Sunday 17 January 2021, is the liturgical feast of St Anthony of Egypt or Anthony the Great. In the words of Pope Francis when he addressed a meeting and prayer with priests, religious and seminarians during his apostolic journey to Egypt on Saturday 29 April 2017 at Saint Leo the Great Patriarchal Seminary in Maadi, “Saint Anthony, the holy Desert Fathers, and the countless monks and nuns … by their lives and example opened the gates of heaven to so many of our brothers and sisters.”
Anthony came on the scene as a result of a context which was a very particular one indeed. When the persecutions started waning, so also waned the ‘spirit’ and zeal of the persecuted Church. When the Roman Empire accepted the Church, the latter started to lose it zealous fervour for Christ. Gone were the days of martyrdom and, thus, the things of God and the things of Caesar fused together. Society became so mundane – and solitude, austerity and sacrifice in the desert were the only alternative to martyrdom of the blood.
After Constantine’s conversion for the Christian faith, the clergy commenced to enjoy special legal rights, financial advantages, as well as social dignity. The clerical state became a career that was worth pursuing. Unfortunately such comfort gave birth to a lukewarm spirituality. The remedy for such a decline was monasticism. After the year 280, lay people withdrew from public life and retired into solitary placed, most of all into the deserts of Egypt and the Near East.