By CAROLE BRESLIN
While we can understand that God is infinite, it is difficult to comprehend the stretch of such infinity. Certainly our finite minds cannot begin to comprehend it. Hence, since our minds our finite, the more we have cluttering our minds with worldly affairs such as possessions, relationships, and activities, the less time and room we have in our minds for considering the things of God.
St. Anthony of Egypt, a young man who had been left a great estate, comprehended this truth more than anyone of his time.
Thanks to the biography written by St. Athanasius (died 373), a detailed history of St. Anthony of Egypt is available. In 251, a Christian couple in Egypt gave birth to St. Anthony. They lived in Upper Egypt. Because they kept him at home to shelter him from the pagans, he grew up knowing only edifying literature, speaking only their native language.
Before Anthony reached the age of 20, his parents died, leaving him with a considerable fortune; he also was left with the responsibility of taking care of his younger sister.
Only six months after the death of his parents, Anthony sat in church listening to the sermon based on the Gospel of Matthew, “Go, sell all that you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven” (Matt. 19:21). Without hesitation, he did just that.
Anthony sold his best land, sold the estate, and gave the proceeds to the poor, keeping only a sufficient amount to support him and his sister. Once again, while at Mass and listening to another sermon, he heard the words of Matthew from the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not be anxious for your life, what you shall eat; not yet for your body, what you shall put on. Is not the life a greater thing than food, and the body than the clothing?” (Matt. 6:25).
After this, he sold all the rest of their possessions and placed his sister in a house of maidens — perhaps this house was one of the first convents. In imitation of an old man in the neighborhood, St. Anthony became a hermit living in solitude. He spent his time in prayer, reading, and manual labor, seeking out any known holy recluse to learn from his example about how to better serve God in solitude.
During Anthony’s solitary living, the Devil attacked him mercilessly. First of all, the Devil tempted him with his riches, showing him all the good he could have done if he had only kept his wealth and used it to help others. Along with this attempt to defer Anthony from his solitude, he strove to convince Anthony that his condition was miserable and not necessary.
Since the Devil failed at these attempts, he tried to attack Anthony through his imagination by bringing obscene visions. When Anthony repulsed this temptation with even more prayer, fasting, and guarding of the senses, the Devil appeared as a woman trying to seduce him.
Again the Devil failed and then appeared as a terrifying man. Finally in the form of beasts, the Devil physically attacked Anthony, nearly killing him before a friend found him and nursed him back to health.
After successfully repelling the Devil, Anthony called on God, asking Him why He had abandoned him, to which God replied, “I stood by you and beheld your combat; and because you have manfully withstood your enemies, I will always protect you, and will render your name famous throughout the Earth.”
All of this happened while Anthony had lived a retired life near his home village for nearly 15 years. Around 285, at the age of 35, Anthony decided to live in a more isolated place. He crossed the Nile and lived in a ruined fort on top of a mountain. He saw no one and only received food by a friend who threw it over the walls of the ruins.
When a man came to ask his spiritual advice, he would yell it over the wall. Before long, a number of men built their own huts outside the walls of the ruined fort. St. Anthony gave these seekers this advice: Pray every morning as though you would die before evening and pray every evening as though you would die before dawn. Fight the Devil by calling on the name of Jesus. Do all work and pray as though it were the last thing you will do on Earth.
In 311, because Emperor Maximian was persecuting Christians in north Africa, St. Anthony went to Alexandria where he encouraged the martyrs to hold fast to their faith. When the persecutions ended, he returned to his monastery on the mountain. Although he started another monastery nearby, he — for the most part — remained in seclusion.
St. Anthony, seeking to spend all his time in contemplation, discovered it was too exhausting for him. Then an angel appeared to him showing him that he should pray and work. Hence, he began to till a small garden as well as weave mats during breaks from his hours of prayer. He found this very helpful and encouraging.
In 355, Anthony again returned to Alexandria, this time to fight the Arian heresy about which he had had a vision in 339, seeing a mule kicking down the altars. He preached to audiences hungry and thankful for the truth that he spoke. He encouraged a blind catechist, saying he possessed a light much more valuable — the light of Christ.
While he was in Alexandria, many Greek philosophers sought to trap him, but he easily overcame their “sophistication” with his replies.
Many who were ill and suffering visited him. Some were miraculously cured while all others left with great peace and comfort.
Some of his letters to other monasteries, to Emperor Constantine the Great, and to other saints of his time were preserved by St. Athanasius, giving great insight into Anthony’s simplicity and profound understanding of God and His Son, Jesus Christ.
When someone remarked on the great number of men who had joined him to live in utter poverty and subsist on bread and water, St. Anthony bemoaned the time coming when monks would eat in the cities at great tables laden with sumptuous dishes.
Before he died, he returned to Mount Colzim near the Red Sea where he spent the rest of his years. He requested that when he died that he not be embalmed — a practice which he saw as vanity. He asked to be buried near his disciples Macarius and Amathus.
At the age of 105, St. Anthony died on January 17, 356. To this day the Church celebrates his feast on this date.
Dear St. Anthony, help men to see that knowledge is not the same as wisdom. May we seek to divest ourselves of the things of this world: riches, recognition, and comfort. Help us to know that the more we clutter our minds with created things, the less room we have for Christ. Amen.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)