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The History of Christianity
The Monastic Reaction: The First Monks of the Desert (Part 2)
July 16, 2015 Daniel Whyte III

The History of Christianity #98

Our History of Christianity Scripture verse today is John 16:33 which reads: “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”

Our History of Christianity quote today is from Saint Anthony of Egypt, Father of the Monks. He said: “Just as fish die if they stay too long out of water, so the monks who loiter outside their cells or pass their time with men of the world lose the intensity of inner peace. So like a fish going towards the sea, we must hurry to reach our cell, for fear that if we delay outside we will lose our interior watchfulness.”

Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “The Monastic Reaction: The First Monks of the Desert (Part 2)” from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

According to Athanasius, Anthony was born in a small village on the left shore of the Nile, the son of relatively wealthy parents. Most likely he was a Copt — a descendant of the ancient Egyptians, who now suffered oppression and discrimination from Greeks and Romans alike. When they died, Anthony was still young, and his inheritance was sufficient to permit a comfortable life both for him and for his younger sister, for whom he now took responsibility. His plans were simply to live off his inheritance, until a reading of the gospel in church had such an impact on him that he felt compelled to change his life. The text that day was the story of the rich young ruler, and the words of Jesus were very clear to Anthony, who was relatively rich: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” In response to those words, Anthony disposed of his property and gave the proceeds to the poor, reserving only a portion for the care of his sister. But later he was moved by the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:34: “do not be anxious about tomorrow.” He then disposed even of the small reserve fund that he had kept for his sister, placed her under the care of the virgins of the church, and left for the desert.

Anthony spent his first years of retreat learning the monastic life from an old man who lived nearby — which shows that Anthony was not the first Christian anchorite. These were difficult times for the young monk, for often he missed the pleasures he had left behind, and began to feel sorry for having sold all his goods and withdrawn to the desert. When he was thus tempted, Anthony had recourse to stricter discipline. Sometimes he would fast for several days; at other times he would limit his food to a single meal a day, after sunset.

After several years, Anthony decided that it was time to leave his elderly teacher and the other neighboring monks from whom he had learned monastic discipline. He then went to live in a tomb in an abandoned cemetery, where he subsisted on the bread some kind souls brought him every few days. According to Athanasius, at this time Anthony began having visions of demons that accousted him almost continuously. At times, his encounter with these demons was such that it resulted in a physical struggle that left him sore for days.

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