Ascetics of the Fourth Century

Excerpt from Chapter 3 of Christ’s Faithful Servants, copyright 2023

My dictionary defines an “ascetic” as “one who leads a very austere and self-denying life.”[1] Within Christianity, the term refers to a person who forsakes earthly pleasures in the belief that they distract a person from serving God with their whole heart. In the fourth century, when Christian martyrdoms had all but ceased, many turned to asceticism in search of a deeper relationship with God. The most famous ascetics of this time were Anthony, Pachomius, Basil, Martin of Tours, and Jerome.[2]

Anthony (ca. 250 – 356). Anthony was an Egyptian from Upper Egypt (that is, southern Egypt),[3] south of Memphis, the son of a wealthy farmer. Both of his parents were Christians. When Anthony was about nineteen, his parents died. In the days that followed, Anthony sought God’s guidance for his life through prayer and meditation. One day, he heard Matthew 19:21 being read in the village church: “If you want to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” Anthony promptly sold his family farm and all his possessions. After keeping a small sum to provide for his younger sister, he gave the rest for the benefit of the poor. Soon thereafter, in response to the message of Matthew 6:34 (“So do not worry about tomorrow”), he gave away even the small sum he had held back and turned his sister’s welfare over to a community of virgins.

Anthony assumed the life of an ascetic under the supervision of an old hermit. For a time he lived near the village of his birth, working and giving most of the money to the poor. He sought out ascetics in the area, learning about Christian love, self-control, and prayer. Later he withdrew to an abandoned fort, living there alone for about twenty years.

Anthony’s life during these times consisted of manual labor, prayer, and memorization of scriptures. Temptations to leave this difficult life abounded: memories of his former wealth; concerns about his younger sister and other family members; and even the temptations of women, married life, and children. Later, he had health problems and frightening visions, which he attributed to Satan. These prodded him to give up the ascetic life. But Anthony held firm. His reputation for piety attracted followers who, like himself, wanted a deeper relationship with God. Then came the Great Persecution. . . .

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[1]. The Reader’s Digest Great Encyclopedic Dictionary, including Funk & Wagnalls Standard College Dictionary (The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York, 1967).

[2]. All are recognized as saints by the Roman Catholic Church.

[3]. The Nile River flows north to the Mediterranean Sea, so southern Egypt is also known as Upper Egypt and northern Egypt is known as Lower Egypt.