“The Life of St. Anthony” by Athanasius

St. Anthony the Great
St. Anthony the Great

As the persecution of the early church stopped and Christianity gained favor in the halls of power, dedicated followers of Jesus turned from the red martyrdom of death to the white martyrdom of the desert. These white martyrs gave up fleshly comfort (e.g. soft beds, nice clothes, etc.) and embraced an “austere and rigorous discipline” of solitude, prayer, and fasting.[1] The most famous of these desert hermits was St. Anthony the Great (c. 251 CE–356 C.E) who lived in the remote areas of Thebaid (a Roman province in modern day Egypt).

The story of St. Anthony’s life was written down by Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 295-373 C.E.) between 356-362 C.E. With a few short years, The Life of St. Anthony had “won acclaim not only among Greek-speaking Christians in the eastern Mediterranean, but also among Latin Christians in Gaul and Italy.”[2] A Latin translation of the book was read by St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 C.E.) in Milan, Italy, and changed the course of his life, leading him to embrace the life of asceticism.[3] In the end, Athanasius’ The Life of St. Anthony became the “paradigm for the genre of Christian hagiography” adhered to by subsequent authors.[4]

The flow of the book itself is fairly simple. Starting with St. Anthony’s childhood, the book follows him into the desert and traces his battles with himself and with the forces of darkness. Armed with a regiment of prayer, fasting, physical work and solitude, St. Anthony “gained mastery over Satan and his agents.”[5] He also trained other monks in the “use of prayer and the sign of the cross” for fighting demons and advised all who journeyed to his place of solitude.[6]

On a personal level, I found St. Anthony’s demonology very valuable. The manner in which he describes the tactics of the evil one and how a child of God was to fight against them was very powerful. Rather than being afraid of the forces of evil, St. Anthony taught his followers not to “fear their apparitions, for they are nothing and they disappear quickly.”[7] The evil thoughts placed as stumbling blocks for those who follow Jesus will be “brought down immediately” by “prayers and fasting.”[8]

All too often believers in the modern minority world (i.e. Canada, United States and Europe) dismiss the forces of evil as myths created by uneducated people of the ancient world. However personal experience, trust in the Scriptures, and the testimony of people like St. Anthony leads me to embrace a worldview that includes supernatural forces of both good and bad. Demons, however, are not the equals of God, but rather created beings who fell from “heavenly wisdom.”[9] Having embraced this worldview, it helps me understand why bad things happen to good people and why evil thoughts plague those who desire to please God. All of creation is trapped in the midst of a cosmic battle that will be ended with the return of Jesus when he destroys “every ruler and authority and power” (1 Corinthians 15:24b). Until that day, we continue to fight along with the saints of old knowing that they surround us and cheer us onward towards the goal of being with Jesus (Hebrews 12:1).

 

Endnotes:
[1] Athanasius. The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus. Trans.by Robert C. Gregg (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1980), 6.
[2] Athanasius. The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, 3.
[3] Athanasius. The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, 15.
[4] Athanasius. The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, xiv.
[5] Athanasius. The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, 7.
[6] Athanasius. The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, 8.
[7] Athanasius. The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, 48.
[8] Athanasius. The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, 48.
[9] Athanasius. The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, 47.

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