The Temptations of St Anthony, Schongauer
A beacon of the ascetic life is St Anthony of the Desert, the ‘Father of All Monks’, who has the rare distinction of having lent his name both to an Oxford college and to a skin disease (St Anthony’s fire or erysipelas).
According to the Life of Anthony by the 4th century and near contemporary bishop St Athanasius of Alexandria, Anthony, having lost both his parents, renounced his inherited wealth and devoted himself entirely to religious exercises, heeding the supererogatory counsel of Jesus, who, according to Matthew 19:21, said to the rich man, ‘If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.’
After some years on the ascetic path, Anthony took up residence in a tomb near his native village. There he resisted the temptations and torments of the devil, an episode that has often been depicted in art, including by modernists such as Cézanne and Dalí. Demons in the forms of wild beasts attacked him in the tomb, occasionally leaving him bruised and unconscious and in need of care.
Having spent 15 years in the tomb, Anthony retreated further and into complete solitude, secluding himself in an abandoned fort in the desert of Egypt and subsisting on nothing more than the food that pilgrims catapulted over the walls. After some 20 more years, his devotees persuaded him to leave the fort to instruct and organize them, whence his epithet ‘Father of All Monks’. He emerged from the fort not emaciated as people had been expecting but healthy and radiant.
He passed five or six years with his devotees and then once again withdrew into the Egyptian desert, to a mountain whereupon can still be found the monastery that bears his name, Der Mar Antonios. This time, however, he did consent to receiving visitors and even undertook some travels. In particular, he twice visited Alexandria, once in 311 to support the Christian martyrs in the persecution, and a second time near the close of his life in around 350 to preach against the Arians. One must believe that austerity makes for longevity: Anthony died at the grand old age of 105, which for the 4th century might be considered not far short of a miracle.
Anthony’s life may seem heroic, but it is not quite as heroic as that of St Simeon Stylites, who, in the 5th century, lived for 39 years perched on top of a pillar (Greek, stylos) near Aleppo in Syria. Simeon had initially sought isolation on a rocky eminence in the desert, but pilgrims invaded the area and pestered him for his counsel and prayers. As he could no longer find enough time for his devotions, he felt that he had no choice but to create a small platform atop a pillar, this time trying to escape from the hoi polloi vertically rather than horizontally. The first pillar was little more than nine feet high, but was superseded by others with the last being over 50 feet and topped with a balustered platform.
There, exposed to the elements, he delivered addresses, wrote letters (including one to emperor Leo in favour of the Council of Chalcedon), and admitted of visitors who ascended to him by a ladder. Each year he passed the entire period of Lent without eating or drinking, to which deprivations he added the mortification of standing continually upright. When he became ill, emperor Theodosius sent three bishops to beg him to come down to earth and see a physician, but he elected instead to trust in God and made a swift recovery.
Simeon inspired several other so-called pillar-saints or stylites to take up his very particular brand of asceticism, not least one St Alypius who stood upright for 53 years before his feet could no longer support him, after which, still atop his column, he lay on his side for the remaining 14 years of his life. Alypius may well have become better remembered than Simeon, had the latter not had that which management consultants call the first mover advantage. Four basilicas were built around Simeon’s column, and the base of the column and the ruins of the basilicas can still be seen in the vicinity of Aleppo.
In his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon says of Simeon,
In this last and lofty station, the Syrian Anachoret resisted the heat of thirty summers, and the cold of as many winters. Habit and exercise instructed him to maintain his dangerous situation without fear or giddiness, and successively to assume the different postures of devotion. He sometimes prayed in an erect attitude, with his outstretched arms in the figure of a cross, but his most familiar practice was that of bending his meagre skeleton from the forehead to the feet; and a curious spectator, after numbering twelve hundred and forty-four repetitions, at length desisted from the endless account. The progress of an ulcer in his thigh might shorten, but it could not disturb, this celestial life; and the patient Hermit expired, without descending from his column.
Neel Burton is author of The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide and Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception
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