Anthony the Great (abbot)


Anthony the Great was born in to a wealthy family in Upper Egypt about 254 AD. Inspired by Jesus’s teaching: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven; and come, follow Me”: Anthony sold all his possessions, gave the proceeds to the poor, and went into the desert wilderness to lead a life of prayer and contemplation. He attracted others to the desert, and eventually they formed the first Christian monastic community, the desert fathers. That Egyptian monastery still exists today.

St. Anthony in (western) art is portrayed as a venerable old man with a long beard wearing a monk’s habit with a Tau cross either on his clothing or formed in his staff. He sometimes is portrayed as holding a book and staff in one hand and a bell in the other, and having a pig at his feet.. The pig and the cross are symbols of his warfare with the devil, with the cross being the source of his power over the devil, and the pigs representing the devil himself. The temptations of Saint Anthony are well represented in art and literature.The book that Anthony carries is a bit of a puzzle as the saint avoided books and instead relied on his memory. Some call it the book of nature, as the saint read nature like a book. He did after all retreat to the desert wilderness. In Greek iconography he is frequently pictured with a scroll with the words “I’ve seen the devil’s traps spread around the earth.” The bells? They relate to a medieval order of monks, the Hospitallers of St. Anthony,  whom Saint Anthony was the patron. They raised pigs as a means supporting their mission of giving aid to the infirm city dwellers. The disease they fought fittingly is Saint Andrews Fire, the fiery red skin disease erysipelas. The bells, according to some, were were used to call those swine they raised, others mention their use by the Hospitallers to raise alms for their mission.

Finally, Anthony is known for his sayings, and here are a few:

Saint Antony said, ‘I saw the traps the Devil puts all over the world and I said to myself sadly, “What can one do to pass through these traps?” and I heard a voice saying, “Humility is the way.”‘

Saint Antony said, ‘Some have burdened their bodies by asceticism, but they lack wisdom, and so they are far from God.’

Saint Antony said, ‘We live and die with our neighbor, so if we gain them, then we gain God, but if we lose them, then we sin against God.’

Saint Antony said, ‘The person who wants to live in the desert is freed from three temptations: hearing, speech, and sight, but there is one temptation left for him to deal with and that is his heart.’

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