Anthony the Great, called 'The Father of Monks', was born in central Egypt about A.
D. 251, the son of peasant farmers who were Christian. In c. 269 he heard the Gospel
read in church and applied to himself the words: 'Go, sell all that you have and give
to the poor and come . . . .' He devoted himself to a life of asceticism under the
guidance of a recluse near his village. In c. 285 he went alone into the desert to live
in complete solitude. His reputation attracted followers, who settled near him, and in
c. 305 he came out of his hermitage in order to act as their spiritual father. Five
years later he again retired into solitude. He visited Alexandria at least twice, once
during the persecution of Christians and again to support the Bishop Athanasius
against heresy. He died at the age of one hundred and five. His life was written by
Saint Athanasius and was very influential in spreading the ideals of monasticism
throughout the Christian World.
1. When the holy Abba Anthony lived in the desert he was beset by accidie, and
attacked by many sinful thoughts. He said to God, 'Lord, I want to be saved but
these thoughts do not leave me alone; what shall I do in my affliction? How can I be
saved?' A short while afterwards, when he got up to go out, Anthony saw a man like
himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and
plaiting a rope, then getting up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to
correct and reassure him. He heard the angel saying to him, 'Do this and you will be
saved.' At these words, Anthony was filled with joy and courage. He did this, and he
2. When the same Abba Anthony thought about the depth of the judgements of God,
he asked, 'Lord, how is it that some die when they are young, while others drag on to
extreme old age? Why are there those who are poor and those who are rich? Why do
wicked men prosper and why are the just in need?' He heard a voice answering him,
'Anthony, keep your attention on yourself; these things are according to the
judgement of God, and it is not to your advantage to know anything about them.'
3. Someone asked Abba Anthony, 'What must one do in order to please God?' The old
man replied, 'Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God
before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy
Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three
precepts and you will be saved.'
4. Abba Anthony said to Abba Poemen, 'This is the great work of a man: always to
take the blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last
5. He also said, 'Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the
Kingdom of Heaven.' He even added, 'Without temptations no-one can be saved.'
6. Abba Pambo asked Abba Anthony, 'What ought I to do?' and the old man said to
him, 'Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but
control your tongue and your stomach.'
7. Abba Anthony said, 'I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world
and I said groaning, "What can get through from such snares?" Then I heard a voice
saying to me, "Humility." '
8. He also said, 'Some have afflicted their bodies by asceticism, but they lack
discernment, and so they are far from God.'
9. He also said, 'Our life and our death is with our neighbour. If we gain our brother,
we have gained God, but if we scandalise our brother, we have sinned against Christ.'
10. He said also, '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.'
11. He said also, 'He who wishes to live in solitude in the desert is delivered from
three conflicts: hearing, speech, and sight; there is only one conflict for him and that
is with fornication.'
12. Some brothers came to find Abba Anthony to tell him about the visions they were
having, and to find out from him if they were true or if they came from the demons.
They had a donkey which died on the way. When they reached the place where the
old man was, he said to them before they could ask him anything, 'How was it that
the little donkey died on the way here?' They said, 'How do you know about that,
Father?' And he told them, 'The demons shewed me what happened.' So they said,
'That was what we came to question you about, for fear we were being deceived, for
we have visions which often turn out to be true.' Thus the old man convinced them,
by the example of the donkey, that their visions came from the demons.
13. A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and
he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the
needs of the brethren, the old man said to him, 'Put an arrow in your bow and shoot
it.' So he did. The old man then said, 'Shoot another,' and he did so. Then the old
man said, 'Shoot yet again,' and the hunter replied 'If I bend my bow so much I will
break it.' Then the old man said to him, 'It is the same with the work of God. If we
stretch the brethren beyond measure they ill soon break. Sometimes it is necessary
to come down to meet their needs.' When he heard these words the hunter was
pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the
brethren, they went home strengthened.
14. Abba Anthony heard of a very young monk who had performed a miracle on the
road. Seeing the old men walking with difficulty along the road, he ordered the wild
asses to come and carry them until they reached Abba Anthony. Those whom they
had carried told Abba Anthony about it. He said to them, 'This monk seems to me to
be a ship loaded with goods but I do not know if he will reach harbour.' After a while,
Anthony suddenly began to weep, to tear his hair and lament. His disciples said to
him, 'Why are you weeping, Father?' and the old man replied, 'A great pillar of the
Church has just fallen (he meant the young monk) but go to him and see what has
happened.' So the disciples went and found the monk sitting on a mat and weeping
for the sin he had committed. Seeing the disciples of the old man he said, 'Tell the
old man to pray that God will give me just ten days and I hope I will have made
satisfaction.' But in the space of five days he died.
15. The brothers praised a monk before Abba Anthony. When the monk came to see
him, Anthony wanted to know how he would bear insults; and seeing that he could
not bear them at all, he said to him, 'You are like a village magnificently decorated
on the outside, but destroyed from within by robbers.'
16. A brother said to Abba Anthony, 'Pray for me.' The old man said to him, 'I will
have no mercy upon you, nor will God have any, if you yourself do not make an effort
and if you do not pray to
17. One day some old men came to see Abba Anthony. In the midst of them was
Abba Joseph. Wanting to test them, the old man suggested a text from the
Scriptures, and, beginning with the youngest, he asked them what it meant. Each
gave his opinion as he was able. But to each one the old man said, 'You have not
understood it.' Last of all he said to Abba Joseph, 'How would you explain this
saying?' and he replied, 'I do not know.' Then Abba Anthony said, 'Indeed, Abba
Joseph has found the way, for he has said: "I do not know."'
18. Some brothers were coming from Scetis to see Abba Anthony. When they were
getting into a boat to go there, they found an old man who also wanted to go there.
The brothers did not know him. They sat in the boat, occupied by turns with the
words of the Fathers, Scripture and their manual work. As for the old man, he
remained silent. When they arrived on shore they found that the old man was going
to the cell of Abba Anthony too. When they reached the place, Anthony said to them,
'You found this old man a good companion for the journey?' Then he said to the old
man, 'You have brought many good brethren with you, father.' The old man said, 'No
doubt they are good, but they do not have a door to their house and anyone who
wishes can enter the stable and loose the ass.' He meant that the brethren said
whatever came into their mouths.
19. The brethren came to the Abba Anthony and said to him, 'Speak a word; how are
we to be saved?' The old man said to them, 'You have heard the Scriptures. That
should teach you how.' But they said, 'We want to hear from you too, Father.' Then
the old man said to them, 'The Gospel says, "if anyone strikes you on one cheek,
turn to him the other also."' (Matt. 5.39) They said, 'We cannot do that.' The old man
said, 'If you cannot offer the other cheek, at least allow one cheek to be struck.' 'We
cannot do that either,' they said. So he said, 'If you are not able to do that, do not
return evil for evil,' and they said, 'We cannot do that either.' Then the old man said
to his disciple, 'Prepare a little brew of corn for these invalids. If you cannot do this,
or that, what can I do for you? What you need is prayers.'
20. A brother renounced the world and gave his goods to the poor, but he kept back a
little for his personal expenses. He went to see Abba Anthony. When he told him
this, the old man said to him, 'If you want to be a monk, go into the village, buy
some meat, cover your naked body with it and come here like that.' The brother did
so, and the dogs and birds tore at his flesh. When he came back the old man asked
him whether he had followed his advice. He showed him his wounded body, and Saint
Anthony said, 'Those who renounce the world but want to keep something for
themselves are torn in this way by the demons who make war on them.'
21. It happened one day that one of the brethren in the monastery of Abba Elias was
tempted. Cast out of the monastery, he went over the mountain to Abba Anthony.
The brother lived near him for a while and then Anthony sent him back to the
monastery from which he had been expelled. When the brothers saw him they cast
him out yet again, and he went back to Abba Anthony saying, 'My Father, they will
not receive me.' Then the old man sent them a message saying, 'A boat was
shipwrecked at sea and lost its cargo; with great difficulty it reached the shore; but
you want to throw into the sea that which has found a safe harbour on the shore.'
When the brothers understood that it was Abba Anthony who had sent them this
monk, they received him at once.
22. Abba Anthony said, 'I believe that the body possesses a natural movement, to
which it is adapted, but which it cannot follow without the consent of the soul; it
only signifies in the body a movement without passion. There is another movement,
which comes from the nourishment and warming of the body by eating and drinking,
and this causes the heat of the blood to stir up the body to work. That is why the
apostle said, "Do not get drunk with wine for that is debauchery." (Ephes. 5.18) And
in the Gospel the Lord also recommends this to his disciples: "Take heed to
yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness."
(Luke 21:34) But there is yet another movement which afflicts those who fight, and
that comes from the wiles and jealousy of the demons. You must understand what
these three bodily movements are: one is natural, one comes from too much to eat,
the third is caused by the demons.'
23. He also said, 'God does not allow the same warfare and temptations to this
generation as he did formerly, for men are weaker now and cannot bear so much.'
24. It was revealed to Abba Anthony in his desert that there was one who was his
equal in the city. He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his
needs he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Sanctus with the angels.
25. Abba Anthony said, 'A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see
someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, "You are mad, you are not like
26. The brethren came to Abba Anthony and laid before him a passage from
Leviticus. The old man went out into the desert, secretly followed by Abba Ammonas,
who knew that this was his custom. Abba Anthony went a long way off and stood
there praying, crying in a loud voice, 'God, send Moses, to make me understand this
saying.' Then there came a voice speaking with him. Abba Ammonas said that
although he heard the voice speaking with him, he could not understand what it said.
27. Three Fathers used to go and visit blessed Anthony every year and two of them
used to discuss their thoughts and the salvation of their souls with him, but the third
always remained silent and did not ask him anything. After a long time, Abba
Anthony said to him, 'You often come here to see me, but you never ask me
anything,' and the other replied, 'It is enough for me to see you, Father.'
28. They said that a certain old man asked God to let him see the Fathers and he
saw them all except Abba Anthony. So he asked his guide, 'Where is Abba Anthony?'
He told him in reply that in the place where God is, there Anthony would be.
29. A brother in a monastery was falsely accused of fornication and he arose and
went to Abba Anthony. The brethren also came from the monastery to correct him
and bring him back. They set about proving that he had done this thing, but he
defended himself and denied that he had done anything of the kind. Now Abba
Paphnutius, who is called Cephalus, happened to be there, and he told them this
parable: 'I have seen a man on the bank of the river buried up to his knees in mud
and some men came to give him a hand to help him out, but they pushed him further
in up to his neck.' Then Abba Anthony said this about Abba Paphnutius: 'Here is a
real man, who can care for souls and save them.' All those present were pierced to
the heart by the words of the old man and they asked forgiveness of the brother. So,
admonished by the Fathers, they took the brother back to the monastery.
30. Some say of Saint Anthony that he was 'Spirit-borne', that is, carried along by the
Holy Spirit, but he would never speak of this to men. Such men see what is
happening in the world, as well as knowing what is going to happen.
31. One day Abba Anthony received a letter from the Emperor Constantius, asking
him to come to Constantinople and he wondered whether he ought to go. So he said
to Abba Paul, his disciple, 'Ought I to go?' He replied, 'If you go, you will be called
Anthony; but if you stay here, you will be called Abba Anthony.'
32. Abba Anthony said, 'I no longer fear God, but I love Him. For love casts out fear.'
33. He also said, 'Always have the fear of God before your eyes. Remember him who
gives death and life. Hate the world and all that is in it. Hate all peace that comes
from the flesh. Renounce this life, so that you may be alive to God. Remember what
you have promised God, for it will be required of you on the day of judgement. Suffer
hunger, thirst, nakedness, be watchful and sorrowful; weep, and groan in your heart;
test yourselves, to see if you are worthy of God; despise the flesh, so that you may
preserve your souls.'
34. Abba Anthony once went to visit Abba Amoun in Mount Nitria and when they met,
Abba Amoun said, 'By your prayers, the number of the brethren increases, and some
of them want to build more cells where they may live in peace. How far away from
here do you think we should build the cells?' Abba Anthony said, 'Let us eat at the
ninth hour and then let us go out for a walk in the desert and explore the country.' So
they went out into the desert and they walked until sunset and then Abba Anthony
said, 'Let us pray and plant the cross here, so that those who wish to do so may
build here. Then when those who remain there want to visit those who have come
here, they can take a little food at the ninth hour and then come. If they do this,
they will be able to keep in touch with each other without distraction of mind.' The
distance is twelve miles.
35. Abba Anthony said, 'Whoever hammers a lump of iron, first decides what he is
going to make of it, a scythe, a sword, or an axe. Even so we ought to make up our
minds what kind of virtue we want to forge or we labour in vain.'
36. He also said, 'Obedience with abstinence gives men power over wild beasts.'
37. He also said, 'Nine monks fell away after many labours and were obsessed with
spiritual pride, for they put their trust in their own works and being deceived they did
not give due heed to the commandment that says, "Ask your father and he will tell
you." ' (Deut. 32.7)
38. And he said this, 'If he is able to, a monk ought to tell his elders confidently how
many steps he takes and how many drops of water he drinks in his cell, in case he is
in error about it.'
Sayings of the Saints
|Anthony The Great
The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Alphabetical Collection, Translated,
with a foreword by Benedicta Ward, SLG.