrated, fulfilling the saint’s vision. Many holy hierarchs were banished, including the pillar of Orthodoxy, Athanasius the Great. Others suffered tortures for their faith.
The church lived through a period of intense suffering. Satan, who failed to beat the church by the persecutions of idolaters, now struck from within, questioning the divinity of Christ.
Anthony the Great fought back against Satan and his diabolical heresy. He descended from his solitary mountain, and like a divine tornado, rushed into the struggle against Arius.
In 338 A.D. he came to Alexandria and proclaimed everywhere:
“This teaching of Arius isn’t what the Apostles have taught. It’s demonic and a forerunner of the Antichrist!”
The pious Christians gathered their courage. The heretics couldn’t resist Anthony the Great’s arguments for the divinity of Christ. Many of them came back to the true faith.
The long suffering Patriarch of Alexandria, Saint Athanasius, who had been exiled many times, was delighted by Saint Anthony’s actions and remarked:
“One visit of Saint Anthony in Alexandria is so beneficial that it equates to all the work we’ve done for a whole year.”
After Saint Anthony managed to cement and strengthen the faith of the Orthodox people, he left Alexandria and returned to his beloved solitude.
VISIONS OF ETERNAL LIFE
Saint Anthony was now a very old man, more than a hundred years old. The great holiness, deep faith, magnificent humility, fire of his love, and the heavenly grace with which God had endowed him, made him a brilliant symbol of monasticism. About 20.000 disciples following his brilliant example came to live near him and imitate his hallowed life. He was aware that he had little remaining time before he’d go to meet his most beloved Jesus and he prepared accordingly.
The saint had a great blessing: whenever he had a question on any subject of the Holy Bible or on the visible or invisible cosmos, God answered him.
He, therefore, asked God to reveal to him the mysteries of eternal life and what really happens when someone dies.
He saw many important revelations and his disciples sometimes caught him groaning and crying woefully.
At the insistent requests of his disciples to tell them a few things from these heavenly revelations, he told them the following for their spiritual benefit and the salvation of their souls.
“My children, it’s dreadful what happens when the soul of a person is taken from the body. The demons bring many charges against us from the sins we’ve committed during our lives. They try to grab our demoralized soul from the hands of the angels. Woe to the man who has lived his life with impiety and contempt of the divine will, following only the demon’s advice. A dreadful ugly giant, so tall that he can reach up to the clouds, stretches his hands and tries to catch those flying souls, ascending to heaven! Some of them are caught and he immediately throws them to Hades, but others evade him because they’re flying with the wings of faith, love and charity from their life on earth. Then Satan trembles with such anger and rage that he loses them. Thus, my children fight the good struggle of faith with deep humility and repentance for your sins, for this literally burns and paralyzes the devil’s power. This is how you’ll succeed in finding eternal life in paradise.”
HIS FALLING ASLEEP
Saint Anthony foresaw the end of his temporal life. He wanted to see all his spiritual children and bless them one last time. He visited all the monasteries, founded with his blessing and gave them some final words.
It was the custom of the Egyptians not to bury the bodies of virtuous men and holy Martyrs, but instead to cover them in special perfumes and keep them untouched in special beds within their tombs, like the mummies.
Saint Anthony had struggled to eradicate this erroneous custom. He taught them that the bodies of all the saints were buried, even the body of our Lord Jesus Christ, who stayed in a tomb for three days.
Fearful that they would try to do the same thing to his own body, he refused to spend his final hours near them, but went instead to his beloved desert.
After a few days, he became sick and called two of his disciples, Makarios and Samatas, who had served him for fifteen years. He requested that they wouldn’t give away any part of his remains when he died, but bury his body in a secret place.
So from the top of the mountain, he blessed all the people of the world and all his children and raised his eyes prayerfully to heaven, where his most beloved God was waiting for him.
His heart was beating quickly from the excitement of soon being joined with Christ. He was ready to fly into His outstretched arms.
His face shone like the sun and he breathed for the last time, the name of Jesus Christ. Then his soul flew high to heaven, as the angels of God chanted hymns.
It was 17th of January of the year 356 A.D.
This was the marvelous life of the most eminent ascetic of the desert, Anthony the Great. May God, with his mediations, grant us sinners, to enter the kingdom of heaven.