Before the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in 312 AD, back in the days when Christianity was still a persecuted religion, the act of becoming a Christian meant that a person turned his back on security, prestige, popularity, and success as far as the world was concerned. After the Emperor Constantine had changed Christianity from being a persecuted religion into one that was acceptable to society, and it became fairly easy to be a Christian, many who were serious about their faith felt that they needed to make a bigger sacrifice. As a result, some of them wanted to show their Christian commitment by leaving society and going out into the desert to become hermits, where they could devote themselves to a life of solitude, fasting, and prayer. Although this had begun to happen even before Christianity became legal, after Constantine this “going out into the desert” was seen more and more. One of the earliest examples is St Anthony of Egypt, who is considered to be the founder of Christian monasticism.
St Anthony of Egypt was the son of Christian parents, and from them he inherited a large estate. On his way to church one day, he found himself thinking about the words of Jesus, where He said, "Sell all that you have, and give to the poor, and come follow me." When he got to church, he heard the preacher speaking on those very words. He took this as a message from God for him, so having provided for the care of his sister, he gave his land to the tenants who lived on it, and gave his other wealth to the poor, and became a hermit, living alone for twenty years, praying and reading, and doing manual labor. As more Christians sought out that solitary life, they tended to gravitate towards the place where St Anthony was, so in the year 305, he decided to give up his solitude, and he became the head of a group of monks, living in a cluster of huts or cells, devoting themselves to communal singing and worship, to prayer and study and manual labor under Anthony's direction. They weren’t there simply to renounce the world, but they wanted to develop their lives of prayer for others, and they worked with their hands to earn money so they could give it to the poor, and they gave spiritual guidance to those who sought them out.
In 321, Christians in Alexandria were beginning to experience persecution again, this time by the Emperor Maximinus – even though the Christian faith had been made legal by Constantine – and Anthony visited Alexandria to encourage those who were facing the possibility of martyrdom. He visited again in 335, when Arianism had become strong in the city, and he converted many by his preaching and testimony, and by prayer and the working of miracles. What we know of Anthony’s life we learn from the writings of St Athanasius, one of the followers of St Anthony. It was Athanasius who said about Anthony: "No one ever met him grieving, without failing to go away rejoicing."
Anthony died after a long, prayerful life in 356. He was 105.
Most gracious God, who didst call thy servant Anthony to sell all that he had and to serve thee in the solitude of the desert: grant that we, through his intercession and following his example, may learn to deny ourselves and to love thee before all things; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.