St. Anthony of Egypt's life, as recorded by his friend St. Athanasius, was a bestseller in the early Church and was popular throughout the Middle Ages.
St. Anthony of Egypt (also known as St. Anthony the Abbot or St. Anthony the Great) is an interesting figure, as he spent most of his life in the 3rd century as an isolated hermit, but was extremely popular both during and after his life.
In a general audience on the life of St. Athanasius, Pope Benedict XVI explained how his Life of Anthony was a “bestseller.”
Athanasius also wrote meditational texts on the Psalms, subsequently circulated widely, and in particular, a work that constitutes the bestseller of early Christian literature: The Life of Anthony,that is, the biography of St Anthony Abbot. It was written shortly after this Saint’s death precisely while the exiled Bishop of Alexandria was staying with monks in the Egyptian desert.
The exemplary biography of this figure dear to Christian tradition soon became very popular, almost immediately translated into Latin, in two editions, and then into various Oriental languages; it made an important contribution to the spread of monasticism in the East and in the West.
Why was St. Anthony so popular?
St. Anthony’s popularity extended into the Middle Ages, when his biography was translated into even more languages and spread throughout Europe.
In writing his biography on St. Anthony, St. Athanasius explains why he thought St. Anthony was so popular.
[T]he fact that his fame has been blazoned everywhere; that all regard him with wonder, and that those who have never seen him long for him, is clear proof of his virtue and God’s love of his soul. For not from writings, nor from worldly wisdom, nor through any art, was Antony renowned, but solely from his piety towards God. That this was the gift of God no one will deny. For from whence into Spain and into Gaul, how into Rome and Africa, was the man heard of who abode hidden in a mountain, unless it was God who makes His own known everywhere, who also promised this to Antony at the beginning? For even if they work secretly, even if they wish to remain in obscurity, yet the Lord shows them as lamps to lighten all, that those who hear may thus know that the precepts of God are able to make men prosper and thus be zealous in the path of virtue.
During St. Anthony’s life, many were drawn by his holiness, and he repeatedly tried to run away from everyone into the desert, but they found him anyway.
After his death, the Life of Anthony highlighted the extraordinary and simple holiness of this hermit. It was his life that became a driving force behind the founding of countless religious orders throughout Europe. People read his life and were astonished and inspired by such a remarkable saint.
This phenomenon proves again the power of personal witness, and how holiness of life can inspire generations of men and women who similarly feel a desire to devote their lives to God.