Many in our culture today—myself included—are fascinated by the idea of superheroes. Stories of valiant warriors with amazing abilities are hardly a modern invention, though. From Hercules to the Norse gods and Arthurian legends, most cultures across the centuries have had their versions of a superhero.
The early Christians were no different.
Stories of early believers going to war with Satan and emerging victorious were among the most popular tales in Christian society for much of our history, and the faith has had few spiritual superheroes that compare with Saint Antony.
What we know of Antony’s life comes from the hagiography written by Athanasius titled the Life of Saint Antony. It was penned in the mid-to-late fourth century and details—likely with at least some embellishment—the story of a man who felt called to a life of seclusion and devotion from a young age.
His faithfulness helped to start the monastic movement that would play such an integral role in the story of the church across the following centuries and has served as an inspiration to countless Christians.
As we’ll soon see, though, that legacy is not necessarily as grand as it might appear at first glance.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
Before we can fully appreciate and learn from Antony’s life, we must first learn a bit more about his story.
A life in search of seclusion
Antony was born to devout Christian parents in Egypt during the mid-to-late third century. Shortly after their death, he felt a call from the Lord to sell their considerable possessions, give the proceeds to the poor, and venture out into the desert to live a solitary, ascetic life of devotion to God.
However, it wasn’t long before the devil tried to intervene.
In the first of what was to become many encounters, the devil tried to deceive Antony into abandoning his life of faithfulness, but Antony “passed through the temptation unscathed.” As Athanasius writes, Satan eventually gave up, appeared to Antony as a young boy, and admitted defeat, stating “many I deceived, many I cast down; but now attacking you and your labors as I had many others, I proved weak.” The devil then fled, “shuddering at the words and dreading any longer even to come near the man.”
As Antony’s legend began to grow, however, he was forced to move into a tomb deeper in the desert. Acquaintances would bring him bread from time to time, but otherwise he remained secluded. It was here that the devil returned and beat him so severely that “no blows inflicted by man could ever have caused him such torment.”
The person who brought him bread eventually found Antony and took him back to a church in the nearby village where he recovered a portion of his strength. However, by midnight of the next day, Antony asked his acquaintance to carry him back to the tomb.
Upon returning, Antony prayed to God for strength and then shouted at the devil “Here am I, Antony; I flee not from your stripes, for even if you inflict more nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ!”
Satan and his demons returned in the form of wild animals, gnashing their teeth and roaring so loudly that it sounded like an earthquake to those outside. Antony took their numbers as a sign of weakness and berated them. A hole in the ceiling of the tomb then opened, and the light of the Lord shone down on him, healing his wounds and driving the demons away.
The father of monasticism
As you might expect, such events only served to further his fame. Consequently, he sought further seclusion in an abandoned mountain fortress by the Nile River.
Twice a year, people would deliver him bread, but otherwise he remained in isolation for the better part of two decades. Even then, however, people would camp outside the walls in an effort to be near him (often despite Antony’s repeated pleas for them to go away).
Roughly twenty years later, Antony left his mountain abode and returned to the desert region where his life of seclusion had begun. Athanasius writes that he was so filled with the Spirit of God that he was able to heal the sick, drive out demons, and perform other miraculous acts like crossing a river of crocodiles unharmed.
He also convinced others to embrace his solitary, ascetic lifestyle. Soon, “cells arose even in the mountains, and the desert was colonized by monks, who came forth from their own people, and enrolled themselves for the citizenship in the heavens.”
The monastic movement, in many ways, traces its lineage back to such efforts.
After trying—and failing—to be martyred during the persecution enacted by Maximinus in 311, Antony spent the rest of his life continuing his seclusion as best he could while encouraging others who sought a similar life.
His fame grew to the point that even Emperor Constantine and his sons “wrote letters to him, as to a father, and begged an answer from him.”
As his life drew to a close at the age of 105, God told him that his death was near. He instructed two monks who lived close to him that he wanted to be buried in an unmarked and secluded grave to ensure that his body did not become an object of reverence for those still alive.
And that’s just what they did when he breathed his last on January 17, 356.
The heroes we need
Saint Antony became a legend in the early church because there’s something about a life of faithfulness that tends to inspire others to seek the same. However, the manner in which he achieved that faithfulness leaves something to be desired.
You see, it’s not a problem for people to have heroes that they look up to. All of us can benefit from examples of what it means to serve God well. The problem with the way Antony—and, more so, the monastic orders that came after him—achieved that purpose is that they often ended up taking the most devout and faithful believers out of the culture.
The end result was that the people their fellow Christians needed to look to as examples of faithfulness were no longer there, living life with them on a daily basis. And that gap eventually took its toll on the spiritual health of the faith.
By the Middle Ages, monks were seen as those set apart to preserve Christianity for everyone else rather than as teachers who inspired others to pursue a closer walk with God. It was their job to handle the spiritual stuff so that everyone else could go about the business of living their lives.
As we think about what it means to make disciples in our culture today, it’s essential that we don’t make the same mistake.
How open are you about your faith with the friends and family God has brought into your circle of influence?
Is your spiritual legacy pointing people to other religious heroes or striving to be that hero as you live life with the people around you?
Saint Antony’s story is fun to read, but the Lord needs more from us today.
Are you ready?