The Temptation of St. Anthony

Amid turmoils of this world, we face various temptations. We suffer a lot. Our common sense says all sufferings are external. Because of them, our mind have full of noise. Weeds cover up our inner garden. We miss a chance to nurture a beautiful flower within.

Where did these weeds come from? Are they external threats? Must we keep them away?

All sufferings are rather internal. Wherever we go, our mind has full of noise. While weeds cover up our inner garden, these weeds also have their origin in the same place.

The truth is we are the ones who nurture these weeds. How can we keep them away?

Desert Fathers

Those early Christian monks called the Desert Fathers entered the wilderness to devote themselves to the faith of God. They, however, didn’t go there to seek after peace of mind. They entered the wilderness to “amplify” the temptations.

In the secluded desert area, we could realize the truth that threats are internal. The weeds are the attributes of ourselves, not from the outside. We are the weeds.

After the baptism, Jesus entered the wilderness. He went there not for seeking peace of mind, but for facing the devil’s temptations. So do the Desert Fathers. Those early Christian hermits, ascetics, and monks lived in the wilderness to face the same sufferings and temptations that Jesus encountered.

One of the well-known Desert Fathers was St. Anthony the Great (251-356). According to his biography by Athanasius of Alexandria (296-373), Anthony the Great moved to the desert of Egypt around AD 270. He is known as the father and founder of desert monasticism. Various monastic traditions of Christianity could go back to this origin.

And we could refer to these verses.

Jesus said unto him, 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.

Matthew 19:21

But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

Matthew 6:6

My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.

James 1:2-4

Young Anthony

When Anthony the Great heard the scriptures, Matthew 19:21, he decided to renounce all his possessions and enter the wilderness, as Jesus advised a wealthy young man. In the story of that young man, he felt sad and left Jesus. For young Anthony, however, he told himself that he was not like that wealthy young man.

Following the advice of Jesus in the Gospel, he gave up all his belongings and moved to the remote desert of Egypt. In doing so, was he able to be perfect? Did he overcome the difficulty a camel should go through the eye of a needle? Was he able to gain peace of mind? God forbid.

In the early days of the desert, he was far from perfect. He was not so different from a wealthy young man who felt sad and left Jesus. Why? It is because, like that wealthy young man, young Anthony was also proud of himself. The wealthy young man asked Jesus as follows:

The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?

Matthew 19:20

If ever young Anthony would meet Jesus in the desert, then he would say the same thing. “I was able to renounce all my possessions: what lack I yet?”

Probably, what Jesus would reply to young Anthony could be in these verses:

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.

Matthew 16:24

And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.

Luke 9:23

If we are proud of ourselves and our achievements, we would be like that wealthy young man. We are full of ourselves. We are the weeds that cover up the true beauty of the inner garden.

The threats are indeed within ourselves wherever we go and whatever we do. Ironically enough, by entering the wilderness, the real temptation can manifest itself into all “desert fathers.” Or, that is the real reason that we need to enter the wilderness to expose the weeds within.

Meister Eckhart also said as follows:

Start with yourself therefore and take leave of yourself. Truly, if you do not depart from yourself, then wherever you take refuge, you will find obstacles and unrest, wherever it may be… Truly, if someone were to renounce a kingdom or the whole world while still holding on to themselves, then they would have renounced nothing at all. And indeed, if someone renounces themselves, then whatever they might keep, whether it be a kingdom or honour or whatever it may be, they will still have renounced all things.

Selected Writings of Meister Eckhart

Even if we renounce all our possessions and yet hold ourselves, we would have given up nothing at all. The wilderness is the place that reminds us of this truth. Thus, far from achieving peace of mind, what young Anthony encountered was various temptations.


“The Temptation of Saint Anthony” is a well-known subject even in the history of art and literature and a popular theme in Western culture from Michelangelo to Paul Cézanne, even Salvador Dalí.

The types of the temptation Saint Anthony faced was not an explicit list in the biography by Athanasius of Alexandria. And yet, these would be more or less approximate to the list of Pope Gregory in the 6th century.

  1. Pride
  2. Envy
  3. Lust
  4. Anger
  5. Gluttony
  6. Greed
  7. Sloth

Paradoxically, these are also the key components that thrive in our society and culture. Most of the time, we work hard, aim high, and consume a lot to make our lives happy, and consciously or unconsciously, we believe our happiness should be something addressing these components.

And our mind becomes restless to gain these attributes. The more we seek after, the more we suffer. Then, we conclude that our sufferings are due to the external stimulants that target these attributes. If we can keep ourselves from these stimulants, we could restore peace of mind.

So, we try to enter the wilderness. We try to seek so-called simple life somewhere else. That is an illusion.

Among various paintings on the Temptation of St. Anthony. The work by Joos van Craesbeeckd shows this characteristics. He added his huge self-portrait at the left and placed St. Anthony holding the scripture at the right. It depicts that the temptations are all in our minds including this painter himself. And St. Anthony could protect himself only with the help of the scripture alone, not his will-power.

In the wilderness, we realize that we are the weeds covering up the inner garden. Even in the desert, we are continually seeking ourselves and full of ourselves. That is the temptations that young Anthony encountered.

We would also face them. How did he overcome these temptations? He said as follows:

Somebody asked Anthony, “What shall I do in order to please God?’ He replied, ‘Do what I tell you, which is this: wherever you go, keep God in mind; whatever you do, follow the example of Holy Scripture; wherever you are, stay there and do not move away in a hurry. If you keep to these guide-lines, you will be saved.”

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers

We are the weeds in the garden. So, we have to deny and empty ourselves first. And we can fill the Words of God in our denial and emptiness.

Even when Jesus answered the devil’s temptations, he did the same thing. He did not use his words but the Word of God only. Indeed, the Word of God is the Sword of God that can protect us from the temptations that came from us. Like Michelangelo’s depiction, St. Anthony are being pulled by many devils. The truth is that… we are pulling ourselves to destroy our integrity.

Image by Norman Bosworth

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