Summary of The Life of Anthony by St. Athanasius

Background of the book: The Life of Anthony, originally written in Greek around 360 AD by the Patriarch of Alexandria, St Athanasius, is one of the most influential works of literature in the development of the monastic tradition, particularly in Western Europe (due to the Latin translation by St. Evagrius of Antioch). Click here for the free PDF I used to read this book. Here is what St. Athanasius says at the end of this book to show the purpose of his writing:

Background of St. Anthony: Born in Egypt around 251, Anthony grew up in a wealthy Christian family. After the death of his parents at the age of 18 or 20, Anthony received his vocation at Mass one day:

“Now it was not six months after the death of his parents, and going according to custom into the Lord’s House, he communed with himself and reflected as he walked how the Apostles left all and followed the Savior [cf. Mt 4.20]; and how they in the Acts [cf. 4.35-7] sold their possessions and brought and laid them at the Apostles’ feet for distribution to the needy, and what and how great a hope was laid up for them in heaven. Pondering over these things he entered the church, and it happened the Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man, “If you would be perfect, go and sell what you have and give to the poor; and come follow Me and you shall have treasure in heaven” [Mt 19.21]. Antony, as though God had put him in mind of the Saints, and the passage had been read on his account, went out immediately from the church, and gave the possessions of his forefathers to the villagers–they were three hundred acres,” productive and very fair–that they should be no more a clog upon himself and his sister. And all the rest that was movable he sold, and having got together much money he gave it to the poor, reserving a little however for his sister’s sake” (2).

The wisdom of St. Anthony: Although he never formally studied, Anthony possessed great wisdom through a life of prayer. He memorized the entire Bible and often confuted proud philosophers in debates.

“And he was constant in prayer, knowing that a man ought to pray in secret [cf. Mt 6.6] unceasingly [cf. 1 Ths 5.17]. For he had given such heed to what was read that none of the things that were written fell from him to the ground [cf. 1 Sam 3.19, Lk 8.15], but he remembered all, and afterwards his memory served him for books” (3).

“And again others such as these met him in the outer mountain and thought to mock, him because he had not learned letters. And Antony said to them, “What do you have to say? which is first, mind or letters? And which is the cause of which, mind of letters or letters of mind?” And when they answered mind is first and the inventor of letters, Antony said, “Whoever, therefore, has a sound mind has no need of letters” (73).

“Further, he was able to be of such use to all, that many soldiers and men who had great possessions laid aside the burdens of life, and became monks for the rest of their days. And it was as if a physician had been given by God to Egypt. For who in grief met Antony and did not return rejoicing? Who came mourning for his dead and did not forthwith put off his sorrow? Who came in anger and was not converted to friendship? What poor and low-spirited man met him who, hearing him and looking upon him, did not despise wealth and console himself in his poverty? What monk, having being neglectful, came to him and became not all the stronger? What young man having come to the mountain and seen Antony, did not forthwith deny himself pleasure and love temperance? Who when tempted by a demon, came to him and did not find rest? And who came troubled with doubts and did not get quietness of mind?” (87).

Conflicts with the devil: The Life of Anthony is full of his battles with the devil and his demons. He frequently used Scripture, the sign of the Cross, and prayer to send the evil forces away.

“But Antony having given thanks to the Lord, with good courage said to him, “You are very despicable then, for you are black-hearted and weak as a child. Henceforth I shall have no trouble from you, ‘for the Lord is my helper, and I shall look down on my enemies’” [Ps 117.7]. Having heard this, the black one straightway fled, shuddering at the words and dreading any longer even to come near the man” (6).

“Nor was the Lord then forgetful of Antony’s wrestling, but was at hand to help him. So looking up he saw the roof as it were opened, and a ray of light descending to him. The demons suddenly vanished, the pain of his body straightway ceased, and the building was again whole. But Antony feeling the help, and getting his breath again, and being freed from pain, besought the vision which had appeared to him, saying, “Where were you? Why did you not appear at the beginning to make my pains to cease?” And a voice came to him, “Antony, I was here, but I waited to see your fight; since you have endured, and did not surrender, I will always be a helper for you, and will make your name known everywhere” (10).

Anthony reveals that the devil and his angels do not have power over us.

“And he has not the power over swine, for as it is written in the Gospel, they besought the Lord, saying, ‘Let us enter the swine’ [Mt 8.31]. But if they had power not even against swine, much less have they any over men formed in the image of God [cf. Gen 1.26-7]” (26).

Asceticism: Anthony practiced extreme forms of self-denial and penance. Anthony wore a hair shirt, never washed

“He kept vigil to such an extent that he often continued the whole night without sleep; and this not once but often, to the marvel of others. He ate once a day, after sunset, sometimes once in two days, and often even in four. His food was bread and salt, his drink, water only” (7).

Possessions: Anthony shows the value in giving away our possessions now for the sake of virtue before we have to depart with them when we die.

“Further, we should consider that even if we do not relinquish them for virtue’s sake, still afterwards when we die we shall leave them behind–very often, as the Preacher says, to those to whom we do not wish [cf. Eccl 2.18-9]. Why then should we not give them up for virtue’s sake, that we may inherit even a kingdom? Therefore let the desire of possession take hold of no one, for what gain is it to acquire these things which we cannot take with us? Why not rather get those things which we can take away with us–to wit, prudence, justice, temperance, courage, understanding, love, kindness to the poor, faith in Christ, freedom from wrath, hospitality? If we possess these, we shall find them of themselves preparing for us a welcome there in the land of the meek-hearted [cf. Mt 5.5]” (17).

Sign of the Cross: St. Anthony found great strength & power in making the sign of the Cross with faith.

“Rather sign yourselves and your houses, and pray, and you shall see them vanish. For they are cowards, and greatly fear the sign of the Lord’s Cross, since of a truth in it the Savior stripped them, and made an example of them [cf. Col 2.15]” (35).

“But we by the mention of Christ crucified put all demons to flight, whom you fear as if they were gods. Where the sign of the Cross is magic is weak and witchcraft has no strength” (78).

Quoting Scripture: St. Anthony, having memorized the entire Bible by listening to others read Scripture to him, often quoted Scripture in battling the devil.

“But the Lord did not suffer us to be deceived by the devil, for He rebuked him whenever he framed such delusions against Him, saying: ‘Get behind me, Satan: for it is written, You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve’ [Mt 4.10]. More and more, therefore, let the deceiver be despised by us; for what the Lord has said, this for our sakes He has done: that the demons hearing like words from us may be put to flight through the Lord who rebuked them in those words” (37).

“At another time they filled the house with horses, wild beasts and creeping things, and I sang: ‘Some in chariots and some in horses, but we will boast in the name of the Lord our God’ [Ps 19.18], and at the prayers they were turned to flight by the Lord” (39).

The name of Jesus: Anthony reveals the power in speaking the name of Jesus in times of trial.

“Once a demon exceeding high appeared with pomp, and dared to say, ‘I am the power of God and I am Providence, what do you wish that I shall give you?’ But I then so much the more breathed upon him, and spoke the name of Christ, and set about to smite him. And I seemed to have smitten him, and immediately he, big as he was, together with all his demons, disappeared at the name of Christ” (40).

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