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St Anthony of Egypt, the hermit of hope

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St Anthony the Great

Western Christianity and Eastern Orthodoxy celebrate 17 January as the feast day of St Anthony of Egypt.

He is appealed to against various ailments, the most notable of which is ergotism, known in the Middle Ages as “St Anthony’s fire” because of the inflamed appearance of the affected tissues.

The main vector was bread made from rye infected with the fungus Claviceps purpurea. The condition is marked by gangrene, convulsions, mania and death.

Notable epidemics of ergotism occurred until the 19th century but fewer outbreaks have been seen since then because in developed countries rye is carefully monitored.

An outbreak in Ethiopia in mid-2001 was the result of contaminated barley. Whenever there is a combination of moist weather, cool temperatures and delayed cereal harvest an outbreak is possible.

Some human bodies found preserved in peat bogs show evidence that ergot served a purpose for early man in ritual killing. Large amounts of ergot-contaminated cereals were found in the stomachs of the deceased, showing force-feeding and primitive sedation.

The intercession of St Anthony has also been invoked for epilepsy, erysipelas and shingles. He is also the patron saint of swineherds, hermits, amputees, basket weavers, butchers and gravediggers.

St Anthony is known as the father of Christian monasticism. Although not the first anchorite in Egypt, he was one of the first ascetics to live in the desert proper, completely cut off from civilisation, and his lifestyle was harsher than that of his predecessors.

During Anthony’s retreats the devil is said to have fought him with a variety of afflictions and temptations, which Anthony overcame by fervid prayer and penitential acts. The villagers who met him when his solitary confinement ended expected him to have wasted away or to have gone insane, but he emerged healthy, serene and enlightened.

Perhaps in this age of rampant materialism we can learn something from Anthony. He was hailed as a hero and from that time forth the legend of Anthony grew and spread.

At the monastery of St Anthony the Great, which still stands in the Eastern Desert of Egypt, he and his disciples prayed, fasted and engaged in manual labour. They were regularly consulted for words of spiritual truth. Anthony lived for 105 years and died in the year 356.

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From: Beyond pharmacy blog

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