We think of St. Anthony as the man who finds lost keys and wallets, but he had an interesting life apart from that. Born in Egypt in 245 A.D., at twenty Anthony came into considerable family wealth. On hearing the words, “Sell what you have, give to the poor, and come follow me,” he began disposing of his wealth to those most in need.
Around the year 280 Anthony was possessed by a strong desire to seek God in solitude. He crawled into an abandoned fort between the Red Sea and the Nile, and he took to spending his days chanting the Psalms as his way of speaking to God. His clear ringing voice became a wonder to desert’s nomads, and they took to throwing him grain and fruit over the wall.
In the year 315 Rome’s Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity, making baptism a requirement for young people wanting to get ahead in the empire. This altered the makeup of the people attending Mass. Where attendance had been limited to those willing to die for their beliefs, now the churches were cheapened with crowds of job hunters. This led to the children of martyrs making their way out into the desert where they could be with God.
This steady trickle of God-seekers joined the nomads listening to Anthony’s Psalm chanting, and by the year 33O the desert surrounding Anthony’s fort had come to be dotted with hermitages of men and women seeking God in solitude.
It then occurred to a hermit named Pachomius that Jesus had said, “By this all will know that you are m disciples, that you have love for one another.” This had him welcoming the desert’s God- seekers into the communities where they could exercise mutual love. That saw the beginning of Christianity’s first monasteries and convents.
When Constantine died in 337 the crown passed to his son Constantius, an Arian who began persecuting Christians. When the persecution caught up with him, Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, he took refuge in the desert, where he became a great admirer of Anthony and Pachomius. He wrote a book about their holy way of living. And later, when he was banished to Rome, Christians there made numerous copies of it. It Athanasius’s life of St. Anthony that became the inspiration for St. Jerome, St. Augustine, St. Patrick and St. Benedict who sought God in solitude, while chanting the Psalms.