St Anthony the Hermit is the founder of ascetic and monastic life. He was born in the village Koma, Egypt, in 251, in a noble family. After his parents’ death Anthony inherited their wealth. Whilst in church, he listened to the evangelical commandment, in which Jesus says: “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven; then come and follow me.” (Mt 19:21). Being led by this commandment, Anthony sold all of his property and lived in the spirit of praying, fasting and doing charity
Anthony lived in a time of transition for Christianity, the Diocletianic Persecution in AD 303 was the last great formal persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. Only ten years later, Christianity was made legal in Egypt by Diocletian’s successor Constantine I. Those who left for the desert formed an alternate Christian society, at a time when it was no longer a risk to be a Christian. The solitude, austerity, and sacrifice of the desert was seen by Anthony as an alternative to martyrdom, which was formerly seen by many Christians as the highest form of sacrifice. Anthony quickly gained followers eager to live their lives in accordance with this solidarity and separation from material goods. From these prohibitions, it is recorded by Athanasius that Anthony received special privileges from God, such as the ability to heal the sick, inspire others to have faith in healing through God, and even converse with God on occasion. Around this time, desert monasticism appeared nearly simultaneously in several areas, including Egypt and Syria.
Over time, the model of Anthony and other hermits attracted many followers, who lived alone in the desert or in small groups. They chose a life of extreme asceticism, renouncing all the pleasures of the senses, rich food, baths, rest and anything that made them comfortable. They instead focused their energies on praying, singing psalms, fasting, giving alms to the needy, and preserving love and harmony with one another while keeping their thoughts and desires for God alone. Thousands joined them in the desert, mostly men but also a handful of women. Religious seekers also began going to the desert seeking advice and counsel from the early Desert Fathers. By the time of Anthony’s death, there were so many men and women living in the desert that it was described as “a city”.