By Mario Baghos
Monasticism has been a hallmark of Orthodox Christianity since early times. The desire among some people to partake intensely in God’s kingdom in the here and now often involved their departure from ‘the world.’ Leaving behind family, friends, jobs, cities, and other attachments, they would go into deserts, forests, and other places in nature that lacked human habitation. Here, they devoted themselves to prayer and asceticism, including fasting, manual labour, reading, and other work. The goal of these ascetical practices—accompanied by ceaseless prayer—was to control the passions, those selfish attachments that cause us to sin. Intense spiritual warfare and temptation would accompany their strivings, but the end result—according to God’s will and purpose—would be communion with God.
Monastic practices predate Christianity, but in Christianity they find their final form. This is because our Lord Jesus Christ blessed monasticism. He did this not only through his own celibate life, but by accepting to be baptised by the desert-dweller, his cousin, St John the Forerunner. There are various forms that monastic life can take. Historically, these have included: monks or nuns attached to a church or an ascetic household; itinerant ascetics; hermits in isolated cells; anchorites living with a few disciples; and coenobites, monks and nuns living in a centrally organised monastery, under an abbot or abbess. While many of these monastic practices flourished within the Church, they were given permanent structure by the reforms of holy bishops like Basil the Great, who organised coenobitic communities under their respective abbots within the ecclesial framework.
Of the monks that flourished in the early Church, perhaps none is so distinguished as Saint Antony the Great. He has been called the ‘Father of Monasticism,’ not because he invented this sacred practice, but because his ascetic strivings, his virtuous life, and his nearness to God became a standard for all other monks and nuns to follow. Born in AD 251 in Egypt, Antony’s parents were well born and possessed much property. Together with his younger sister, Antony was raised a Christian, and practiced the virtue of obedience to his parents while reading the scriptures often. His parents died when he was young, so that at around eighteen or twenty years of age he had to take care of his sister by himself. Six months after the death of his parents, he was contemplating how the apostles left everything to follow our Saviour Jesus Christ, and how in the book of Acts they sold their possessions and distributed the profit to those among them in need (Acts 4:32-37). When on one occasion he entered the church and heard the Lord say in the Gospel, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell all your possessions and give to the poor, and come and follow me, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:21), and, on another occasion, “Do not be concerned about tomorrow” (Mt 6:34), he sold everything he had and entrusted his sister to the care of ascetic women.
Antony then travelled the surrounding villages to learn the life of asceticism from experienced spiritual Fathers. In this we can see his humility and another hallmark of Orthodox Christianity, that of spiritual discipleship, whether it be to one’s bishop, priest, or spiritual elder. For it is only by entrusting ourselves to the will of God and his presence in the lives of those who have walked the ascetic path before us—and who are therefore near to God—that we can grow spiritually.
As Antony grew spiritually, the devil, who is the enemy of Christians and all people—especially when they practiced goodness—attacked Antony with various temptations, ranging from a longing for his family and possessions, to lustful fantasies. With prayer and fasting, Antony, with God’s help, was able to reject these temptations.
After the initial wave of attacks, Antony redoubled his ascetic efforts, even going as far as to live in a tomb near his village. Among the graves, he contemplated the fleeting nature of life on earth, and how we must keep our focus on our ultimate dwelling place, which is the kingdom of heaven. The enemy could not stand Antony’s growing closeness to God, and, having failed to defeat him by tempting him with thoughts, he attacked him physically. Having been beaten mercilessly by demons on two consecutive occasions, Antony recited psalms and prayed, constantly evoking the name of the Lord until Christ himself—who did not forget Antony’s struggle—intervened. Saint Athanasius the Great, bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, describes the Lord’s intervention as follows:
“Looking up, Antony saw the roof [of the tomb] appear to open and a beam of light descended upon him. Suddenly the demons vanished and the pain in his body immediately ceased … Antony perceived the Lord’s help, and when he took a deep breath and realized that he had been relieved of his suffering, he entreated the vision that had appeared to him: ‘Where are you? Why did you not appear at the beginning so you could stop my sufferings?’ And a voice came to him: ‘Antony, I was here, but I waited to see your struggle. And now, since you persevered and were not defeated, I will be a helper to you always and I will make you famous everywhere.’”
This appearance of the Lord to Antony took place when he was about thirty-five years old. From the saint’s struggle we learn that the Lord permits temptations to occur in order to strengthen us spiritually, this means, to help us overcome our pride and to remember that we need to call upon him in order to be saved. After this experience, Antony left the tomb and went to Mount Pispir, where he found a deserted barracks that he made into his home. Here, he was attacked by the demons, but was not defeated by them, for he received constant visions from the Lord who was always with him. After spending almost twenty years in the barracks, entirely on his own, the crowds—out of a sincere desire for spiritual consolation—demanded to see him. Having reached a high level of dispassion and participation in God, St Antony emerged from the barracks to compassionately heal those who were suffering from diseases; to give solace to people through the comfort of his spiritual words; to reconcile enemies into friends; and to encourage people to place nothing above our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that we might have eternal life.
As a result of the saint’s example and instruction, many monasteries were set up throughout Egypt. Antony became the encourager of the monks, teaching them how to persevere in monasticism and how to recognise all the tricks and temptations of the evil one. During the persecution of the Christians that occurred under the pagan Roman Emperor Maximinus Daia between 308-313, Antony ministered to the confessors and the martyrs in the mines and prisons. When the persecution ceased, he returned to his cell and continued his asceticism, but the crowds continued to come to him. Concerned about either falling into pride or that some would praise him undeservedly, at the age of sixty-two he departed for the ‘inner mountain’ in the Upper Thebaid. While remaining mostly in isolation, from then until his repose in the Lord he often travelled between the outer and inner deserts, casting out demons, healing the sick, and instructing the faithful, all by the grace and power of our Lord Jesus Christ. His travels included a significant visit to the city of Alexandria, where, in support of St Athanasius and other holy Fathers, he gave his approval to the doctrine of the council of Nicaea, that our Lord Jesus Christ is “one essence (homoousios)” with God the Father, in other words, fully God. Even the first Christian emperor, St Constantine the Great, together with his sons, wrote letters to him and sought his council—so much had his fame spread throughout the Church and the world at the time.
In this way St Antony lived a God pleasing life. Learning from God, at the age of one hundred and five, that he was about to die, Antony informed the monks, who embraced him with sadness. But Antony was like one returning home from a long voyage, and he joyfully encouraged the monks to continue in their asceticism and their pursuit of God’s kingdom. He informed them to distribute his clothing: his sheepskin coat and tunic to St Athanasius, and his other sheepskin coat to St Serapion, bishop of Thmuis. The monks were to keep his hairshirt, and all these items were imbued with God’s grace that dwelt in the saint. After falling asleep in the Lord in AD 356, St Antony the Great was buried secretly, according to his wishes. The Father of Monasticism remains a guiding light for all who strive to undertake asceticism within the holy Orthodox Church, and continues to intercede to the Lord for our salvation.
 St Athanasius the Great, The Life of Antony: The Coptic Life and The Greek Life, trans. Tim Vivian and Apostolos N. Athanassakis (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1994), 83, 85.