People, Look East: The Father of Monasticism

Today, the universal church honors St. Antony of Egypt — the father of monasticism in the Christian tradition.

His memory continues to be observed throughout Egypt, but not only in the country’s many ancient desert monasteries — which are considered the lifeblood of the Coptic Orthodox Church — but throughout the Catholic and Orthodox world.

St. Mark the Evangelist, disciple of the Apostle Peter, brought the Gospel to the Egyptian city of Alexandria — second only to Rome in the ancient world — establishing a church among the Jewish, Greek and native Egyptian communities as early as the year 42.

Although sporadically persecuted by the Romans, the Alexandrian Church grew quickly. By the early third century, its reputation as the primary center of learning, biblical scholarship and theological exploration was unchallenged in the Christian world.

This church, however, was not confined to the cosmopolitan environment of Alexandria. Many Alexandrian Christians, seeking solitary lives of prayer and contemplation, fled to the desert and largely uninhabited hinterlands south of the Nile Delta. Among the first of these, according to the great church father St. Athanasius of Alexandria, was one man named Antony (251-356), who gave up his family’s wealth and retreated into the wilderness.

A hermit, Antony never lacked in company. Athanasius writes that the devil tormented him relentlessly, a subject that gave hundreds of medieval and Renaissance artists delight in illustrating. Antony’s cult had spread throughout Europe, even as the Egyptian church faded from consciousness after the Arab Islamic occupation of Egypt in the seventh century.

While Antony is considered the father of monasticism for his loving attention to those men and women who gathered around him and who were eager to learn how to pray ceaselessly, it was St. Pachomius (d. 345) and St. Macarius (d. 391), followers of Antony, who first grouped these men and women into monastic houses. It would be a way of life that eventually spread to Asia Minor and Syria in the fourth century and to the West in the early sixth century.

May we learn from St. Antony the Great how to ward off those temptations that threaten to separate us from the love that is the Lord alone.

Michael J.L. La Civita is CNEWA’s communications director.

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