In 269 a young Egyptian takes the advice that Jesus gives a rich man in the Gospel: “If you want to be perfect, sell everything you have … Then come and follow me” (Matthew 19: 21-22). Antony distributes all his goods to the poor and will live as a hermit in the desert of Thebaid, on the eastern bank of the Nile.
Athanasius, a bishop of Alexandria, will tell us of his life some time later. It traces the portrait of a solitary recluse, a prayerful prodigy who self-inflicts trials to enable him to resist the temptations of the devil.
St. Anthony incarnates the emergent figure of the hermit in the history of Christianity. He is considered the “father” of the anchorites (from the Greek anakhôrein, “to retire”).
In the partially evangelised East of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, there were already men and women who had chosen to live the radical teachings of the Gospel message, as was the case with “consecrated virgins”, who vowed celibacy and poverty. But these faithful did not leave their communities of origin.
The hermits, on the other hand, are expatriated to dedicate themselves only to God, in isolation and in their despotism. They spread during the second half of the fourth century in Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia and above all in Egypt.
This phenomenon is contemporaneous with the change of status of the Christian in the Roman Empire: persecuted during the first three centuries of our era, they are suddenly tolerated in 313, due to the recognition of the religious freedom granted them by the edict of Milan; and in 337 is legitimised through the conversion of the emperor Constantine.
With the end of the persecutions, the spirituality of martyrdom (from the Greek martus, “witness”) no longer means the apogee of Christian witness. He is replaced by a monastic spirituality which presents the monk’s solitary experience as a martyrdom, no longer of blood but spiritual: a battle against evil and a path of evangelical perfection, that is, based on the gospels.
The legitimisation of the Christian religion has two other consequences: on the one hand, the influence of the imperial hierarchical model on the local Churches, which concentrate power in the hands of the bishops; on the other hand, the relaxation of the piety of the faithful, who cease to feel threatened.
Many Christians fond of their inner freedom and taken by the absolute refusal of this lukewarmness they were forced to lived. Therefore they retire to the desert to live continually in prayer and penance. Saint Anthony would be our role model. His charism will attract pilgrims and disciples until his death, at the age of 105.
The temptations to which St. Anthony was subjected inspired many artists. One of the most remarkable representations is that of the surrealist Salvador Dali (1904-1989). Held in 1946, after World War II, it reflects the mystical period of the author.
“His” Anthony, naked, wields a cross against a gigantic, a horse standing on its hind legs, symbolising a power that has become insane. Behind, in a scene of nuclear apocalypse, elephants with spider legs carry on the backs the temptations of lust and greed.
The Catholic Church memorialises the abbot and Father of all Monks Saint Anthony on January 17.