Thursday, September 13, 2012

Egypt: Anthony of the Desert (ca 251-356)

The Coptic Monastery of St. Anthony is located in the desert mountains of eastern Egypt about 120 miles (200 km) southeast of Cairo and 30 miles (50 km) west of the Red Sea. It was here that the Christian tradition of monasticism began.

Anthony was born around AD 251 in Herakleopolis, near the oasis of Faiyum, about 84 miles (135 km) south of Cairo. His parents were wealthy landowners. He was 18 when they died. Afterward, he sold the family property, gave the proceeds to the poor, then went to live in the desert about 59 miles (95 km) west of Alexandria.

While living alone in the desert, Anthony had to fight temptations as different as bitter boredom and lustful thoughts. In the end he overcame them through prayer.

When Anthony was about 30 years old, he moved to a mountain near his old hometown and lived there for 20 years. Again he faced temptations but conquered them through the grace of God. He lived in one room of an abandoned Roman fort. Local villagers brought food and gave it to him through a small hole in a wall. He in turn offered them a few words of wisdom.

In 311, at about the age of 50, Anthony traveled to Alexandria. In 303, Diocletian, the Roman emperor, had legally required the persecution of Christians across the empire. This included the Christians in Alexandria. This persecution continued until shortly after Anthony’s visit. Anthony went to Alexandria to comfort the persecuted and to die as a martyr for Jesus. In the end, he left the city unharmed.

First he returned to his room in the abandoned Roman fort near his hometown. Soon, however, he traveled east and chose to live at a spring he found in the mountains near the Red Sea. Before long, hundreds of men came to live near him and seek his wisdom. Anthony’s students eventually organized themselves into a monastery. Anthony died in 356 in the cave where he had lived the last 45 years of his unusually long life.

Around 360, a man named Athanasius, the leading Christian in Alexandria, wrote a biography in Greek entitled Life of Anthony. Within a decade or so, the book was translated into Latin. The Latin edition remained one of the most popular books in Latin Christendom for next 1,000 years.

Today St. Anthony’s is the largest monastery in Egypt. Its Church of St. Anthony has murals painted in the 1200s. At the monastery there are also other churches, chapels, and places for monks to live and guests to stay. Even so, only 25 monks currently live there to care for the hundreds of pilgrims who visit each day.

Christians of Coptic and Eastern Orthodox Churches celebrate the Feast of St. Anthony on 30 January. Roman Catholics celebrate it on 17 January.

Copyright © 2012 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.