While their lifestyle details varied, they all lived in sparse conditions, with no luxuries, ate restrictive diets (often vegetarian, sometimes limited to only a few items such as the proverbial bread and water. They emphasized study, meditation, and work — everyone contributed to the community’s needs. Many were self-sufficient, growing their own food, making their own tools, etc. Generally, they denied themselves any and all “creature comforts” so that they could focus on metaphysical, rather than physical, matters.
This philosophy reached into the cultures that Hellenism contacted. The Essenes of the Levant appear to have been a Judaic sect which espoused an ascetic lifestyle. The therepeutae described by Philo of Alexandria were ascetic hermit-scholars who lived in the outskirts of Egyptian cities. It is this Egyptian hermit tradition which appears to have inspired Paul the Hermit and St Anthony.
In the Roman fort, legend has it, Anthony was assailed by demons. Villagers rescued the beaten hermit and nursed him back to health. In the process they grew fond of him and prized his wisdom. Upon his return to seclusion, they began coming more frequently to receive his teaching and counsel. On one occasion he emerged from seclusion; the villagers, who’d never actually seen him, having fed him through a small slot in a wall, had expected him to be a virtual skeleton. But Anthony was actually hale and healthy, to their astonishment. He traveled to a handful of Christian communities to inspire them, then returned to the fort.
At one point he decided to be martyred, and headed for Alexandria. He visited Christian prisoners and preached publicly. Eventually Anthony confronted the city’s governor and tried to antagonize him into ordering his execution, but the governor didn’t fall for it. He returned to the fort, his mission thwarted.
During a vision, Anthony was inspired to wear a distinctive, plain tunic, and spend his idle time (which was considerable) weaving palm-leaves. These became symbols by which he was known, and in fact, affected later monastic tradition, such as the common monk’s robe (even though it evolved beyond Anthony’s own simple tunic).
Ultimately, Anthony was never martyred as he’d wished to be. Instead, he simply gave up his own spirit at the age of 105, having ordered that his body be buried in secret so that it wouldn’t be venerated.
Anthony did not make any true effort to start an ascetic Christian movement. His asceticism was deeply personal and individual. But others were inspired by him and they picked up where he left off, creating a movement inspired by him; among them were St Serapion, the closest thing to a disciple that the reclusive Anthony had, St Marcarius, and St Pachomius. Much later, his reputation would inspire figures such as St Benedict of Nursia, who’s generally credited with establishing western Christian monasticism.
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