In the age of social justice when corporal works of mercy are all that matter, it's important to recall the hermits and monks were all seeking Christian perfection based on Christ's evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience.
In Matthew 19:11–12, Our Lord encourages the practice of celibacy for Heaven's sake: "Not all can accept this teaching but those to whom it has been given. ... there are eunuchs who have made themselves so for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. Let him accept it who can."
Christ then instructs a rich young man on what he must do to become perfect: "If you will be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in Heaven and come, follow me." This was the phrase that inspired St. Anthony to give away his inheritance, become a hermit and then, as the Father of Eastern Monasticism, settle other hermits into the monasteries of Egypt.
The Divine Office contains the following account from St. Athanasius of St. Antony's call to religious life:
Not six months after his parents' death, as he was on his way to church for his usual visit, he began to think of how the apostles had left everything and followed the Saviour and also of those mentioned in the book of Acts who had sold their possessions and brought the Apostles the money for distribution to the needy. He reflected, too, on the great hope stored up in Heaven for such as these. This was all in his mind when, entering the church just as the Gospel was being read, he heard the Lord's words to the rich man: If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor – you will have riches in Heaven. Then come and follow me.
It seemed to Anthony that it was God who had brought the saints to his mind and that the words of the Gospel had been spoken directly to him. Immediately he left the church and gave away to the villagers all the property he had inherited, about 200 acres of very beautiful and fertile land, so that it would cause no distraction to his sister and himself. He sold all his other possessions as well, giving to the poor the considerable sum of money he collected. However, to care for his sister, he retained a few things.
The next time he went to church, he heard the Lord say in the Gospel: Do not be anxious about tomorrow. Without a moment's hesitation, he went out and gave the poor all that he had left. He placed his sister in the care of some well-known and trustworthy virgins and arranged for her to be brought up in the convent. Then, he gave himself up to the ascetic life, not far from his own home.
Watch the panel discuss the value of religious life in The Download—The Desert Fathers.