St. Anthony was born around 251 into a wealthy family, near Cairo. At that time, the Catholic Church was spreading throughout the Roman empire, although the empire remained pagan and did not recognize Catholicism. Around the year 270, both of Anthony’s parents died, and he inherited their possessions and property. He reevaluated his life in light of the teachings of the Gospels, and found that his spiritual health was in danger because of his financial gains.
At church one day, he heard Jesus’ words to the rich young man in the Bible: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Anthony felt as though Jesus was speaking those words directly to him.
He sold everything he owned and donated the proceeds, except a portion he set aside to take care of his sister, who would eventually join a group of consecrated virgins. Anthony then sought a comprehensive life of asceticism, studying under the hermits living in the Egyptian desert. Although there was no organized monastic lifestyle at the time, Anthony made an attempt to live alone, depending on the charity of patrons who would provide him with food. He spent 13-15 years living this way.
During his time as a hermit, Anthony was afflicted with several spiritual troubles, and when he was around 33 years old, a group of his patrons found him seriously ill and brought him back to a local church to recover.
Once he had regained strength, Anthony went to a mountain on the east bank of the Nile, where he lived in an abandoned fort. He attracted followers who wanted to live as he did. When he was about 54, Anthony emerged from solitude to guide the growing community of hermits that had set themselves up in his area. His decision to lead them marks the beginning of our monastic tradition today.
Anthony lived out his monastic calling for another 40 years. According to St. Athanasius, who wrote Anthony’s biography, even Emperor Constantine wrote to him for advice on his now-officially Christian empire. Anthony advised him to “remember the judgement that is coming, and to know that Christ alone was the true and eternal King.”
St. Anthony is believed to have died around the age of 105, sometime between 350 and 356. His body was buried secretly in an unmarked grave by two of his disciples.