The Desert Mystics: Anthony of the Desert

On a mild December morning, I am walking in the desert near Lone Pine, California, on a cattle trail through spindly creosote and fragrant sagebrush toward Mount Whitney and the Sierra Nevada mountains. In this desert landscape, where I feel most alone, God enters my empty soul. God is very close here. Every stone, every wild plant, every desert creature breathes prayer to the Creator. I inhale the grace of this present moment.

Owens Valley, California, walking toward Mount Whitney

As I share this memory, perhaps you can remember your own experience in a desert place. Walking in desert spaces reminds us of that spiritual place within us that yearns for God. Other desires and passions obscure that spiritual place.

Father Ron Rolheiser describes wild, voracious energies within us: “….an unquenchable fire, a restlessness, a longing, a disquiet, a hunger, a loneliness, a gnawing nostalgia, a wildness that cannot be tamed, a congenital all-embracing ache that lies at the center of human experience and is the ultimate force that drives everything else…..Spirituality is what we do with that desire….with our longings.”

In hard rock mining in the desert for gold, a piece of quartz is placed in a mortar, ground into fine, powdery dust, mixed with mercury or other chemicals in a crucible, and placed in intense fire. The result is a clump of black ash or slag, and a tiny button of pure gold. The desert provides the mortar, crucible and furnace to reveal that holy button of soul. Anthony the Great is an early pioneer of Christian monasticism and finding our desert spirit.

Gold button in crucible

Orthodox priest Father John Chryssavgis reveals:

“Ironically, you do not have to find the desert in your life; it normally catches up with you. Everyone does go through the desert, in one shape or another. It may be in the form of some suffering, or trauma that occurs in our life. Dressing the desert up through our addictions or attachments—-to material goods, or money, or food, or drink, or success, or obsessions, or anything else we may care to turn toward or may find available to depend upon—-will delay the utter loneliness and the inner fearfulness of the desert experience. If we go through this experience involuntarily, then it can be both overwhelming and crushing. If, however, we accept to undergo the experience voluntarily, then it can prove constructive and liberating.”

Anthony the Great, Anthony of Egypt, Anthony of the Desert, Anthony the Hermit.

The traditional biography of Anthony the Great presents a superhuman warrior of God who fights armies of demons with his bare hands. Anthony is presented as a kind of Spiritual Ironman superhero. Pushing that aside, we can enter his raw desert struggle for his true self. In the Life of St. Anthony by St. Athanasius, we read simple language and unstructured wisdom crystalized from a long life as a desert mystic. Abba Anthony urges a transparent honesty before God, as he teaches, “Whatever you find in your heart to do in following God, that do, and remain within yourself in Him.” This wisdom is meant to be lived, not studied or analyzed.

Torment of Anthony by Michelangelo

Born into a wealthy family, at eighteen, Anthony’s parents died, leaving his younger sister in his care. He placed her in the care of a convent. One morning, he attends mass, grieving for his parents. He hears the Gospel story of the rich young man and Jesus’ words, “Go, sell what you have and give to the poor” (Mark 10:21). Does this remind you of another saint? (St. Francis of Assisi) Anthony does this and leaves the city. He becomes a disciple to various ascetic monks living in the nearby desert, who reveal to him essential virtues and describe their spiritual battles with Satan. His heart is stirred up, and he strikes out into the desert alone, looking for a fight with the demons. As in one of today’s superhero movies, the Devil throws everything at Anthony. Anthony travels out into the wilderness, the dark energy of evil growing ever intense around him.

Anthony finds an old tomb hewn into a rocky cliff side. He decides to live there and has a friend roll a stone to block Antony in. The hand-to-hand combat with Satan grows more intense inside that cave/tomb. Anthony is assaulted with doubts: guilt about leaving his sister behind. Satan tries to break Anthony’s trust in God. Anthony prays the Jesus Prayer over and over:

Pilgrim enters the narrow Cave of St. Anthony

 “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” He ties knots in a rope to mark each series of prayer. While he was asleep, demons entered the cave and untied the knots. An Angel or Theotokos (Mary the Mother of God) comes and teaches him a complicated knot that the demons cannot untie.

In the darkness of the cave/tomb, Anthony practices silent prayer, hesychia (Sikeå), which Belden Lane describes as:

“a form of prayer that involved a cessation of all words and thoughts—-moving into a deep quiet resting in the heart of God, without resorting to any language at all.”[1]

This spiritual warrior, Anthony, fortifies himself for battle with little sleep, and little food and little water.

Anthony survives by weaving baskets to trade for food, a common work for desert mystics.

Satan is relentless with his assaults on Anthony. A friend comes with food, rolls the stone aside to enter the tomb, sees Anthony badly beaten, carries him to the village for healing. But Anthony returns, ready for more combat. “Give me your best shot.” Satan sends in the wild beasts.

Anthony confronted a lion. “Why do you need so many of you? One could have done it. Eat me now and leave”.

Derwas Chitty, one of the major scholars on the desert mystics, reveals: “Then at last his urgent prayer is answered, and the quiet light of the Christ disperses the demonic fantasies. Complaining, “where was Thou? Why didst Thou not appear from the beginning, to cease my pains?’ he hears the reply, ‘Anthony, I was here: but I was waiting to see thy contest.’[2]

Anthony spends 15 years in this cave/tomb.

Pilgrims visit St. Anthony’s cave every day, climbing 1158 wooden steps. It is located three-hundred meters above St. Anthony’s Monastery, near Zafarana, Egypt. Look for St. Anthony’s Cave on Google Earth. The entrance is very narrow. At the far end is a small chapel.

Anthony goes further out toward the mountains. Crossing the Nile River, he comes to an abandoned Roman fort. He locks himself within the rock hewn walls and won’t let anyone inside. Friends threw food over the walls for him. At this point, Anthony is well known for his holiness, drawing pilgrims who seek his counsel. Some arrive outside the fort, and they hear a furious battle going on inside. Other monks come to ask his counsel. He speaks through the thick walls, saying: “fortify yourself with prayer, fasting and contemplation.” These spiritual seekers camp out in huts and caves dug into the mountain, becoming a colony of disciples. Eventually, Anthony comes out of seclusion to guide these people in their life with God.

After years of spiritual warfare, one would expect to see a battered, gaunt Anthony. However, he was said to come forth from the ruins with a youthful, radiant body.

Anthony becomes Abba, or spiritual father to these disciples/monks for about five years. Eventually, Anthony returns to seclusion further up on the mountain for the next forty-five years. But he continues to counsel and give spiritual direction to any persons who could find him.

There is a story about Anthony being followed by a satyr, a male nature spirit, who seeks God and asks Anthony to pray with him. An historic painting depicts this encounter, with Anthony holding a staff with a tau cross.

Anthony followed by Satyr

Anthony shares counsel with his disciples: “The person who abides in solitude and quiet is delivered from fighting three battles: hearing, speech, and sight. Then there remains one battle to fight—-the battle of the heart.”

Someone asked Abba Anthony, ‘What must one do in order to please God/’ The old man (Anthony) replied, ‘Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved.

He also said, ‘Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.

Our modern, skeptical mind tooled in rationalism hears all this about spiritual superhero Anthony and spiritual warfare. Is this coming out of primitive folk religion? How can we relate to this? Is it more than occultism and exorcism?

Listen to this insight from Father Ron Rolheiser:

Authentic spiritual warfare is to be pictured this way: Inside our world and inside each of us there’s a fierce battle waging, a war between good and evil, and these are the contestants: Hatred is battling love; anger is battling patience; greed is battling generosity; bitterness is battling graciousness, jealousy is battling admiration; choosing to remain inside our wounds is battling healing; holding on to our grudges is battling forgiveness, ego and narcissism are battling compassion and community; and self-hatred is in a bitter battle with the acceptance of love and God’s unconditional embrace. Paranoia is waging a war against metanoia. That’s the real war that’s going on, in our world and inside each of us.

In the meantime, there will be spiritual warfare, primordial battles all around.[3]

Anthony’s spiritual charism spread far and wide as he healed the sick, exorcised demons, comforted the sorrowful and reconciled penitents, urging everyone to put the love of Christ before all things. Many were drawn to the solitary desert life. Monasteries were built in the surrounding mountains and so many monks came there that the desert became a city of monks.

The desert continued to be a spiritual battleground, and the monks found solace in the wild beauty of the land. Anthony compared a monk out of the desert to a fish out of water. A philosopher asked Anthony how he could live out there in long solitude without books? Anthony would point to the mountain side covered with spring wildflowers: “My book, O Philosopher, is the nature of created things, and it is present when I will, for me to read the words of God.”

At age of 105, he knew God was calling him. Looking to heaven, he sees a crowd of saints cheering him on, as he dies.


O God, as you by your Holy Spirit enabled your servant Anthony to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil; so, give us grace to follow you with pure hearts and minds, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I will present the Desert Mothers at the Center for Spiritual Development, Orange, CA, in person on campus and online, Saturday, June 4, 2022, 10 a.m. to noon. Here is the link for further information:

[1] Lane, Belden. Desert Spirituality and Cultural Resistance, p 24.

[2] Chitty, Derwas J. The Desert City, p. 2.

[3] Rolheiser, Ron. Spiritual Warfare, November 10, 2014.

About fatherbrad1971

Professor of Philosophy and World Religions at Saddleback Community College, Mission Viejo, CA. Episcopal priest since 1971 in Diocese of Los Angeles (retired). Owner of Desert Spirit Press, publishers of books on desert spirituality. Author, "The Spirit in the Desert: PIlgrimages to Sacred Sites in the Owens Valley." and "Encounters with the World's Religions: the Numinous on Highway 395". Memberships: Nevada Archaeological Association, Western Writers of America, California Cattlemen's Association, American Association of University Professors, Outdoor Writers of California, American Academy of Religion, Western Folklore Association.
This entry was posted in Blog and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Desert Mystics: Anthony of the Desert

  1. steve bruce says:

    Although I heard this in your workshop at the Center for Spiritual Development, I’n enriched by reading it again.

  2. Nerice Kaufman says:

    Beautiful! Couldn’t join the workshop so glad to read your post.

  3. Ron Dart says:

    Many thanks for the reflective insights—a few things to ponder—-how did Athanasius’ biography of Anthony distort the more complex Anthony and why do you think Anthony’s more sophisticated Origenist theology and notions of formation are often and regularly ignored? What difference does it make? Did Athanasius misread and use Anthony’s prestige in the Classical world to serve a certain
    agenda and, by doing so, do a disservice to Anthony?
    amor vincit omnia
    Ron Dart

Leave a Reply