2. ANTONY 251-356



The history of monasticism begins then with Antony, for he was the first monk about whom anything was written.

1. Writings by him: we have 7 letters from his own pen. The first is a treatise on conversion and asceticism. The other six are addresses to his disciples

2. Writings about him: besides 38 apophthegmata whch are not very original, there is the Life of Antony by Athanasius. This is a book every novice should have read, it shows us what a bishop of the fourth century thought about monastic life. Let us first see who this bishop, the author of the Life of Antony



Athanasius came from Egypt, the same country as Antony. When he wrote the 'Life of Antony', he was bishop of Alexandria, the capital of Egypt. At that time it was a large city, and a port where all sorts of people and religions met. There was an important Jewish community there and also a very active Christian community. But there was also darnel among the wheat, for it was at Alexandria that Arianism, the first of the great heresies began; it was spread by Arius, a priest of Alexandria. He said that Jesus was a man, indeed a great man, and very holy, but he was not God.

 Athanasius was one of the first to fight this heresy which caused much evil during the whole of the fourth century. Already condemned at the council of Nicea (325), it was then condemned definitively at the council of Constantinople (381); which affirmed that the Son is of the same nature as the Father. When Athanasius assisted at the council of Nicea he was only a deacon. A little later he was named bishop of Alexandria and he stayed there for 46 years until his death in 373. During all that time he fought Arianism relentlessly. He had to spend half his episcopate in exile; the emperors, who supported the Arian heresy for political reasons, first exiled him for 2 years in Treves, then for 5 in Rome. Then they condemned him to death and tried to kill him. Athanasius fled to his monk-friends in the desert to escape from the soldiers who were trying to capture him.

He was completely safe with the monks who loved and venerated him. Three times Athanasius was forced to escape to the desert where he lived for a long time. In this way he came to know the desert and the monks who lived there very well.

These monks were not all holy people; in the beginning, people fled to the desert for all sorts of reasons: to evade paying taxes; to escape from military service which at that time was obligatory and very arduous. Some, like Athanasius, went there for better motives; to avoid having to worship pagan deities and to escape persecution.

But a great many of those who went to the desert experienced solitude as a good opportunity for a life of prayer and intimacy with God. Later they went to the desert because they felt called there by God.

There are two ideas about the desert which are both found in the Bible: it is a sterile and inhospitable land to which the scape-goat laden with the sins of the people is driven; or it is the place where God is loved, the land of betrothal. Both these aspects are found in the life of Antony.

The somewhat pessimistic aspect: the 'Life of Antony' talks a lot about the demon, presenting him as the Master of the desert. At this time, when Christianity was spreading, the desert seemed to be the only place left for him. He waged war against the monks who came to live there. The monk's struggle against the demon was placed within the framework of the story of the temptation of Jesus. The monk continued the work of redemption. This is one of the aspects of the desert.

The other is more optimistic. Although one went to the desert to fight against the devil, like Antony, an even stronger motive was to go there to meet God. If one left the city of men, it was to bring unity to one's life; one left behind the things that were a distraction to keep one's "spirit fixed on a single goal", as Cassian said later. The motivation is positive, one left the city of men for the city of God.



3 sayings of the Gospel
= 3 conditions of being a monk
2.ANTONY'S 4 STAGES = the progress of a monk
a) outside the village
b) in a tomb
c) in a fort in the mountain (Father of monks)
a) practise ascetism
b) spiritual combat
c) conclusion
d) in the inner desert (Father of all)
Miracles, prophecies, apophthegmata
(Sequel to Antony, man of God)

This then was the setting in which Athanasius wrote the "Life of Antony". Athanasius did not imagine it, because he had spoken to people who had known Antony. But neither is it a simple biography, like that of a celebrated man. Athanasius did not write at random, he had a purpose.

He wanted to set right some deviations, correct deficiencies which he had noticed during his time with his friends, the monks. He wanted to give them a model in the person of Antony, to show them what a typical monk was like.

Another Father of the Church, Gregory of Nazianzan, said of the "Life of Antony" that it was a monastic rule in the form of a story (Or. 21.5).

The "Life of Antony" is very well planned.

We will choose some texts:

(see the Texts)



The few texts that we have looked at give us a glance at the life of Antony, as St Athanasius saw it. We can fill it out by looking at his letters.

First of all we have the theme of the spiritual combat which we have seen in Origen. This theme has great importance for Antony. It means a struggle against the devil, but at the level of the passions. Man was created good, he has become sick. The passions are a sickness of the heart. It is through them that the devil tries to lead us to perdition.

This is why vigilance and asceticism are necessary, they slowly transform even the body. Antony is optimistic, he knows that we have nothing to fear from the devil if we resist him to his face. He has no real power, for Christ has conquered him.

In order to overcome him, first we must unmask him, which is why discernment of spirits is so important. (Texts 13,14). Athanasius wants to tell us too that Jesus is there with us in our struggle (Text 6), he is present in his Spirit who gives us light and strength. In Letter 1 Antony calls the Spirit: "the friend of the heart" who "teaches us how to heal the wounds of the soul". Elsewhere he teaches us to prefer nothing to the love of Christ (Text 8), a formula which St Benedict takes up in his Rule (4:21), for Christ has come to save us and impart his Spirit.

Prayer, which brings us close to Jesus and his Spirit, is also very important in this struggle against the demon. With prayer we must have perseverance, a theme often taken up in the 'Life' as in the 'Letters': "Hold fast, in spite of everything" (Letter 1:4). In two places he quotes psalm 131: "Do not let your eyes grow sleepy, nor your eyelids grow heavy" (3:1; 4:10). Perseverance is shown by the desire to progress a little more each day, it is always beginning again.

From the beginning, Athanasius teaches us that monastic life is an "imitation of Christ" and a "following of Christ", two themes which come together in the 'Life of Antony'.

Another interesting point: the monk does not seek God by himself, he is united to all his brothers. The further he goes into solitude, the more he is in a mysterious way in contact with his brothers.




Life of Antony: Translation & Introcduction Robert C. Gregg CWS Paulist

Life of Antony: Witnesses for Christ Series. A.I.M.

Life of Antony: Ancient Christian Writers Series.

A.I.M. Bulletin no. 57.

The Letters of St Antony. Translated by Derwas Chitty. Fairacres Press.




1) How long after the death of Antony was his life written? By whom? What conclusions can one reach on its value?

 2) What were the ideas about the desert at the time the "Life of Antony" was written?

3) The first pages of this "Life" give us three condition for being a monk. What are they?

4) Then the book illustrates Antony's progress by three stages. What are these?

5) Athanasius wants to indicate the progress of the monk in this way. Explain it.

6) What lesson can we draw from this for our separation from the world?





1. Antony was an Egyptian. His parents were well-born and prosperous; they were Christians. From his earliest childhood he was brought up in the fear of the Lord. When he was a child he remained with his parents and he had no desire to leave them or his home. As he grew older he did not want higher learning. He had no desire to be with other boys. He did what the Scriptures say about Jacob: he wanted only to remain quietly with his family. He used to go with his parents to the church, God's house. When he was a child he worked well. When he grew older he did not scorn his mother and father but did what they said. He paid attention to the readings at church and kept them carefully in his heart. His parents had money, but still the boy did not care about having much food and rich meals. That was of no interest to him. What they gave him was fine and he made no demands.


2. When his father and mother were dead, Antony went on living with his sister who was quite young. He was eighteen years old. He was responsible for the house and his sister.

One day, about six months after the death of his parents, he went to the Lord's house as usual. While he was walking there he had something on his mind. He said to himself: "The Apostles gave up everything and followed the Lord; and in the book of the Acts it is said that the first Christians sold their possessions and they laid the money at the feet of the apostles for them to give to the poor. So they hoped to have a great reward in heaven. Antony's heart was full of these thoughts when he went into the church.

It was the time for the Gospel reading. Antony heard the Lord saying to the rich young man: "If you desire to be perfect, go, sell your property, and give to the poor and follow me. Then you will have wealth in heaven." The thought came to Antony: "These words are for me." From his parents Antony had some land, about two hundred acres. The land was rich and very fertile, and he gave it to the villagers. So he and his sister were free from that wealth. He sold all his furniture, keeping some things for his sister, and gave the money to the poor.


3. On another day, Antony went into the House of God. He heard the Lord saying in the Gospel reading: "Have no care for tomorrow." Then he could not stop there any longer; he went out and gave to the poor the money he still had. His sister he put into the care of some faithful virgins for them to see to her education.

After that he gave himself to asceticism, not living in his house. He paid attention to his behaviour and made himself undergo hard living. At that time there were not many monasteries in Egypt. The monks did not know the great desert atall. One who desired to watch his behaviour did so alone near the village where he lived. In the neighbouring village there lived an old man who had been an ascetic by himself since his youth. Antony went to see him and tried to do as well as he did.

At first Antony himself began by living near his village. When he heard of a zealous man he acted like a wise bee, he went after him. The example of that man's life was like food for the journey to him as he travelled the road of virtue. Then he went back home.

This was how he lived at first. He decided firmly not to go back to his possessions and to forget his family. The work of ascesis was all his desire, all that he sought. He worked with his hands because he had heard the word of St Paul: "If a man will not work, let him have no food." So, with the money he received for his work he bought bread and what was over after that he gave to the poor. He prayed all the time because he had learned that we should pray constantly in our hearts. He gave attention to the readings in church so that he did not let fall any of the words of Scripture. Indeed he kept it all in his memory, and his memory took the place of books.


4. That was Antony's life and all loved him. When he went to visit some ascetics he obeyed them whole-heartedly. He wanted to learn how to imitate their good acts and the ascesis of each one, so as to act like them. He watched them and noted: this one is kind, that one is always in prayer. He saw how one was awake at night for prayer, another gave his attention to reading the word of God. This one gave him pleasure because he was patient, that one because he fasted and the earth was his bed at night. He observed: this one is gentle, that one is generous. But it seemed to him that all of them had a great love and a holy fear for Christ and they all loved one another.


8. After having struggled against the demon, Antony desired to be strong against himself. He went off some distance to the tombs. He asked a friend to bring him some bread from time to time. Then he went into one of the tombs, his friend shut the door and Antony did not come out again.

But the enemy refused to have that, he was afraid that the desert would soon be full of ascetics. So one night the demon came in with a great number of bad spirits. He whipped Antony so unmercifully that he fell speechless to the ground, so much did he suffer. The thought came to Antony: "These pains are so great; the blows of a man could not cause such great pains."

But the Lord never abandons those who place their trust in him. So he took care of Antony. The next day his friend came with bread. He opened the door, and saw Antony on the ground as if dead. He carried him to the church. There he put him down on the ground. Many of Antony's family and others came and took their places round him to mourn as for a dead person. But in the middle of the night. Antony came to himself. He opened his eyes and saw that all were sleeping and only his friend keeping watch. So he made a sign to him to come near and he made this request: "Take me back to the tomb while the others are still asleep."


10. The Lord did not forget Antony, for he had been fighting with evil spirits. He came to bring him help. So Antony looked up and this is what he saw: the roof seemed to be opening, a ray of light came down to him. Suddenly the evil spirits had gone. At the same time his body was no longer painful. The walls were standing up straight again, and the building was once more intact. Antony saw that the Lord had come to help him. He could breathe more easily. His sufferings were gone.

Seeing the light, Antony said to the Lord: "Where were you? Why did you not come at the first to help me in my trouble?" And a voice came to his ears: "I was here, Antony, but I was watching to see how you would fight. You fight back well. You have not been overcome. so I will be your helper for ever and I will make you famous everywhere." Hearing this, Antony got up and offered a prayer. Those words gave him such comfort that he was stronger than he had been before the fight. At that time Antony was about thirty-five years old.



11. The next day Antony left the tomb with an even greater desire to be God's servant. So he went to see the old man he had known before. Antony requested him to come and be with him in the desert. But the old man did not agree, he was not young, and it was not common to go off into the desert at that time.

So Antony made his way to the mountain.

12. Antony was more and more certain that he desired a life pleasing to God. He went quickly on to the mountain. On the other side of a river he came to an abandoned fortress full of snakes, he went and made his home there. Then the serpents went off as though someone were chasing them. Antony blocked up the way in. He put bread in store there for six months (the Thebans could make bread which kept good for a whole year). there was water inside the fort. So he went in as to a safe and holy shrine and stayed there by himself without ever going out and without seeing those who came to visit him. For a long time he stayed there, living the ascetic life. He had more bread put over the top of the fortress wall, but only twice a year.


14. Antony went on practising this ascetic life for about twenty years, living by himself and not going out. Nobody ever saw him, or at most they saw him infrequently. In the end, many had the desire to copy his ascesis. His friends broke down the door by force. Antony came out of the fort radiant as though from some shrine where he had been led into the divine mysteries and full of the Holy Spirit. It was the first time that Antony had gone outside to meet those who came. When they saw him, his friends were amazed. He looked the same as he used to be: he was not fatter though he had no exercise; he was not thinner, though he had fasted and had battled with the evil spirits. Antony looked the same as before he went into the desert. But his heart had become pure.

He was not crushed by anything that made him sad and he was not overpowered by joy. He did not laugh and he was not sad. He saw the great number of people who had gathered, and he was not annoyed. There were many there and all gave him signs of honour, but that did not give him pleasure. His balance of mind was always the same for he acted according to reason and he was like Adam before he sinned. The Lord used Antony to cure the sick. Others were ruled by bad spirits and he freed them. God gave him words of grace,and so Antony helped many who were sad. He brought peace to those who had quarrelled and made them friends.

He said to all: "Put nothing before the love of Christ." Later on we shall be happy with God for ever. God loves us. He even gave up his Son for us all." When they heard Antony's words, many took the decision to begin ascesis. so it was that monasteries started in the mountains. To become ascetics, these men gave up their possessions; they built a town in the desert to become citizens of the Heavenly City.


49. Many people came and disturbed Antony's quiet life. He was not able to be alone as he wished. And the Lord used Antony to work wonders. So Antony was afraid. He said to himself: "I shall become full of pride or others will think I am better than I am." He thought this over carefully and decided: "I shall go to the Upper Theba´d. Nobody will know me there." His brothers gave him some loaves of bread and Antony went to sit on the river bank to watch the boats as they passed. He wanted to go on one for the journey. Then a voice came from heaven saying: "Antony, where are you going? And why?" Antony was not troubled, he was used to hearing a voice that came to him like this. He answered: "All these people will not let me be quiet. They cause me weariness here and above all they want me to do things I am not able. So I want to go to the Upper Theba´d." The voice spoke again: "Even if you go into the Theba´d as you want, even if you go down to where the cattle are grazed, you will have twice as much to go undergo. If you truly desire a solitary life, go into the inner desert." Then Antony asked: "Who will tell me the way? I do not know it." At once he was shown some Desert Arabs who were going to take that road. So Antony went to them and said: "I wish to journey to the desert. " The Arabs readily agreed for God had prepared them so that Antony's journey should have a good outcome. Antony went with them on foot for three days and three nights. He came to a very high mountain. A stream, very clear and pure, ran at the foot of the mountain. Further away, some trees grew on the plain.


50. Antony liked the place, or rather, God made it pleasing to him; and certainly it was the place the voice had spoken of when he sat on the river bank. The Arabs gave Antony some loaves of bread before they went on, and he was left by himself on the mountain. He decided to stay there all alone. The Arabs admired Antony's courage and they gladly agreed to return by that road to bring him bread. He also had dates from the palm-trees for food. After a time, when the brothers found out where Antony was they sent food to him like good children looking after their father. But Antony saw that they were tired with taking bread to him. He asked the brothers who came to see him: "Bring me a small spade, an axe and some seeds. "They sent him all these things. Antony went over the mountain to find a fertile area. He found a place which was suitable, there was even a spring to water the seeds, so he was able to make bread for himself, and he did this each year. He was happy not to cause trouble to anyone anymore.

But then guests came to visit Antony. So he planted some vegetables to give his guests. At first the desert animals came to drink nearby and they damaged Antony's young plants. But he gently took hold of one of the animals and told them all: "Why do you harm me? I have done nothing to you. Go, and in the Lord's name do not come back here again." After that they kept away, as if they had heard what Antony said to them.


51. So Antony was alone in the inner mountain engaged in prayer and ascesis. The brothers who served him asked permission to come and see him each month and bring him some olives, vegetables and oil, for he was now an old man. Those who visited him have told us how many struggles he endured there, not against flesh and blood, but against the demons, as St Paul wrote. They heard the noise of many voices and of fighting. At night they saw the mountain filled with beasts and they watched Antony struggling against these enemies and praying against them. He encouraged those who came. He fought on his knees, praying to the Lord.

Everyone marvelled that alone in such a desert, he was not afraid of the demons who attacked him nor was he frightened by the ferocity of so many beasts and reptiles which were there. As the psalm says, he really had "trust in the Lord as in Mount Sion." He was tranquil of spirit and untroubled; the demons fled and the wild beasts, as we have said, made peace with him.


67. Antony's face was full of grace and was a pleasure to see. The Saviour had given him something more: when Antony was surrounded by his monks, if someone did not yet know him and wanted to see him, he did not go to any of the others, but went straight to him. It was as though Antony's eyes drew him. Antony was not noted for being particularly tall or strong, all tell of his conduct and his purity of heart. His soul was at peace and so his actions were calm. He had a joyful face because God was with him and his actions revealed his soul. Indeed the Bible says: "A glad heart makes a happy face. A sad heart crushes the spirit and darkens the face." It was thus that Jacob could see that Laban intended to deal deceitfully with him. He said to his wives: "The face of your father is not like yesterday and the day before." Samuel knew David because "he had lovely eyes and his teeth were white as milk."

This was the way others knew Antony. He was not troubled, his soul was in peace, his face was not sad because his mind was joyful.



35. When the demons come to you at night and wish to tell what the future holds, or they say: "We are angels", pay no attention, they are lying. If they praise your asceticism and call you blessed, do not listen, have nothing to do with them. Rather make the sign of the cross on yourself and your cell, and pray; you will see them disappear, for they are cowards and are terrified by the sign of the cross, for the Lord overcame them by the cross.

If they still hold their ground, dancing and taking on different guises, do not be afraid or pay any attention to them as if they were good.


36. One can easily tell the difference between good angels and bad, if God gives the grace. A vision of the good ones brings no disturbance. They do not cry out, one does not hear their voice, but their presence is so gentle that the soul is suddenly filled with joy, delight and courage. The Lord who is our joy and the power of God the Father accompanies them. The thoughts of the soul remain calm and untroubled so that, shining brightly, it sees those who appear by its own light. The soul is overcome by a desire for future realities, it longs to be united with them and follow them to heaven. If, being human, some are frightened by the vision of good spirits, they remove their fear with love.

The coming and appearance of evil angels brings trouble with noise and shouting, as one might expect from unruly boys or brigands. This produces terror in the soul, confusion and trouble in the thoughts, depression, disgust for ascesis, listlessness, memory of relatives, fear of death and evil desires.


89. How did Antony end his life? I will give you an account of it as you desire for even in his death there is something to imitate.

Antony went to see the monks on the outer mountain as he commonly did. God had given

him knowledge of his approaching death. In his talk to the brothers he said: "I have come for the last time to see how you are. We shall not meet again in this life if I am not mistaken. It is time for my departure, I am nearly 105 years old. At these words the monks were in tears. They gathered round Antony and embraced him. But Antony spoke to them joyfully. He was like a man sailing to his home town from exile, and he encouraged them: "Do no grow weary, keep on with your ascesis. Have the thought of death each day in your life. Keep your heart free from impure thoughts. Imitate the friends of God.

The brothers begged him to stay with them till he died, but he refused.


91. Antony hurried away from the monks on the outer mountain, and took the road to the inner mountain where he had been living. Some months later he fell ill. Two brothers were living with him on the inner mountain. For fifteen years they had been practising ascesis with him and helping him in his old age. Antony called to them and said: "I am going the way of my fathers, as the Bible says. I see that the Lord is calling me. Be vigilant. You have been ascetics for some time, do not stop now. Be zealous, as though you were just beginning, be whole-hearted. You know about the evil spirits and their tricks. They are strong and evil, but they cannot do much, so have no fear of them. Look at Christ at all times and have faith in him. Let your life be as though each day is the day of your death. Watch yourselves and remember my words. Join yourselves to Christ first of all and then to his saints. At your death they will welcome you as friends in the house of God where we will live for ever. Think about these things, and if you love me, keep me in mind as a father.

Bury my body yourselves in the earth and do not let anyone know the place. At the resurrection of the dead, I will receive this same body from the Lord incorruptible. Divide my garments among yourselves. Give one sheepskin and the robe from my bed to bishop Athanasius. He gave it to me new. I have worn it out. Give the other sheepskin to bishop Serapion. You may keep the garment of hair. And now, my children, Antony is going on his way and will be with you no longer.




In the pages of the Text the numbers in bold type at the head of each major divsion refer to the explanations given here, where they are repeated. The numbers underneath refer to the numeration in the various published editions.

1. The conditions for being a monk


Here Athanasius introduces Antony to us. We see from the first words that Antony, an Egyptian Christian, has "well-born and prosperous" parents, which emphasizes that Antony's monastic engagement was a free undertaking.

Then Athanasius depicts him as a perfect child. This is obviously not to be taken literally, he wants to present hi to us as a perfect disciple of Christ. There are several indications. First the reference to Jacob (Gen. 25,27) who is one of the figures of Christ in the Old Testament. Then 3 texts from the Infancy Gospel in Luke (Lk. 2,42; 2,51). He is already the perfect ascetic, food and rich meals had no interest for him, he was detached from everything.


In 2 & 3, Athanasius tells us how Antony became a monk. He gives us a lesson from earlier history, telling us what are the three conditions necessary to enter upon monastic life, with the help of three texts from Scripture.

In the second paragraph their is first a text (Acts 4,34) which will have great importance in the whole of primitive monasticism: the Apostles leave everything to follow Christ, and the faithful sell their possessions.

The first condition for being a monk then is to leave everything. It is given in the first text from Scripture which Antony hears (Mt. 19,21).


Two other texts emphasize two further conditions for being a monk. We find here too the first of the four stages of his journey.

The first text is also taken from the Gospel (Mt. 6,34); it emphasizes total detachment. Antony had kept a small amount of money for his sister, taking thought for the future. Now, he gives it to the poor. The second text is taken from St Paul "If a man will not work, let him have no food" (2 Thess. 3,10).

Here then are three texts from Scripture which did not get there by chance, they show us what Athanasius thought a monk should be like. We have three conditions which one must accept if one takes on the monastic life:

1) Complete detachment to follow Christ

2) Absence of worry, coming from complete confidence in God

3) Manual work, both to live and to help the poor.

These three conditions can be connected to the three theological virtues of faith (1), hope (2) and charity (3).

2. The progress of a monk


Still in text 3 e have the first stage in Antony's journey. Each stage will be followed by a portrait of Antony as he has reached the degree of perfection underlined in this stage. Here too Athanasius has a purpose, he wants to show us the degrees through which the monk must pass, from that of a good novice to a perfect monk.

The first stage where Antony "gave himself to asceticism" shows us what Athanasius thought a good novice should be like.

Antony lived in or quite near his village. He had a Master, an old man of a neighbouring village, and he tried to imitate him. He watched those round him who acted well and, like a bee, he nourished himself on the good things he found among them.

For the rest, he prayed, he read the Bible which fed his prayer, and he worked for his daily bread and to give alms. These are the three occupations by which a novice is formed in the monastic life: prayer, reading and work.


Here we have the first portrait of Antony, the portrait of a good novice. We are told that he obeyed everyone, and we can taste the honey which the bee has gathered from the ascetics, it is their virutes. We must know how to admire the virtues of others. The most important are being faithful to prayer and reading, then the social virtues: friendliness, patience, gentleness; and the ascetic virtues dear to the first monks: fasting and sleeping on the ground. All these are summed up in love of God and love of one's neighbour.


We come to the second stage. Antony goes to live in a tomb. This refers to an old custom of the East: the tombs are one or two kilometres from the village, each one is in a little house; on one side there is the tomb and on the other a small place where from time to time, on the anniversaries of the dead the relatives meet and eat together. The text tells us that there is a roof and a door. There one is well-protected and alone.

But now the demons come. They are found throughout the life of Antony. This needs some explanation; it must not be taken literally. The people of those time were not more simple than ourselves and the demon was not so stupid as to come in broad daylight then, as does not do so now. This way of speaking is like a parable, expressing deeper realities: there is within us a power stronger than ourselves, it is in us but not part of us, and this is what we have to fight against. This is the meaning of the spiritual combat, we have already noticed it in Origen. Antony imitates Christ in his struggle against the demon, and like him, he shown to us "as if dead".


This text teaches us that even if we think God is absent, he is nevertheless very close, and that it is at the moment when the devil is most active that God too is at work. His presence is hidden, but he is there when we struggle and it is he who assures us victory over the demon. Then Antony "got up", so sharing in the resurrection of Christ after having taken part in his death: he was "stronger than he was before the fight".


Now we come to the third stage. After his combat he goes out with an even greater desire to serve God. He goes to see the Senior; the text is more precise than the translation, it reads: "He went to see the old man, his Senior", so it was the one he had taken for his guide. But now, after the formation he received from this Senior and the combats against the demon, Antony has become a monk, and although his Senior does not want to follow him to the desert, he goes alone, impelled by the Spirit. We begin to see that Antony is someone who knows what he wants. He was "certain".

He went to a fortress. Do not imagine it was anything very grand; it was simply a guard post in the desert against thieves and enemy armies, a solid building in a dry land which commanded a pass or a strategic place and which was only occupied by soldiers when necessary.


This text gives a portrait of Antony at the third stage. He had "learnt the secrets of God, and was full of the Holy Spirit." Athanasius gives us several lessons on the effects of the ascetic life.

First of all, the ascetic life does not destroy a person, but restores him; Antony is the same as before: "he looked the same as before he went into the desert." Then the ascetic path enables the soul to recover it's purity of heart and leads to equanimity, which the monastic tradition calls apatheia, a state wherein a person has controlled his passions and subjected them to reason. It is not that he no longer has any passion, which would be impossible, but that he is no longer dominated by them, he is the master.

Notice the word "natural".. Ascesis enabled Antony to return to the "natural" state which Adam knew before he sinned, in which he had been created by God. These old monks were optimistic about the nature of man. What God has created is good, so naturally men and women are good too. They have been made evil by the fall; asceticism enables them to recover this "natural" state in which they came from the hands of God. Cassian thought in the same way, but not Augustine who had experienced in his flesh that man is drawn to evil.


But the Spirit drew Antony still further. We see in this text what Antony did when he was discovered. Athanasius uses many expressions at the beginning of the paragraph to show this: "he was not able to be alone as he wished" - he decided: "I shall go" - then when he heard the voice, he: "was not troubled" and he replied: "I want to go to the Upper Theba´d". Antony was in control of his life. But then the voice told him to go into the inner desert, and Antony replied: "Who will tell me the way? I do not know it." Here Antony changes from a state where he goes his own way to one where he is directed by God. Antony was living according to his own will, and now he is living according to the will of God. In this way Athanasius shows us that the monk must attain a state of perfect interior obedience where nothing is dearer to him than the will of God. He allows himself to be led by God.

Another interesting thing to notice is the march across the desert for three days and three nights; it recalls several passages in the Bible. Look up: Numbers 33,8; Tobit 3,10; Esther 4,16; Jonas 2,1; Matthew 12,40 where the three days and the three nights culminate in the resurrection. Athanasius wants to emphasize a new state the monk has reached, indicated by the first words of the next text (10) in which God makes it pleasing to him.


Now Antony is "all alone". To avoid giving trouble to others he cultivates a plot of land to make bread; and later to feed his guests. We learn that solitude does not prevent fraternal charity.

At the end of the passage, Antony talks with the beasts who understand and obey him. Athanasius wants to show that the union of men and women to God reconciles them with nature. This is the theme of paradise regained.


This passage describes further combats when Antony was old; the monk must always struggle against the demon. His weapon is prayer. But he has progressed; now "he was tranquil of spirit and untroubled"; he had "trust in the Lord", and even better, he "encouraged those who came". He has achieved apatheia.


This is the last portrait of Antony when he has achieved perfection; three words which recur several times are used to describe it; he is "at peace", "calm", "not troubled". He is also "joyful": "his heart was joyful", "he had a joyful face". In his face, his eyes reflected the joy in his heart: "he had lovely eyes"; his eyes drew people to him.

There is an example here of the Father's knowledge of the scriptures; they quote the Bible from memory, and sometimes their memory deceives them. The quotation: "he had lovely eyes and his teeth were white as milk", is not said of David but of Judah, in Gen. 49,12.


If we take these four stage which retrace Antony's progress, we find another lesson which Athanasius gives us.

We find that at each stage Antony draws further and further away from other people; at the first he is near the village and we are told that "everyone loved him" (4); at the second he is one or two kilometres from the village and he has a friend who brings him bread (5); at the third he goes out into the desert where he is "by himself" in a fortress (7); and in the fourth he foes deeper into the desert, into what is called the "inner desert", and there he is "all alone".

But at the same time the text emphasizes that the greater the distance from people the nearer he comes to them. At the first stage he is "like a bee", he goes from one ascetic to another, visiting them and observing the good things each one does (3&4). At the second, God promises that he will be "famous everywhere" (6). At the third he becomes a spiritual father, a father of monks (8) and here we have his ascetic discourse addressed to monks. Finally at the last stage he draws everybody to him, works miracles and become the father of all. Here we are given his apologetic discourse addressed to all people.

Athanasius gives us a lesson which will later be taken up by Augustine: "There are separations which are ruptures, but there there are others which unite." Another monk, Evagrius, will later take up the same idea in the phrase: "A monk is he who, separated from all, is united to all." Not "although separated", but "because separated". When one leaves the world, one is united to it in a deeper way than before.

3. The discernment of spirits


This is a passage taken from the "Ascetic discourse", a discourse which Antony never actually gave and which is more from Athanasius than Antony. However there is an idea in it which recurs in the letters of Antony: the demons ought not to be feared; they are cowardly and "come at night", that is when we do not feel the grace of God; but the Lord has already conquered them by the cross. We triumph over them by the sign of the cross and by prayer.


Athanasius gives us a way to recognise if a thought comes from the demon or from God. First paragraph: a thought which brings joy and courage comes from the Lord who is joy and power. Our thoughts are untroubled and bring a desire for heaven. Second paragraph: on the other hand a thought which produces trouble, terror, "a sad countenance, disgust for ascesis", comes from the demon. We need to discern our thoughts. As was said earlier, the word "apparition" should not be taken in too materialistic a fashion, it means the thoughts which come to the soul.

4. The death of Antony

Two passages tell us of the last recommendations (15) which Antony made to his monks on his last visit, and (16) the story of his death.


When Antony knew he was going to die, he bade his monks to: "keep the thought of death each day of your life", which St Benedict also tells us in chapter 4 of his Rule, no. 46&47.

There is a beautiful definition of the "joyful" death of the monk: "like a man sailing to his home town from exile".


This time, when Antony returns to his solitude, we see how old he is, he is helped by two brothers. He gives them his last recommendations, and because he is with his close friends, he is more precise; first an instruction which we will come across again in the desert Fathers: "vigilance", further on he says: "Live each day as though it is the day of your death". Then another similar instruction dear to the desert Fathers: self-watchfulness. Vigilance and self-watchfulness give rise to constancy in the ascesis: "be zealous, as though you were just beginning". Again we are told that the demons must not be feared; the remedy for resisting them is to keep close to Christ: "Look at Christ at all times and have faith in him."

Then Antony said what should be done with his body; it should be hidden so that no one can go looking for relics. Then his possessions, his two fleeces (he means a garment of goatskin to keep out the cold), and his robe which he gave to his two friends, the bishops, and his garment of hair which he left to his disciples.

Then to finish, another beautiful definition of the death of a monk: "Antony is going on his way".





 1) How long after the death of Antony was his life written? By whom? What conclusions can one reach on its value?

The 'Life of Antony' was written in 357, one year after the death of Antony, by Athanasius. Athanasius did not invent him, as many people knew him.

 2) What were the ideas about the desert at the time the "Life of Antony" was written?

There were two ideas about the desert which are both found in the Bible

A sterile, inhospitiable place where Azazel, to whom the scape-goat was sent, lived; a place of demons.

The place where God is loved, the land of betrothal.

 3) The first pages of this "Life" give us three condition for being a monk. What are they?

Complete detachment in order to follow Christ.

Absence of cares = confidence in God,

Work in order to live and to give alms.

 4) Then the book illustrates Antony's progress by three stages. What are these?

1. On the edge of the village, he gathers nourishment from the ascetics.

2. In a tomb where he battles against the demon.

3. In a fortress, he is alone and becomes the Father of monks.

4. In the interior desert, he is now completely alone and becomes the Father of men.


5) Athanasius wants to indicate the progress of the monk in this way. Explain it.

Antony goes further and further away from men outwardly; but in fact, spiritually he draws nearer and nearer to them.


6) What lesson can we draw from this for our separation from the world?

To be united to God does not separate us from other people, but the more we are united to

God, the more we are united to others. Our separation from the world entails a break with the world, but it is also an entry into the heart of the world.