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c.251-356. Pioneer of anchoritic* monasticism. Born at Coma in middle Egypt, his well-to-do Christian parents not long dead, at about the age of twenty Antony heard read in church, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell, . . .” followed by “Do not worry about tomorrow” (Matt. 19:21; 6:34). Bequeathing his property to the poor and his sister to a convent, he became an ascetic devotee, directed by an older solitary-first near his house, later outside Coma, and then in a tomb further afield. Seeking isolation about 285, he crossed the Nile eastward to his Outer Mountain, where for twenty years he occupied a disused fort at Pispir. Finally, after 312 he retreated to his remote Inner Mountain, Mt. Colzim, near the Red Sea. Although opting out of civilization to escape from one's troubles was not uncommon in third-century Egypt, Antony was the first to attract influential publicity in “taking to the bush” (anachomrein), for Christian reasons. His utterances enjoy first place in the Sayings of the Fathers. He was beset by visitors, people seeking help and imitators, whose attachment to “Father” (Abba, Apa) Antony created colonies of hermit cells (monastemria) around Pispir.
Knowledge of Antony depends largely on the Life written soon after his death by Athanasius and translated at least twice into Latin by 379. Inspired partly by classical or Hellenistic lives of heroes and sages, it was influential in disseminating monasticism in both East and West and became a model for later Christian hagiography. Antony is depicted as the pattern of anchoritic life, one of severe austerity, incessant prayer, supernatural healings and perceptions, and above all perpetual warfare with the demons peopling the deserts. This individualistic quest for perfection, i.e., the recovery of the soul's created nature, bypassed the Church, although Antony remained a champion of episcopal orthodoxy, hostile only to schismatics (Melitians) and heretics. In 338 he visited Alexandria to disavow any sympathy towards Arianism. In 311 he was there during the persecution of Maximin Daia, sustaining the confessors but being denied the martyrdom he desired. A Copt who knew no Greek, untutored (as a boy too shy for school) and perhaps barely literate, he left eight extant letters.
J. Quasten, Patrology 3, pp. 39-45, 148-53; J. David in DHGE 3, pp. 726-34; H. Queffebe, Saint Anthony of the Desert (1954); B. Steidle (ed.), Antonius Magnus Eremita 356-1956 (Stud. Anselm. 38) (1956); D.J. Chitty, The Desert a City (1966), chaps. 1-2; translation of Life by R.T. Meyer (ACW 10, 1950).