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Athanasius, Life of Antony/Vita Antonii

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    The introduction and notes have been prepared by John Terry (2021) and the translation is from Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, ed., Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Volume IV (1892). A full version online is at Internet History Sourcebooks (Fordham). I have taken the liberty of updating some archaic language of the translation.

    Who Was Antony?

    Saint Antony of Egypt was born around 251 CE and died over 100 years later in around 356. While he was not the first person to become a solitary hermit, devoting his life to fasting and prayer, he was the first superstar of the genre of hagiography––stories of the lives of very holy people. The person responsible for writing and popularizing his legend was one Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria who, in his Vita Antonii or "Life of Antony" detailed Antony's heroic struggles against demons, epic periods of fasting, unbearable fits of temptation, and miracles of healing. All of these elements, ultimately meant to imitate Jesus (in what most modern scholars refer to as imitatio Christi), would become common tropes of hagiographic literature.

    File:Michelangelo Buonarroti - The Torment of Saint Anthony - Google Art Project.jpg
    Fig. 1: The Torment of St. Antony by Michelangelo, c. 1487-88 (Wikimedia Commons).

    According to Athanasius, Antony's parents died when he was around 20 years old, after which he committed his sister to a monastery and himself to the life of an anchorite, or solitary monk/hermit. From there, Athanasius' biographic sketch of the holy man launches into a long series of stories involving his spiritual training, sometimes against demons who attack him in the night, sometimes against demons disguised as beautiful women, and sometimes against the Devil himself.

    Antony's mode of monasticism was simultaneously private and public. While the main point of his extreme asceticism––a term originating from a Greek word for athletic training or discipline––was to remove himself from society, his example was replicated by others and his solitary state was regularly interrupted by visitors, some seeking advice or healing.

    Toward the middle of the Life, Antony delivers a long sermon, some of which is excerpted below. In it, he offers advice to Christians generally but specifically associates the deities of the Greco-Roman Mediterranean with the demons referenced in Christian scripture. After the sermon, Athanasius explains that Antony tried to become a martyr––or, a person who dies for their faith––during the governorship of one Gaius Galerius Valerius Maximianus, but that God instead protected him from harm. The idea that someone would seek death in this way is strange to most modern audiences, but we need to remember that imitatio Christi was what gave Antony his narrative power in Athanasius' hands. In other words, Athanasius successfully created a superhero of the Christian imagination––one who fought against demons and the Roman state on behalf of others. “By the standards of the classical world," one of Athanasius' modern translators notes, "the Life of Antony was an immediate literary sensation.”1

    Athanasius was clearly very keen to promote the spread of monasticism, or the devotion of one's life to prayer, fasting, and labor either individually or in communities. It is important to remember that such practices imitate the lives of Jesus as well as some Hebrew prophets such as Elijah:

    “Withdrawal from the world by an individual to a life of ascetic renunciation and self-denial in a desert solitude had an obvious biblical precedent in John the Baptist. The gospel stories of the temptation of Jesus reinforced the notion that the desert, the wilderness, was the place where the truly committed might test their faith and overcome the wiles of the Devil. It was in the valley of the Nile, where the desert and the sown lie so close together, that Christian solitaries first made their appearance. The most famous of these early hermits was Antony, a Coptic peasant who ‘dropped out’ of his village community at the age of twenty, in about the year 270, and for the remainder of a very long life gave himself over to prayer and asceticism. His example was infectious . . . It spread like wildfire in the fourth century . . . [in an era] where martyrs were no longer being made.”3

    An institutionalized version of such a life was still in its infancy in the third and fourth centuries CE under Roman rule. Antony's career as an ascetic is situated among the persecutions of the late third century under the Emperor Diocletian, but the institutionalized version of monastic practice set forth by people like Benedict of Nursia was still centuries away. Yet “within a few decades the Life of Antony had won acclaim not only among Greek-speaking Christians in the eastern Mediterranean, but also among Latin Christians in Gaul and Italy. A modern scholar remarks that ‘by 400 [Antony] was already a hero of the past.’”4 Antony's fame as a household name of monastic practice made him a superhero of his time.

    Footnotes to the Introduction

    [1] Robert Gregg, Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter To Marcellinus (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1979), 2.

    [2] Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion from Paganism to Christianity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 28.

    [3] Fletcher, Barbarian Conversion, 26.

    [4] Gregg, Athanasius, 3, quoting Owen Chadwick, John Cassian, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), 3.

    Questions for Discussion

    1) What is the main point of Antony's battles with demons?

    2) Keep track of the various forms Satan takes when he attacks or engages with Antony. What are some common themes? Why did Athanasius make these choices?

    3) What motivates Antony to go deeper into ascetic practice? What are some examples of that practice?

    4) Consider the theological debates around ch 69. Is it likely that Antony would have said such things? Why or why not?

    5) Analyze the ways in which Athanasius discusses the theme of isolation. Where does Antony go to be fully isolated, and why?


    4. Thus conducting himself, Antony was beloved by all.1 He subjected himself in sincerity to the good men whom he visited, and learned thoroughly where each surpassed him in zeal and discipline. He observed the graciousness of one; the unceasing prayer of another; he took knowledge of another's freedom from anger and another's loving-kindness; he gave heed to one as he watched, to another as he studied; one he admired for his endurance, another for his fasting and sleeping on the ground; the meekness of one and the long-suffering of another he watched with care, while he took note of the piety towards Christ and the mutual love which animated all. Thus filled, he returned to his own place of discipline, and henceforth would strive to unite the qualities of each, and was eager to show in himself the virtues of all. With others of the same age he had no rivalry; save this only, that he should not be second to them in higher things. And this he did so as to hurt the feelings of nobody, but made them rejoice over him. So all they of that village and the good men in whose intimacy he was, when they saw that he was a man of this sort, used to call him God-beloved. And some welcomed him as a son, others as a brother.

    5. But the devil, who hates and envies what is good, could not endure to see such a resolution in a youth, but endeavored to carry out against him what he had been wont to effect against others. First of all he tried to lead him away from the discipline, whispering to him the remembrance of his wealth, care for his sister,2 claims of kindred, love of money, love of glory, the various pleasures of the table and the other relaxations of life, and at last the difficulty of virtue and the labor of it; he suggested also the infirmity of the body and the length of the time. In a word he raised in [Antony's] mind a great debate, wishing to distract him from his settled purpose. But when the enemy saw himself to be too weak for Antony's determination, and that he rather was conquered by the other's firmness, overthrown by his great faith and falling through his constant prayers, then at length putting his trust in the weapons which are "in the navel of his belly"3 and boasting in them––for they are his first snare for the young––he attacked the young man, disturbing him by night and harassing him by day, so that even the onlookers saw the struggle which was going on between them. The one would suggest foul thoughts and the other counter them with prayers: the one fire him with lush the other, as one who seemed to blush, fortify his body with faith, prayers, and fasting. And the devil one night even took upon him the shape of a woman and imitated all her acts simply to tempt Antony. But he, his mind filled with Christ and the nobility inspired by Him, and considering the spirituality of the soul, quenched the coal of the other's deceit. Again the enemy suggested the ease of pleasure. But he like a man filled with rage and grief turned his thoughts to the threatened fire and the gnawing worm, and setting these in array against his adversary, passed through the temptation unscathed. All this was a source of shame to his foe. For he, deeming himself like God, was now mocked by a young man; and he who boasted himself against flesh and blood was being put to flight by a man in the flesh. For the Lord was working with Antony--the Lord who for our sake took flesh and gave the body victory over the devil, so that all who truly fight can say, "not I but the grace of God which was with me."4

    6. At last when the dragon could not even thus overthrow Antony, but saw himself thrust out of his heart, gnashing his teeth as it is written, and as it were beside himself, he appeared to Antony like a black boy, taking a visible shape in accordance with the color of his mind. And cringing to him, as it were, he plied him with thoughts no longer, for guileful as he was, he had been worsted, but at last spoke in human voice and said, "Many I deceived, many I cast down; but now attacking you and your labors as I had many others, I proved weak." Antony asked, "who are you who speaks thus with me?" He answered with a lamentable voice, "I am the friend of whoredom, and have taken upon me incitements which lead to it against the young. I am called the spirit of lust. How many have I deceived who wished to live soberly, how many are the chaste whom by my incitements I have persuaded! I am he on account of whom also the prophet reproves those who have fallen, saying, 'You have been caused to err by the spirit of whoredom.'5 For by me they have been tripped up. I am he who have so often troubled you and have so often been overthrown by you.' 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."6 Having heard this, the black one straightway fled, shuddering at the words and dreading any longer even to come near the man.

    7. This was Antony's first struggle against the devil, or rather this victory was the Savior's work in Antony, "Who condemned sin in the flesh that the ordinance of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not after the flesh but after the spirit."7 But neither did Antony, although the evil one had fallen, henceforth relax his care and despise him; nor did the enemy as though conquered tease to lay snares for him. For again he went round as a lion seeking some occasion against him. But Antony having learned from the Scriptures that the devices of the devil are many, zealously continued the discipline, reckoning that though the devil had not been able to deceive his heart by bodily pleasure, he would endeavor to ensnare him by other means. For the demon loves sin. Wherefore more and more he repressed the body and kept it in subjection, so that if he conquered on one side, he should not be dragged down on the other. He therefore planned to accustom himself to a severer mode of life.8 And many marveled, but he himself used to bear the labor easily; for the eagerness of soul, through the length of time it had abode in him, had wrought a good habit in him, so that taking but little initiation from others he showed great zeal in this matter. 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 other. 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. Of flesh and wine it is superfluous even to speak, since no such thing was found with the other earnest men. A rush mat served him to sleep upon, but for the most part he lay upon the bare ground. He would not anoint himself with oil, saying it benefited young men to be earnest in training and not to seek what would enervate the body; but they must accustom it to labor, mindful of the Apostle's words, "when I am weak, then am I strong . . . For the fiber of the soul is then sound when the pleasures of the body are diminished."9 And he had come to this truly wonderful conclusion, 'that progress in virtue, and retirement from the world for the sake of it, ought not to be measured by time, but by desire and intensity of purpose. He at least gave no thought to the past, but day by day, as if he were at the beginning of his discipline, applied greater pares for advancement, often repeating to himself the saying of Paul: "Forgetting the things which are behind and stretching forward to the things which are before."10 He was also mindful of the words spoken by the prophet Elijah, "the Lord lives before whose presence I stand today."11 For he observed that in saying "today" the prophet did not compute the time that had gone by: but daily as though ever commencing he eagerly endeavored to make himself fit to appear before God, being pure in heart and ever ready to submit to His counsel, and to Him alone. And he used to say to himself that from the life of the great Elias the hermit ought to see his own as in a mirror.

    8. Thus tightening his hold upon himself, Antony departed to the tombs, which happened to be at a distance from the village; and having bid one of his acquaintances to bring him bread at intervals of many days, he entered one of the tombs, and the other having shut the door on him, he remained within alone. And when the enemy could not endure it. but was even fearful that in a short time Antony would fill the desert with the discipline, coming one night with a multitude of demons, he so cut him with stripes that he lay on the ground speechless from the excessive pain. For he affirmed that the torture had been so excessive that no blows inflicted by man could ever have caused him such torment. But by the Providence of God––for the Lord never overlooks them that hope in Him––the next day his acquaintance came bringing him the loaves. And having opened the door and seeing him lying on the ground as though dead, he lifted him up and carried him to the church in the village, and laid him upon the ground. And many of his kinsfolk and the villagers sat around Antony as round a corpse. But about midnight he came to himself and arose, and when be saw them all asleep and his comrade alone watching, he motioned with his head for him to approach, and asked him to carry him again to the tombs without waking anybody.

    Temptations of Saint Anthony panel, Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece9. He was carried therefore by the man, and as he was wont, when the door was shut he was within alone. And he could not stand up on account of the blows, but he prayed as he lay. And after he had prayed, he said with a shout, Here am I, Antony; I flee not from your stripes, for even if you inflict more nothing shall separate rues from the love of Christ. And then he sang, "though a camp be set against me, my heart shall not be afraid."12 These were the thoughts and words of this ascetic. But the enemy, who hates good, marveling that after the blows he dared to return, called together his hounds and burst forth, "You see," said he, "that neither by the spirit of lust nor by blows did we stay the man, but that he braves us, let us attack him in another fashion." But changes of form for evil are easy for the devil, so in the night they made such a ruckus that the whole of that place seemed to be shaken by an earthquake, and the demons as if breaking the four walls of the dwelling seemed to enter through them, coming in the likeness of beasts and creeping things. And the place was on a sudden filled with the forms of lions, bears, leopards, bulls, serpents, asps, scorpions, and wolves, and each of them was moving according to his nature. The lion was roaring, wishing to attack, the bull seeming to toss with its horns, the serpent writhing but unable to approach, and the wolf as it rushed on was restrained; altogether the noises of the apparitions, with their angry ragings, were dreadful. But Antony, stricken and goaded by them, felt bodily pains severer still. He lay watching, however, with unshaken soul, groaning from bodily anguish; but his mind was clear, and as in mockery he said, "If there had been any power in you, it would have sufficed had one of you come, but since the Lord hath made you weak you attempt to terrify me by numbers: and a proof of your weakness is that you take the shapes of brute beasts." And again with boldness he said, "If you are able, and have received power against me, delay not to attack; but if you are unable, why trouble me in vain? For faith in our Lord is a seal and a wall of safety to us." So after many attempts they gnashed their teeth upon him, because they were mocking themselves rather than him.
    Fig. 2 (above): Detail from the Temptations of Saint Anthony, Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, 1510-15.

    10. 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 thy fight; since you hast endured, and have not been defeated, I will ever be an ally to thee, and will make your name known everywhere." Having heard this, Antony arose and prayed, and received such strength that he perceived that he had more power in his body than formerly. And he was then about thirty-five years old.


    [Antony preaching:]

    23. "The demons, therefore, if they see all Christians, and monks especially, laboring cheerfully and advancing, first make an attack by temptation and place hindrances to hamper our way, to wit, evil thoughts. But we need not fear their suggestions, for by prayer, fasting, and faith in the Lord their attack immediately fails. But even when it does they cease not, but knavishly by subtlety come on again. For when they cannot deceive the heart openly with foul pleasures they approach in different guise, and thenceforth shaping displays they attempt to strike fear, changing their shapes, taking the forms of women, wild beasts, creeping things, gigantic bodies, and troops of soldiers. But not even then need ye fear their deceitful displays. For they are nothing and quickly disappear, especially if a man fortify himself beforehand with faith and the sign of the cross [4]. Yet are they bold and very shameless, for if thus they are worsted they make an onslaught in another manner, and pretend to prophesy and foretell the future, and to show themselves of a height reaching to the roof and of great breadth; that they may stealthily catch by such displays those who could not be deceived by their arguments. If here also they find the soul strengthened by faith and a hopeful mind, then they bring their leader to their aid.


    30. "So then we ought to fear God only, and despise the demons, and be in no fear of them. But the more they do these things the more let us intensify our discipline against them, for a good life and faith in God is a great weapon. At any rate they fear the fasting, the sleeplessness, the prayers, the meekness, the quietness, the contempt of money and vainglory, the humility, the love of the poor, the alms, the freedom from anger of the ascetics, and, chief of all, their piety towards Christ. Wherefore they do all things that they may not have any that trample on them, knowing the grace given to the faithful against them by the Saviour, when He says, 'Behold I have given to you power to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and upon all the power of the enemy.'"13


    49. But when he saw himself beset by many, and not suffered to withdraw himself according to his intent as he wished, fearing because of the signs which the Lord wrought by him, that either he should be puffed up, or that some other should think of him above what he ought to think, he considered and set off to go into the upper Thebaid,14 among those to whom he was unknown. And having received loaves from the brethren, he sat down by the bank of the river, looking whether a boat would go by, that, having embarked thereon, he might go up the river with them. While he was considering these things, a voice came to him from above, "Antony, where are you going?" But he no way disturbed, but as he had been accustomed to be called often thus, giving ear to it, answered, saying, "Since the multitude permit me not to be still, I wish to go into the upper Thebaid on account of the many hindrances that come upon me here, and especially because they demand of me things beyond my power." But the voice said unto him, 'Even though you should go into the Thebaid, or even though, as you have in mind, i you should go down to the Bucolia, you will have to endure more, double the amount of toil. But if you wish really to be in quiet, depart now into the inner desert." And when Antony said, "Who will show me the way for I know it not?" immediately the voice pointed out to him travelers about to go that way. So Antony approached, and drew near them, and asked that he might go with them into the desert. And they, as though they had been commanded by Providence, received him willingly. And having journeyed with them three days and three nights, he came to a very lofty mountain, and at the foot of the mountain ran a clear spring, whose waters were sweet and very cold; outside there was a plain and a few neglected palm trees.

    50. Antony then, as it were, moved by God, loved the place, for this was the spot which he who had spoken with him by the banks of the river had pointed out. So having first received loaves from his fellow travelers, he dwelled in the mountain alone, no one else being with him. And recognizing it as his own home, he remained in that place for the future. But the travelers, having seen the earnestness of Antony, purposely used to journey that way, and joyfully brought him loaves, while now and then the palm trees also afforded him a poor and frugal relish. But after this, the brethren learning of the place, like children mindful of their father, took care to send to him. But when Antony saw that the bread was the cause of trouble and hardships to some of them, to spare the monks this, he resolved to ask some of those who came to bring him a spade, an ax, and a little grain. And when these were brought, he went over the land round the mountain, and having found a small plot of suitable ground, tilled it; and having a plentiful supply of water for watering, he sowed. This doing year by year, he got his bread from thence, rejoicing that thus he would be troublesome to no one, and because he kept himself from being a burden to anybody. But after this, seeing again that people came, he cultivated a few pot-herbs, that he who came to him might have some slight solace after the labor of that hard journey. At first, however, the wild beasts in the desert, coming because of the water, often injured his seeds and husbandry. But he, gently laving hold of one of them, said to them all, "Why do you hurt me, when I hurt none of you? Depart, and in the name of the Lord come not nigh this spot." And from that time forward, as though fearful of his command, they no more came near the place.

    51. So he was alone in the inner mountain, spending his time in prayer and discipline. And the brethren who served him asked that they might come every month and bring him olives, pulse and oil, for by now he was an old man. There then he passed his life, and endured such great battles, "Not against flesh and blood,"15 as it is written, but against opposing demons, as we learned from those who visited him. For there they heard tumults, many voices, and, as it were, the clash of arms. At night they saw the mountain become full of wild beasts, and him also fighting as though against visible beings, and praying against them. And those who came to him he encouraged, while kneeling he contended and prayed to the Lord. Surely it was a marvelous thing that a man, alone in such a desert, feared neither the demons who rose up against him, nor the fierceness of the four-footed beasts and creeping things, for all they were so many. But in truth, as it is written, "He trusted in the Lord as Mount Sion,"16 with a mind unshaken and undisturbed; so that the demons rather fled from him, and the wild beasts, as it is written, "kept peace with him."17

    52. The devil, therefore, as David says in the Psalms, observed Antony and gnashed his teeth against him. But Antony was consoled by the Saviour and continued unhurt by his wiles and varied devices. As he was watching in the night the devil sent wild beasts against him. And almost all the hyenas in that desert came forth from their dens and surrounded him; and he was in the midst, while each one threatened to bite. Seeing that it was a trick of the enemy he said to them all: "If ye have received power against me I am ready to be devoured by you; but if ye were sent against me by demons, stay not, but depart, for I am a servant of Christ." When Antony said this they fled, driven by that word as with a whip.

    53. A few days after, as he was working (for he was careful to work hard), some one stood at the door and pulled the plait which he was working, for he used to weave baskets, which he gave to those who came in return for what they brought him. And rising up he saw a beast like a man to the thighs but having legs and feet like those of an ass. And Antony only signed himself and said, "I am a servant of Christ. If you are sent against me, behold I am here." But the beast together with his evil spirits fled, so that, through his speed, he fell and died. And the death of the beast was the fall of the demons. For they strove in all manner of ways to lead Antony from the desert and were not able.


    69. And once also the Arians19 having falsely asserted that Antony's opinions were the same as theirs, he was displeased and wroth against them. Then being summoned by the bishops and all the brethren, he descended from the mountain, and having entered Alexandria, he denounced the Arians, saying that their heresy was the last of all and a forerunner of Antichrist. And he taught the people that the Son of God was not a created being, neither had He come into being from non-existence, but that He was the Eternal Word and Wisdom of the Essence of the Father. And therefore it was impious to say, "there was a time when He was not," for the Word was always co-existent with the Father. Wherefore have no fellowship with the most impious Arians. For there is no communion between light and darkness. For you are good Christians, but they, when they say that the Son of the Father, the Word of God, is a created being, not different from the heathen, since they worship that which is created, rather than God the creator. But believe ye that the Creation itself is angry with them because they number the Creator, the Lord of all, by whom all things came into being, with those things which were originated.

    70. All the people, therefore, rejoiced when they heard the anti-Christian heresy condemned by such a man [as Antony]. And all the people in the city ran together to see Antony; and the Greeks and those who are called their Priests, came into the church, saying, "We ask to see the man of God," for so they all called him. For in that place also the Lord cleansed many of demons, and healed those who were mad. And many Greeks asked that they might even but touch the old man, believing that they should be profited. Assuredly as many became Christians in those few days as one would have seen made in a year. Then when some thought that he was troubled by the crowds, and on this account turned them all away from him, he said that there were not more of them than of the demons with whom he wrestled in the mountain.

    71. But when he was departing, and we were setting him forth on his way, as we arrived at the gate a woman from behind cried out, "Stay away, you man of God, my daughter is grievously possessed by a devil. Stay, I beg you, so that I don't harm myself with running." And the old man when he heard her, and was asked by us, willingly stayed. And when the woman drew near, the child was cast on the ground. But when Antony had prayed and called upon the name of Christ, the child was raised whole, for the unclean spirit was gone forth. And the mother blessed God, and all gave thanks. And Antony himself also rejoiced, departing to the mountain as though it were to his own home.

    72. And Antony also was extremely wise, and the wonder was that although he had not learned letters, he was a ready-witted and sagacious man. At all events two Greek philosophers once came, thinking they could try their skill on Antony; and he was in the outer mountain, and having recognized who they were from their appearance, he came to them and said to them by means of an interpreter, "Why, philosophers, did you trouble yourselves so much to come to a foolish man?" And when they said that he was not a foolish man, but extremely wise, he said to them, "If you came to a foolish man, your labor is superfluous; but if you think me prudent become as I am, for we ought to imitate what is good. And if I had come to you I should have imitated you; but if you to me, become as I am, for I am a Christian." But they departed with wonder, for they saw that even demons feared Antony.


    78. "We Christians therefore hold the mystery not in the wisdom of Greek arguments, but in the power of faith richly supplied to us by God through Jesus Christ. And to show that this statement is true, behold now, without having learned letters, we believe in God, knowing through His works His providence over all things. And to show that our faith is effective, so now we are supported by faith in Christ, but you by professional philosophers. The portents of the idols among you are being done away, but our faith is extending everywhere. You by your arguments and quibbles have converted none from Christianity to Paganism. We, teaching the faith on Christ, expose your superstition, since all recognize that Christ is God and the Son of God. You by your eloquence do not hinder the teaching of Christ. 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."

    79. "Tell us therefore where your oracles are now? Where are the charms of the Egyptians? Where the delusions of the magicians? When did all these things cease and grow weak except when the Cross of Christ arose? Is It then a fit subject for mockery, and not rather the things brought to nothing by it, and convicted of weakness? For this is a marvelous thing, that your religion was never persecuted, but even was honored by men in every city, while the followers of Christ are persecuted, and still our side flourishes and multiplies over yours. What is yours, though praised and honored, perishes, while the faith and teaching of Christ, though mocked by you and often persecuted by kings, has filled the world. For when has the knowledge of God so shone forth? or when has self-control and the excellence of virginity appeared as now? or when has death been so despised except when the Cross of Christ has appeared? And this no one doubts when he sees the martyr despising death for the sake of Christ, when he sees for Christ's sake the virgins of the Church keeping themselves pure and undefiled."


    84. Antony, at any rate, healed not by commanding, but by prayer and speaking the name of Christ. So that it was clear to all that it was not he himself who worked, but the Lord who showed mercy by his means and healed the sufferers. But Antony's part was only prayer and discipline, for the sake of which he stayed in the mountain, rejoicing in the contemplation of divine things, but grieving when troubled by much people, and dragged to the outer mountain. For all judges used to ask him to come down, because it was impossible for them to enter on account of their following of litigants. But nevertheless they asked him to come that they might but see him. When therefore he avoided it and refused to go to them, they remained firm, and sent to him all the more the prisoners under charge of soldiers, that on account of these he might come down. Being forced by necessity, and seeing them lamenting, he came into the outer mountain, and again his labor was not unprofitable. For his coming was advantageous and serviceable to many; and he was of profit to the judges, counseling them to prefer justice to all things; to fear God, and to know, "that with what judgment they judged, they should be judged."20 But he loved more than all things his sojourn in the mountain.

    85. At another time, suffering the same compulsion at the hands of them who had need, and after many entreaties from the commander of the soldiers, he came down, and when he was come he spoke to them shortly of the things which make for salvation, and concerning those who wanted him, and was hastening away. But when the duke, as he is called, entreated him to stay, he replied that he could not linger among them, and persuaded him by a pretty simile, saying, "Fishes, if they remain long on dry land, die. And so monks lose their strength if they loiter among you and spend their time with you. Wherefore as fish must hurry to the sea, so must we hasten to the mountain. If we delay we forget the things within us." And the general having heard this and many other things from him, was amazed and said, "Of a truth this man is the servant of God. For, unless he were beloved of God, whence could an ignorant man have such great understanding?"


    89. It is worth while that I should relate, and that you, as you wish it, should hear what his death was like. For this end of his is worthy of imitation. According to his custom he visited the monks in the outer mountain, and having learned from Providence that his own end was at hand, he said to the brethren, "This is my last visit to you which I shall make. And I shall be surprised if we see each other again in this life. At length the time of my departure is at hand, for I am near a hundred and five years old." And when they heard it they wept, and embraced, and kissed the old man. But he, as though sailing from a foreign city to his own, spoke joyously, and exhorted them "Not to grow idle in their labors, nor to become faint in their training, but to live as though dying daily. And as he had said before, zealously to guard the soul from foul thoughts, eagerly to imitate the Saints, and to have nothing to do with the Meletian heretics, for you know their wicked and profane character. Nor have any fellowship with the Arians, for their impiety is clear to all. Nor be disturbed if you see the judges protect them, for it shall cease, and their pomp is mortal and of short duration. Wherefore keep yourselves all the more untainted by them, and observe the traditions of the fathers, and chiefly the holy faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, which you have learned from the Scripture, and of which you have often been put in mind by me."

    90. But when the brothers were urging him to abide with them and there to die, he suffered. it not for many other reasons, as he showed by keeping silence, and especially for this: The Egyptians typically honor with funeral rites, and to wrap in linen cloths at death the bodies of good men, and especially of the holy martyrs; and not to bury them underground, but to place them on couches, and to keep them in their houses, thinking in this to honor the departed. And Antony often urged the bishops to give commandment to the people on this matter. In like manner he taught the laity and reproved the women, saying, "that this thing was neither lawful nor holy at all. For the bodies of the patriarchs and prophets are until now preserved in tombs, and the very body of the Lord was laid in a tomb, and a stone was laid upon it, and hid it until He rose on the third day." And thus saying, he showed that he who did not bury the bodies of the dead after death transgressed the law, even though they were sacred. For what is greater or more sacred than the body of the Lord? Many therefore having heard, henceforth buried the dead underground, and gave thanks to the Lord that they had been taught rightly.

    91. But he, knowing the custom, and fearing that his body would be treated this way, hastened, and having bidden farewell to the monks in the outer mountain entered the inner mountain, where he was accustomed to abide. And after a few months he fell sick. Having summoned those who were there––they were two in number who had remained in the mountain fifteen years, practicing the discipline and attending on Antony on account of his age––he said to them, "I, as it is written, go the way of the fathers, for I perceive that I am called by the Lord, And do you be watchful and destroy not your long discipline, but as though now making a beginning, zealously preserve your determination. For ye know the treachery of the demons, how fierce they are, but how little power they have Where fore fear them not, but rather ever breathe Christ, and trust Him. Live as though dying daily. Give heed to yourselves, and remember the admonition you have heard from me. Have no fellowship with the heretics, nor any dealings at all with the heretical Arians. For you know how I shunned them on account of their hostility to Christ, and the strange doctrines of their heresy. Therefore be the more earnest always to be followers first of God and then of the Saints; that after death they also may receive you as well-known friends into the eternal habitations. Ponder over these things and think of them, and if you have any care for me and are mindful of me as of a father, suffer no one to take my body into Egypt, lest they place me in the houses, for to avoid this I entered into the mountain and came here. Moreover you know how I always put to rebuke those who had this custom, and exhorted them to cease from it. Bury my body, therefore, and hide it underground yourselves, and let my words be observed by you that no one may know the place but you alone. For at the resurrection of the dead I shall receive it incorruptible from the Saviour. And divide my garments. To Athanasius the bishop give one sheepskin and the garment whereon I am laid, which he himself gave me new, but which with me has grown old. To Serapion the bishop give the other sheepskin, and keep the hair garment yourselves. For the rest fare ye well, my children, for Antony is departing, and is with you no more."21

    92. Having said this, when they had kissed him, he lifted up his feet, and as though he saw friends coming to him and was glad because of them––for as he lay his countenance appeared joyful––he died and was gathered to the fathers. And they afterward, according to his commandment, wrapped him up and buried him, hiding his body underground. And no one knows to this day where it was buried, save those two only. But each of those who received the sheepskin of the blessed Antony and the garment worn by him guards it as a precious treasure. For even to look on them is as it were to behold Antony; and he who is clothed in them seems with joy to bear his admonitions.

    93. This is the end of Antony's life in the body and the above was the beginning of the discipline. Even if this account is small compared with his merit, still from this reflect how great Antony, the man of God, was. Who from his youth to so great an age preserved a uniform zeal for the discipline, and neither through old age was subdued by the desire of costly food, nor through the infirmity of his body changed the fashion of his clothing, nor washed even his feet with water, and yet remained entirely free from harm. For his eyes were undimmed and quite sound and he saw clearly; of his teeth he had not lost one, but they had become worn to the gums through the great age of the old man. He remained strong both in hands and feet; and while all men were using various foods, and washings and divers garments, he appeared more cheerful and of greater strength. And the fact that his fame has been blazoned everywhere; that all regard him with wonder, and that those who have never seen him long for him, is clear proof of his virtue and God's love of his soul. For not from writings, nor from worldly wisdom, nor through any art, was Antony renowned, but solely from his piety towards God. That this was the gift of God no one will deny. For from whence into Spain and into Gaul, how into Rome and Africa, was the man heard of who abode hidden in a mountain, unless it was God who makes His own known everywhere, who also promised this to Antony at the beginning? For even if they work secretly, even if they wish to remain in obscurity, yet the Lord shows them as lamps to lighten all, that those who hear may thus know that the precepts of God are able to make men prosper and thus be zealous in the path of virtue.

    94. Read these words, therefore, to the rest of the brethren that they may learn what the life of monks ought to be; and may believe that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ glorifies those who glorify Him: and leads those who serve Him unto the end, not only to the kingdom of heaven, but here also--even though they hide themselves and are desirous of withdrawing from the world--makes them illustrious and well known everywhere on account of their virtue and the help they render others. And if need be, read this among the heathen, that even in this way they may learn that our Lord Jesus Christ is not only God and the Son of God, but also that the Christians who truly serve Him and religiously believe on Him, prove, not only that the demons, whom the Greeks themselves think to be gods, are no gods, but also tread them under foot and put them to flight, as deceivers and corrupters of mankind, through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

    Footnotes to the Text

    [1] This passage picks up where Antony has joined a monastic community; Athanasius describes what he learned and how he learned it.

    [2] Antony had arranged for his sister to join a monastic institution.

    [3] Job 40:16 where God describes the strength of Behemoth. Quoting scripture is a common feature of hagiographic writing.

    [4] 1 Corinthians 15:10.

    [5] Hosea 4:12.

    [6] Psalm 118:7.

    [7] Romans 8:4.

    [8] That is, Antony commits himself to even more extreme ascetic practices such as fasting.

    [9] 2 Corinthians 12:9-11.

    [10] Philippians 3:13.

    [11] 1 Kings 18:15.

    [12] Psalm 27:3.

    [13] Luke 10:19.

    [14] Thebaid refers to southern Egypt (or Upper Egypt, named for its height above sea level relative to northern Egypt), and its name comes from its proximity to the city of Thebes.

    [15] Ephesians 6:12.

    [16] Psalm 125: 1.

    [17] Isaiah 26:3.

    [18] In other words, his sister, now an old woman, was the abbess, or head, of her own monastic community.

    [19] "Arians" refers to followers of the theologian Arius, who taught (among many other things) that Jesus was fully human and not divine. Athanasius and many others considered them to be heretics, or people who went against correct Christian teaching, and thus makes them an enemy of Antony in the Life of Antony.

    [20] Matthew 7:2.

    [21] Throughout much of Christian history the possessions of (or objects that touched) saints and other very holy people were prized objects, often kept in churches or monasteries as holy relics and seen by many to have healing and other supernatural powers.

    Athanasius, Life of Antony/Vita Antonii is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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