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Wednesday, 19 December 2018
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St Anthony of Egypt

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St. Anthony of Egypt, or Anthony of the Desert, the Father of Monasticism, was born in the year 251, in Upper Egypt. Hearing at Mass the words, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor," he gave away all his vast possessions and retired into the desert. He then begged an aged hermit to teach him the spiritual life. St. Anthony's way of life attracted many disciples who laboured tirelessly for the Church, and would later become known as the desert fathers.

Egypt has a large Coptic Christian population and a long Christian history, starting with the Holy Family's Flight into Egypt, and sojourn there for almost four years. The Apostle Mark is believed to have spread word of the new faith to Jewish and Greek communities of Alexandria around 43 A.D. The patriarch of Alexandria, who resides in Cairo, heads the modern Coptic Church. Many Coptic Christians reside in Ethiopia and Eritrea, in addition to Egypt.

St Anthony's Monastery, near the coast of the Red Sea, is the oldest Christian monastery in the world, and was the model for Lindisfarne, Glastonbury, and Sceilg Mhichil in Ireland.
Anthony lived in a tiny cave high above the desert for 40 years and the monastery, a city in the desert, was built in the 360s. The monks today speak Coptic, a language derived from the language of ancient Egypt.

Anthony, along with St. Athanasius of Alexandria, gave support to believers during the Persecution of Diocletian and he fought the Arian heresy. St. Anthony died in 356 at age 105. His feast day is January 17th.

Father of Monasticism

Anthony is regarded as the first monk (monachos means single or alone), seeking God alone, in the scriptures and in the desert.

This monastic life was essentially 'ora et labora' - prayer and work, and those who work and pray in this way form a Christian community which we call a 'monastery'.

Work was critical to avoid the temptation to idleness, while in prayer the monk could listen to the God who speaks, who calls, teaches and guides, blesses and judges. In community one learned service and patience, obedience, generosity and love.

The Call to Holiness

The Second Vatican Council emphasised the universal call to holiness, and that the call was for each of us. Most of us, however, are uncomfortable with this idea, perhaps because of the image of “being holy”, and our inability to relate it to our own lives.

A story about St Anthony of Egypt illustrates how sainthood is meant for people of all walks of life:

“Anthony’s search for God had brought him to the desert, and to a dark cave where he could be alone with God. After a period of many distractions and temptations, he at last found peace.

Then one day, according to legend, God said to him, ‘Leave this cave for a few days and go off to a distant town I will bring you to. Knock on the door of the town shoemaker and stay with him for a while. The holy hermit was puzzled, but did as he was commanded.

By nightfall, after walking across the desert, he found himself at the door of a smiling man who readily invited him into his home. The shoemaker noticed how tired and hungry the monk looked. He called his wife and they prepared a fine meal and made up a bed for him to sleep in.

Anthony stayed there for three days with the family. He asked them many questions about their lives, but said little of his own life, even though they were curious about life in the desert. They talked a lot and became good friends. Then the time came to say farewell and Anthony returned across the desert, wondering why God had sent him to visit the shoemaker and his family.

‘What was the shoemaker like?’ God asked him when he had returned to his cave.

‘He is a simple man,’ replied the hermit, ‘He has a wife who is expecting a baby. They seem to love each other very much. He has a small shop where he sells shoes, and works hard. They have a simple house. They give money and food to those who have less than they have. He and his wife believe very strongly in You and pray at least once a day. They have many friends. And the shoemaker enjoys telling jokes.’

God listened carefully. ‘You are a great saint, Anthony’, said God, ‘and the shoemaker and his wife are great saints too!  .......”

So we have to be careful not to associate “holiness” exclusively with the lives of extraordinary people, like Mother Teresa, the heroic people boiled in oil for the faith, or the so-called plastic saints.

We admire these people, but we must not disown our own call to holiness. Rather, we need to view our lives as a process in which God is transforming us in “ordinary” ways. Holiness, or wholeness, is ultimately not of our making, but of God’s.

Our Lady of Zeitoun