The life and spiritual warfare of St Anthony of Egypt
St Anthony of Egypt (251-356 AD) is acknowledged as one of the founding pioneers of monasticism, famed for his prayer life, his devotion to an ascetic life and renunciation of wealth in pursuit of his calling as a follower of Christ. This article takes a closer look at the African saint’s life, as we find out what world was St Anthony born into, and what was the Christian context?
Early Church in Egypt
Tradition shows that the Apostle Mark set up the Church in Alexandria in Egypt, going on to establish a seminary and theological training centre: the Catechetical School in Alexandria in 62 AD. With over one million Jews living in the city, it was an advantageous place for Mark to found the theological college which claims to be the first such college in the world.
Jesus Christ located in Egypt
Ogbu Kalu’s phraseology in his work exploring African Church Historiography brings the immediacy of Jesus in Africa and his Egyptian early years: “The soil has the same texture as Jesus walked on; so, his message pulsates with vivid reality in technicolour.”
Consider some of the children Jesus played with as a child, after his parents fled Herod’s murderous intent and slaughter of the innocent boys in Bethlehem. It’s reasonable to imagine that some of his first playmates could have been Egyptian. Two centuries later, we hear how a young St Anthony would hear for himself this call of Jesus.
The gospel took root in Egypt
Alexandria in Egypt was one of the earliest places where the gospel took root. It is no surprise that the gospel spread in Egypt, Libya and Cyrene, given that some of those who witnessed the believers, newly filled with the Holy Spirit, were Jews from the Jewish diaspora. How many seeds were planted on that day in the hearts of new believers and then taken around the regions surrounding the Mediterranean sea? Enough for the gospel message to begin to flourish in the following centuries. We can see that Christianity was already advancing within the African continent, and continued to grow in the following two centuries as argued by Kalu. Expansion of the Christian population into Egypt grew significantly from 274 AD, even outstripping the rate of growth in other parts of the Graeco-Roman world.
Some of the earliest theologians learned in Egypt, including Origen (who shaped much early theology, and is recognised as a highly important figure in the early Church); Athanasius (whose ministry was thriving around the time of council of Nicea 325 AD), the uniter of the Church in Egypt and exiled Bishop of Alexandria, as well as biographer of St Anthony. The early Church was grappling with theological conflicts, for example the Bishop of Cappadocia and Bishop of Alexandria having disagreements which led to exiles, punishments and trials. With such a hotbed of growth and the necessity to warn off false gospel teachers, we will see the part that St Anthony played in this. The African saint’s influence spread far and wide, but how did this young man rise to have such an impact whilst, seemingly in contradiction, turning his back on urban life and prolonged contact with others?
The Life of St Anthony
St Anthony was an Egyptian, born at Koma, near Heracleopolis Magna in Fayum, and he would have known life with considerable material ease from his childhood. His parents were Christians and he was raised in the same faith, but orphaned in his early adulthood, when he was between 18 and 20.
Having heard a reading in the Lord’s house he reflected on Jesus’ words in Matthew 4:20 to Simon Peter and Andrew, where the Messiah said to them ‘Follow me and I will make you fishers of men’. St Anthony was also challenged by the acts of the early believers who sold all they possessed, laying the money at the Apostles’ feet for distribution to the poor. The third impactful scripture to have a powerful effect on his life was the Lord’s command to the rich young man ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me’. Unlike the rich young man who went away sorrowful, St Anthony took up Jesus’ command. He gave three hundred acres of productive land to the nearby villages and sold what other possessions he could, saving a small amount for the sake of his sister. In later years, St Anthony rejoiced when he saw his sister, now aged in years herself and the leader of other virgins.
Called into the wilderness
By the time St Anthony reached the age of 20, the number of Christians in Egypt, and across North Africa, had started to grow at a pace. Within this, a movement of Christians emerged who believed that demons lived in the deserts far away from the Mediterranean. Were these early believers inspired by the stories of John the Baptist preaching after emerging from the wilderness in the desert, as well as Jesus Christ spending 40 days and nights in the wilderness? It is easy to imagine so, in particular them focusing on Jesus’ temptation in the desert, his fasting and prayer. It’s a pattern we see taken up by St Anthony two centuries later.
At the time, this early movement of Christians, many of whom were wealthy individuals, decided to walk away from their riches, leaving behind comforts to live a hard life. Why would these men and women turn away from all they knew to do such a thing? It was an expression of their devotion, to go into the deserts to show their commitment to holiness and to God. These were the desert Fathers and Mothers. Groups of celibate men and women lived in places such as Hiercas, living lives separate from married Christians. Others lived in solitude, either near villages along the Nile while others went to the wilderness like the pioneer St Anthony, or began to form communities being separated from others by a wall.
The ministry of St Anthony
One could argue in the case of St Anthony, there was another reason. It relates to engagement in spiritual warfare and the role of the wilderness in engaging with and overcoming demons, and St Anthony’s role as an intercessor for Egypt. From his early 30s, he went into the wilderness areas, initially inspired by a hermit in the next village. St Anthony wanted to be an imitator of this devout man, who was observed to be pious. By his mid-30s, the saint resolved to live his life in humility, withdrew to a place called Pispir, now Der el Memum, where he lived in total isolation for twenty years. Reluctant to see visiting pilgrims, in time he relented to see a number of would-be disciples who located themselves in nearby caves and in huts around the mountain.
It was here that his early battles with spiritual warfare took place. St Anthony added the spiritual discipline of fasting to his practice, eating once a day, and at times eating only once every two or four days. The use of fasting was an important part of St Anthony’s arsenal in spiritual battle. He learned to overcome temptations and onslaughts through the power of prayer, declaring Christ’s name over principalities and powers, and making the sign of the cross. He also made reference to praying in the words of the psalms to great effect.
St Anthony’s withdrawal into the desert is no ‘retreat’ as we understand it in our modern day ears. Instead, it was a deliberate incursion into the enemy’s territory, where St Anthony understood that he was doing battle with spiritual forces, and no doubt in full knowledge that Christ’s work on the cross had “disarmed the powers and authorities…triumphing over them by the cross.”
He was attributed with delivering many from demon possession, and his ministry shows the strength of Dr Harvey Kwiyani’s persuasive argument that St Anthony was the first African Pentecostal. In 311 AD, he briefly emerged from his time in the fort, visiting those imprisoned in Alexandria during the great persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. After spending a number of years organising the monks who were drawn to his example, he withdrew again, this time to less secluded solitude. He remained in the inner desert on a mountain between the Red Sea and the Nile, and spent the last 45 years of his life there. Still living in seclusion, he willingly saw those who visited him, and in turn would travel across the desert to Pispir on occasion.
Defending developing orthodoxy
St Anthony also leant his power to Athanasius, having been summoned by the bishops to Alexandria, to denounce the Arians as spreading heretical false teaching. St Anthony took great exception to the false teaching that Christ is a created being, and thereby no different from the “heathen”. Following this defence of doctrinal truth, there was much rejoicing and celebration in Alexandria, and Athanasius escorted him from the city where the elderly saint returned to his home in the mountains. It’s from Athanasius’ visit to St Anthony in the desert that his biography ‘The Life of St Anthony’ emerged, written six years after the monk’s death. It is extraordinary that Athanasius, himself a saint, should write the biography of an earlier saint, and that today we have access to such materials. What a blessing to have such an account of this desert monk available to us today.
Evidently, St Anthony was a figure held in high esteem, spiritual counsellor to those who sought him out, and humble to the end of his life aged 105 in 356 AD. His title as founder of eremitical monasticism is rightly recognised.
We have seen that St Anthony’s life is an example of self sacrifice, turning away from pleasures and privileges which he might naturally have stepped into, had it not been for an awakening and a desire to be obedient to Christ’s invitation to the rich young ruler.
St Anthony’s impact and legacy
What impact did St Anthony’s ministry have on those who followed in his footsteps and world history? He made a significant, if somewhat overlooked, impact on numerous thinkers, bishops, monks, theologians – namely, those who have left their mark on, and shaped, world history. This includes historians and exceptional writers, such as Origen, Athanasius, Lactantius, Cyril, Augustine.
St Anthony’s impact on Shenoute, Athanasius, Pachomius and others led to the growth and flourishing of desert monasteries, places which played their part in the development, thought and shaping of those who contributed to African Christianity. Many others, including St Macarius who visited him twice, made visits to St Anthony, the “father of all monks”, north of the Western Desert, in Wadi al-Nutrum. There he passed on his teachings, such as taking accountability of your own sins before God, expect temptation to your last breath, and not to trust in your own righteousness, not to worry about the past, take control of your tongue and your stomach. These teachings are just as applicable to today’s Christians. He is relevant to global Christianity today and there is much we can learn from this hermit prayer warrior.
Rosie Hopley is currently a second year student on the CMS Pioneer MA course, studying African Christianity. In 2021 she wrote The Reconciled Church Course (https://www.trchurch.co.uk/
She is founder and former CEO of the Christian charity Beloved (www.beloved.org.uk), co founder of a social enterprise LoveWell (https://lovewelluk.com) and Jubilee+ Advisory group lead (https://jubilee-plus.org).
Kwiyani, Harvey. “Nubia, Sudan and Ethiopia” 12 October 2021. Lecture. Ogbu Kalu, ‘The Shape and Flow of African Church Historiography’, in African Christianity - An African Story, eds. by O.U. Kalu, J.W. Hofmeyr, P.J. Maritz (Pretoria, University of Pretoria, 2005) p. 2. Matthew 2: 15-18 (NIV). St Athanasius of Alexandria, Life of St Anthony of Egypt, translated by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Pantianos Classics 1892) David Brakke, Athanasius and Asceticism, (Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 1998) pp. 4-9. Colossians 2:15 (NIV). Oden, location 833. Bishop Martyros, 2020. Christianity and Monasticism in Alexandria and the Egyptian Deserts, (The American University in Cairo Press) <https://www.perlego.com/book/1891960/christianity-and-monasticism-in-alexandria-and-the-egyptian-deserts-pdf> [accessed 7 January 2022].