It is most fitting that we refer to the saint celebrated on the 17th of January as “the Great” and not “of the Desert” as he is also commonly known, because indeed there have been few saints who have had such an impact on the whole Church by their life. For we celebrate Saint Antony the Great as the Father of the Cenobitical monastic life, communal religious life, and thus he is the Father in some sense of every monk in the history of the Church both in the West and in the East.
Indeed, his life was so impressive that he caught the attention and had a profound influence upon the great Saint Athanasius Patriarch of Alexandria, Father of Orthodoxy, and Doctor of the Church. And we are blessed to have today the Life he wrote of Saint Antony, which is so rich in examples for monks especially, but also for every Christian.
You can read this wonderful biography here for FREE.
You can even listen to an audio-book of this work for FREE here.
You can purchase this work as part of a wonderful little collection with the lives of Saint Martin of Tours, Saint Paul the First Hermit, Saint Benedict and others, which are all written by other Saints: here. And you can most of these works online for free as well, see the links here.
There is also another great work worth reading which contains many quotes from Saint Antony’s writings called: “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers“.
The Liturgical Year
Dom Prosper Gueranger, O.S.B.
Saint Antony the Great
The East and West unite, to-day, in honouring St. Antony, the Father of Cenobites. The Monastic Life existed before his time, as we know from indisputable testimony; but he was the first Abbot, because he was the first to bring Monks under the permanent government of one Superior or Father.
Antony began with seeking solely his own sanctification ; he was known only as the wonderful Solitary, against whom the wicked spirits waged an almost continued battle: but, in course of time, men were attracted to him by his miracles and by the desire of their own perfection ; this gave him Disciples; he permitted them to cluster round his cell; and Monasteries thus began to be built in the desert. The age of the Martyrs was near its close; the persecution under Dioclesian, which was to be the last, was over as Antony entered on the second half of his course: and God chose this time for organizing a new force in the Church. The Monastic Life was brought to bear upon the Christian world; the Ascetics, as they were called, not even such of them as were consecrated—were not a sufficient element of power. Monasteries were built in every direction, in solitudes and in the very cities; and the Faithful had but to look at these communities living in the fervent and literal fulfilment of the Counsels of Christ, and they felt themselves encouraged to obey the Precepts. The apostolic traditions of continual prayer and penance were perpetuated by the Monastic system; it secured the study of the Sacred Scriptures and Theology; and the Church herself would soon receive from these arsenals of intellect and piety her bravest defenders, her holiest Prelates, and her most zealous Apostles. Yes, the Monastic Life was to be and give all this to the Christian world, for the example of St. Antony had given her a bias to usefulness. If there ever were a Monk to whom the charms of solitude and the sweetness of contemplation were dear, it was our Saint; and yet, they could not keep him in his desert, when he could save souls by a few days spent in a noisy city. Thus, we find him in the streets of Alexandria, when the pagan persecution was at its height; he came to encourage the Christians in their martyrdom. Later on, when that still fiercer foe of Arianism was seducing the Faith of the people, we again meet the great Abbot in the same capital, this time, preaching to its inhabitants, that the Word is consubstantial to the Father, proclaiming the Nicene faith, and keeping up the Catholics in orthodoxy and resolution. There is another incident in the life of St. Antony, which tells in the same direction, inasmuch as it shows how an intense interest in the Church must ever be where the Monastic Spirit is. We are alluding to our Saint’s affection for the great St. Athanasius, who, on his part, reverenced the Patriarch of the Desert, visited him, promoted the Monastic Life to the utmost of his power, used to say that he considered the great hope of the Church to be in the good discipline of Monasticism, and wrote the Life of his dear St. Antony.
But, to whom is due the glory of the Monastic Institute, with which the destinies of the Church were, from that time forward, to be so closely connected, as that the period of her glory and power was to be when the monastic element flourished, and the days of her affliction were to be those of its decay? Who was it that put into the heart of Antony and his disciples the love of that poor and unknown, yet ever productive, life? It is Jesus, the humble Babe of Bethlehem. To him, then, wrapt in his swaddling clothes, and yet the omnipotent God, be all the glory!
It is time to hear the account of some of the virtues and actions of the great St. Antony, given by the Church in her Office of his Feast.
Antony was born in Egypt, of noble and christian parents, who left him an orphan at an early age. Having, one day. entered a Church, he heard these words of the Gospel being read: If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell all thou hast, and give to the poor. He took them as addressed to himself, and thought it his duty to obey these words of Christ his Lord. Selling therefore his possessions, he distributed all the money among the poor. Being freed from these obstacles, he resolved on leading on earth a heavenly life. But at his entrance on the perils of such a combat, he felt, that besides the shield of faith, wherewith he was armed, he must needs fortify himself with the other virtues ; and so ardent was his desire to possess them, that whomsoever he saw excelling in any virtue, him did he study to imitate.
Nothing, therefore, could exceed his continency and vigilance. He surpassed all in patience, meekness, mercy, humility, manual labour, and the study of the Sacred Scriptures. So great was his aversion for the company of, or conversation with, heretics, especially the Arians, that lie used to say, that we ought not even to go near them. He lay on the ground, when necessity obliged him to sleep. As to fasting, he practiced it with so much fervour, that his only nourishment was bread seasoned with salt, and he quenched his thirst with water; neither did he take this his food and drink until sun-set, and frequently abstained from it altogether, for two successive days. He very frequently spent the whole night in prayer. Antony became so valiant a soldier of God, that the enemy of mankind, illbrooking such extraordinary virtue, attacked him with manifold temptations; but the Saint overcame them all by fasting and prayer. Neither did his victories over Satan make him heedless, for he knew how innumerable are the devil’s artifices for injuring souls.
Knowing this, he betook himself into one of the largest deserts of Egypt, where such was his progress in Christian perfection, that the wicked spirits, whose attacks grew more furious as Antony’s resistance grew more resolute, became the object of his contempt, so much so, indeed, that he would sometimes taunt them for their weakness. When encouraging his disciples to fight against the devil, and teaching them the arms wherewith they would vanquish him, he used often to say to them: “Believe me, Brethren, Satan dreads the watchings of holy men, and their prayers, and fasts, and voluntary poverty, and works of mercy, and humility, and, above all, their ardent love for Christ our Lord, at the mere sign of whose most holy Cross, he is disabled, and put to flight.” So formidable was he to the devils, that many persons, in Egypt, who were possessed by them, were delivered by invoking Antony’s name. So great, too, was his reputation for sanctity, that Constantine the Great and his Sons wrote to him, commending themselves to his prayers. At length, having reached the hundred and fifth year of his age, and having received a countless number into his institute, he called his Monks together; and having instructed them how to regulate their lives according to christian perfection, he, venerated both for the miracles he had wrought, and for the holiness of his life, departed from this world to heaven, on the seventeenth of January.
The Churches of the West, during the Middle Ages, have left us several Sequences in honour of St . Antony. They are to be found in the ancient Missals. As they are not, by any means, remarkable as liturgical pieces, we shall content ourselves with inserting only one, omitting the three which begin: Alme Confessor;—In hac die laetabunda;—Antonius humilis.
Pia voce praedicemus,
Et devotis celebremus
Dei Sanctus exaltetur,
Et in suis honoretur
Sanctis, auctor omnium.
Hic contempsit mundi florem,
Opes ejus et honorem:
Et confugit ad desertum:
Ut non currat in incertum
In hoc vitae stadio.
Mira fuit ejus vita:
Clarus fulsit eremita.
Sed mox hostis subdoli
Bella perfert: saepe concutitur
Gravi pugna: verum non vincitur
Ictu crebro flagellatur:
Et a saevis laceratur
Lux de coelo micuit:
Et clara personuit
Dei vox de nubibus.
Quia fortis in agone
Te clamabit totus orbis.
Pro pellendis item morbis
Id, Antoni, nunc impletum
Conspicamur, et repletum
Mundum tuo nomine.
Hoc implorat gens devota:
Tibi pia defert vota
Pro tuo munimine.
Nunc in forma speciosae
Nunc in massae specie,
Daemon struit illi frauds;
Sed, qui tanta, vafer, audes,
Succumbis in acie.
Mille frauds, mille doli
Sunt inanes: illi soli
Cedit orcus ingemens,
Militem hunc veneratum,
Et robustam ejus manum
Horret hostis infremens .
Non lorica corporali
Fultus, inimico tali
Hic athleta restitit .
Aqua potus, terra lectus
Illi fuit: his protectus
Armis, victor exstitit.
Herba fuit illi victus:
Palmae frondes et amictus,
Ac cum bestiis confiictus ,
Intra solitudinem .
Atque somni parcitate
Et philosophis profanis,
Paulum visit, nec inanis
Fit via, nec irrita.
Nam convenit hunc viventem,
Inde sanctam ejus mentem
Coelos vidit ascendentem,
Carne terrae reddita.
O Antoni, cum beatis
Nunc in regno claritatis
Gloriaris; hie gravatis
Mole carnis, pietatis
Tuse pande viscera.
Ne nos rapiat tremendra
Mors gehennae, manum tende.
Nos a morbido defende
Igne, nobis et impende
Gloriam post funera. Amen.
Let us piously proclaim the praises of Antony, and celebrate his name in sacred hymns.
Let us honour God’s Saint; and God, the author of all, be honoured in his Saints!
Antony despised, in obedience to the Gospel, the beauty, and riches, and honours of the world.
He fled into the desert, that he might not run at an uncertainty, in the race of this life.
Wonderful was his life. He was the celebrated hermit. But, soon does the crafty enemy
Wage war against him. The combat is fierce and oft renewed: but he is not vanquished by the devil’s attacks.
The demons scourge him with many blows, and his flesh is cruelly torn by the angry enemy.
But, a light shone down from heaven; and the sweet voice of God was heard speaking from above:
“Because thou hast bravely fought in the combat, thy name shall be published in every country.
The whole earth shall proclaim thy glory. Thou shalt be invoked against the disease of the Fire.”
This, O Antony! we see fulfilled, and the world resounds with thy name.
The devout servants of God call on thy name, and fervently pray to thee for help and protection.
Sometimes, again, it is in the appearance of a beautiful woman and sometimes under the form of a piece of gold,
That the devil lays snares for the holy man: but after all thy daring, O crafty tempter! thou art defeated in the fight.
Yea, vain are his thousand frauds and tricks; and all hell falls back bemoaning that one single-handed man has repelled them.
Roaring with rage, the enemy trembles before this venerable soldier, whose hand so roughly deals its blows.
The brave combatant resists these mighty enemies, and yet he wears no breast plate such as soldiers use.
His drink is water, his bed the ground; these were his arms, and by these he conquered.
Herbs were his food; the palm-leaf gave him raiment; and his companions were the wild beasts of the wilderness.
He restrained lust by assiduous prayer, frequent manual labour, and short sleep.
He confutes the Arians and the profane Philosophers; he visits Paul the Hermit, nor was the journey fruitless or vain;
For he found him alive, and then saw his holy soul mounting up to heaven, and buried his body.
O Antony! thou art now in glory, with the Blessed, in the kingdom of light; show thy affectionate pity on us, who are here weighed down by the burden of the flesh.
Stretch out thy hand, lest the death of terrible hell seize upon us. Defend us from the burning distemper, and assist us to gain heaven when our life is spent. Amen.
The Greek Church is enthusiastic in her praises of St. Antony. We extract the following stanzas from her Menaea.
XVII DIE JANUARII
Quando in sepulchro teipsum gaudens inclusisti, Pater, propter Christi amorem, sufferebas quam fortiter daemonum insultus, oratione et charitate istorum fumo debiliora depellens tentamenta; tuncplauserunt Angelorum ordines clamantes : Gloria roboranti te, Antoni.
Helias demonstratus es alter, habens celebres discipulos, novos Eliseos, sapiens, quibus et gratiam tuam duplicem dereliquisti, raptus tanquam in curru, aethereus pater; nunc ab illis decoratus, omnium recordaris, beatissime, tuam celebrantium cum amore venerabilem festivitatem, o Antoni.
In terris Angelum, in ccelis Dei virum, mundi ornamentum, bonorum et virtutum florem, asceticorum gloriam, Antonium honoremus; plantatus enim in domo Domini efflomit justissime, et quasi cedrus in deserto multiplicavit greges ovium Christi spiritualium in sanctitate et justitia.
O illuminate Spiritus radiis, quando te divinus amor combussit, et animam evolare fecit ad desiderabile charitatis fastigium, tunc despexisti carnem et sanguinem, et extra mundum fact as es, multa ascesi et tranquillitate ipsi unitus, quo repletus es; exinde quaesisti bona et resplenduisti sicut stella irradians animas nostras, Antoni.
Tu qui daemonum sagittas et jacula contrivisti charitate divini Spiritus, et malitiam insidiasque ejus omnibus patefecisti, divinis coruscans illustrationibus, Monachorum effectus es fulgidissimum luminare, et eremi primum decus, et supremus aegrotantium medicus, et Archetypus virtutum, Antoni Pater.
Asceticum super terrain professus exercitium, Antoni, passionum ictus in torrente lacrymarum omnes hebetasti; scala divina et veneranda, ad coalos elevans, mederis passionum infirmitatibus eorum qui ad te cum fide exclamant: Gaude. Orientis stella deauratissima, Monachorum lampadifer et pastor : gaude, celebrande, tu aeserti alumne, et Ecclesiae inconcussa columna; gaude errantium dux illustrissime; gaude, o gloriatio nostra, et orbis terrarum decor fulgidissime.
Columna splendida et virtutibuu obfirmata, et nubes obumbrans effectus es, his qui in deserto ad ccelum e terra Deum contemplantur, propositus; crucis baculo passionum rumpens mare, spiritualem autem arduamque ad ccelum in facilem mutatus viam, invenisti, beatissime, incorruptibilem haereditatem; cum incorporeis throno assistens Christi, quem deprecare animabus nostris dare magnam misericordiam.
Vitae derelinquens perturbationes, crucem tuam humeris deferens, totum te commisisti Domino, et extra carnem, Pater, et mundum factus, Sancti effectus ea coufabulator Spiritus, ideoque ad zelum populos evigilans, civitates vacuas fecisti, civitatem in deserto transferens. Antoni Deifer, deptecare Christum Doum dare peccatorum remissionem celebrantibus cum amore tuam sauctam commemorationera.
When, O Father! thou didst shut thyself in a sepulchre, with joy, for the love of Christ, thou didst most bravely endure the attacks of the demons, putting to flight, by prayer and charity, their smoke-like temptations : and the choirs of Angels applauding, cried out: Glory, 0 Antony! be to Him that strengthens thee.
Thou wast as another Elias, surrounded by thy glorious disciples, the new Eliseuses: to whom thou, their wise father, taken up as it were to heaven in a ohariot, didst leave thy twofold grace; now, that they are thy ornament above, thou art mindful of all us who lovingly celebrate thy venerable feast, O Antony!
Let us honour Antony who was an Angel on earth, the man of God in heaven, the ornament of the world, the flower of good men and of virtues, the glory of Ascetics ; for being planted in the house of the Lord, he bloomed in perfect justice, and, as a cedar in the desert, he multiplied the flocks of Christ’s spiritual sheep, in holiness and justice.
O Antony! illumined by the rays of the Spirit! when divine love consumed thee, and made thy soul take her flight to the summit thou didst long for of charity—then didst thou despise flesh and blood, and become a stranger to this world, in deep spirituality and peace united to Him, with whom thou wast filled. Then didst thou seek after true goods, and shine as a star reflecting light on our souls.
Thou that didst, by the love of the Holy Spirit, break the arrows and darts of the demons, laying open their malice and their snares to all men; thou that didst shine with the divine teachings, thou wast made, O Antony! the brightest luminary of Monks, the grandest glory of the desert, the ablest physician of the sick, the Archetype of virtue.
Professing on earth the life of an Ascetic, O Antony ! thou didst deaden in the torrent of thy tears all the blows of thy passions. Thou art the holy and venerable ladder, that raises men to heaven; and thou healest of the infirmities of their passions them that cry to thee with faith: Rejoice, most richly gilded Star of the East, the lamp-bearer and shepherd of Monks! Rejoice, illustrious Saint, child of the desert, unshaken pillar of the Church! Rejoice, most glorious Chieftain! Rejoice, 0 thou our glory, and brightest ornament of the whole earth!
God made thee a bright pillar solid in virtue, and a shade-giving cloud, to lead the way to such as, in the journey from earth to heaven, contemplate God. By the rod of the Cross, thou didst break up the sea of the passions: and changing the spiritual and difficult way to heaven into one that is easy, thou didst obtain, O most blessed Antony! the incorruptible inheritance. Pray to that Christ, at whose throne thou assistest with the Angelic spirits, that he bestow his great mercy on our souls.
Leaving the distractions of this life, and carrying thy cross on thy shoulders, thou didst commit thy whole self to the Lord; and estranging thyself, O Father! from the flesh and the world, thou wast admitted into intimate communication with the Holy Spirit; and therefore didst thou rouse up the people to fervour, emptying the cities of their inhabitants, and changing the desert into a city. O Antony, that bearest God within thee! beseech Christ our God, that he give remission of sin to all us who lov. ingly celebrate thy holy commemoration.
We unite, great Saint! with the universal Church, in offering thee the homage of our affectionate veneration, and in praising our Emmanuel for the gifts he bestowed upon thee. How sublime a life was thine, and how rich in fruit were thy works! Verily, thou art the Father of a great people, and one of the most powerful auxiliaries of the Church of God. We beseech thee, therefore, pray for the Monastic Order, that it may re-appear in all its ancient fervour; and pray for each member of the great Family. Fevers of the body have been often allayed by thy intercession, and we beg for a continuance of this thy compassionate aid—but the fevers of our soul are more dangerous, and we beg thy pity and prayers that we may be delivered from them. Watch over us, in the temptations, which the enemy is unceasingly putting in our way; pray for us, that we may be vigilant in the combat, prudent in avoiding dangerous occasions, courageous in the trial, and humble in our victory. The angel of darkness appeared to thee in a visible shape; but he hides himself, and his plots from us; here again, we beg thy prayers, that we be not deceived by his craft. May the fear of God’s judgments, and the thought of eternity, penetrate into the depth of our souls. May prayer be our refuge in every necessity, and Penance our safe-guard against sin. But above all, pray that we may have that, which thou didst counsel above all—the Love of Jesus— of that Jesus, who, for love of us, deigned to be born into this world, that so he might merit for us the graces wherewith we might triumph—of that Jesus, who humbled himself even so far as to suffer temptation, that so he might show us how we were to resist and fight .