Antony of Egypt (c. 251-356) is the most important figure in the founding of Christian monasticism. He heard the gospel call to unworldliness and took it both seriously and literally. Six months after his parents died, Antony was in church listening to the call to discipleship: Leave what you have and follow me. So he sold everything and went to the desert to live alone. Though eventually he became the proverbial recluse in demand, with earnest souls making pilgrimages out to meet with him, his basic idea seems to have been isolation as a means of serving God.
Antony was a local celebrity immediately, but he became world famous because the story of his life was written by Athanasius of Alexandria. Athanasius’ Life of Antony is a classic Christian biography. Augustine heard parts of it in the crucial days leading up to his conversion. Since Athanasius’ Life of Antony is one of the earliest best-selling biographies of a saint, it’s an important guideline for how to tell the story of a sant in a way that doesn’t re-direct our attention away from God and onto the saint.
Athanasius gets it just right: He presents the story of Antony as a trophy of Christ’s triumph. As Athanasius tells the story, Antony was confronted by demons early in his monastic retreat. After rebuking a demon of lust, Antony is left in peace for a while. Athanasius tellingly remarks: “This was Antony’s first struggle against the devil, or rather this victory was the Saviour’s work in Antony.” For Athanasius, the ascetic disciplines of the monks, which he sometimes describes in terms suggesting heroic accomplishment, are in fact the work of the risen Lord, and a proof of his ongoing presence in the world after his ascension. He tells the story of Antony as a chapter in the ongoing triumph of Christ: It is the risen Lord who converts heathen and teaches them, who overthrows idols and fills his own churches.