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 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.
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, “But 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 will 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 God.”
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.
Excerpt from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers translated by Benedicta Ward, SLG. Published by Cistercian Publications in Trappist, KY 1984.