Saint Paul, The First Hermit

January 15

Today is the feast day of Saint Paul, the first Hermit.  Ora pro nobis.

by Bishop Richard Challoner, 1841

Abridged from his Life written by St Jerome

This Saint was born in the lower Thebais, a province of Egypt, in the third century, of Christian parents, who being wealthy in worldly riches took care to give him a liberal education, and to train him up both in the Greek and Egyptian literature; yet without any prejudice to his innocence, or christian piety; for which he was remarkable from his childhood being always of a meek and humble disposition, and greatly fearing and loving his God. His parents dying when he was about fifteen years of age, left him their estate; which he had not long enjoyed, when that bloody persecution set on foot by the Emperor Decius (who employed all manner of torments to oblige the Christians to renounce Jesus Christ, and offer sacrifice to idols) had reached Egypt and Thebais; where it made many martyrs; and drove many others into the deserts and mountains; where great numbers of them perished with hunger or sickness, or fell a pray to robbers and wild beasts; as we learn from St. Denys, who was at that very time bishop of Alexandria, in his epistle to Fabius, bishop of Antioch.

Upon this occasion Paul also withdrew himself to a remote country-house, designing to be concealed there till the storm blew over: but his sister’s husband, who was acquainted with the place of his retreat, conceived a resolution to betray him to the persecutors in hopes of possessing himself of his estate. The Saint being informed of his wicked resolution, quitted his country-house, and fled into the wilderness, where he purposed to pass his time till the danger was over. Here, as he advanced still further and further into the remoter parts of the desert, he came at last to a rocky mountain, at the foot of which he found a large den or cave; and going in, he there discovered a kind of a spacious porch, open at the top to the heavens, but protected by an old palm-tree, which covered it with its spreading branches: near which there was a spring of clear water: and in a hollow part of the mountain, several cells or rooms, which, by the instruments he found there, appeared to have been formerly occupied by coiners. This place the Saint judged to be very proper for his abode; and embraced it as a dwelling assigned him by divine providence for the remainder of his life. And thus he who thought on at first to hide himself for a while in the wilderness from the fury of the persecutors, was by the design of God conducted thither, to be an inhabitant for life, and the first that should dedicate, and, as it were, consecrate, those deserts to divine love; by living there for so many years a perfect model of an entire separation and disengagement from all ties and affections of this world; for the instruction and encouragement of many thousands, who should, by his example, in following ages, embrace a recluse or eremitical life.

Thus the malice of his brother-in-law, by driving him away from his worldly possessions, became the occasion of his embracing a state of life, in and by which his soul was daily more and more enriched with the treasures of divine grace, and placed in the most effectual way to secure to herself immense and everlasting treasures in the eternal possession of her God. Upon which occasion we may admire and adore the wonderful ways of the divine goodness, which generally draws the greatest good, even the sanctification and salvation of our souls, from what we poor mortals apprehend as great evils; more especially from the crosses and sufferings of this life, and the loss of those things which are apt to affect us too much, to the prejudice of that love which we owe to God.

But who shall be able to relate the wonderful manner of life our Saint here led, estranged from all conversation with mortals, perpetually addressing himself to God, by prayer and contemplation, night and day; or the continual progress he made every day in the love of God, the true science of the Saints, and that better part which they have chosen with Mary, and which never shall be taken,from them? It may suffice to say, that the perfection which he attained to in divine love, which is the true measure of all sanctity, was so great and superemient in the sight of God, as to exceed by far that of St. Antony, the wonder of all ages for christian and religious perfection: and this, by the testimony of God Himself: but yet we are not to suppose that, with all his sanctity, he could be exempted in his solitude, no more than St . Antony was, from the temptations and molestations of the common enemy, who, by the permission of God, is most troublesome to those who oppose him most; though it all turns in the end to their greater good, and his own confusion. As to the food and raiment of St. Paul, we learn from my author, who had his account from the disciples of St. Antony, and they from their master, that he lived (at least for a good part of the time, till God was pleased to provide for him in a miraculous manner) on those dates which the palmtree produced; and drank of the water of the spring: and as for his clothing, he made himself a garment of the leaves of the same tree, woven together after the manner of a mat or a basket. And lest this austerity, of his life might seem to any one incredible, or a thing impossible, St. Jerome in his relation calls our Lord Jesus and his angels to witness, that he himself saw certain solitaries in that part of the desert of Syria which borders upon the Saracens; one of whom had lived, shut up for thirty years, upon barley bread alone and muddy water; and another who had chosen for his mansion an old pit or cistern, where he had no other food to subsist on but five dry figs every day.

Our saint had now lived in his solitude to the age of one hundred and thirteen years; when St. Antony, who was then about ninety years old, was one day thinking with himself that no one amongst the religious of Egypt had penetrated further into those wildernesses than he had done. Whereupon he was one night admonished in a dream, that there was one still further on in the desert much better than himself; and that he should make haste to visit him. In compliance with this divine admonition, Antony set out at break of day in quest of this servant of God, with great confidence that he who had sent him forth, would conduct him to the place where he should find him. Thus he spent two whole days, fatigued with the labour of the journey, and broiled by the heat of the sun, which is violent in those sandy deserts, meeting with no creature the whole way, except two in monstrous shape; the one representing a centaur, half man, and half a horse, and the other a satyr, made up of a man and a goat: which whether they were phantoms and illusions of the enemy, or monsters bred in those vast wildernesses, is uncertain. The Saint, when he opposed to these frightful figures his usual arms, the shield of faith and sign of the cross, neither of them offered him any harm; but on the contrary the former, on being asked where the servant of God dwelt, pointing towards the place, ran swiftly away, and disappeared; and the latter brought him some dates for his food; and being asked, who or what he was? delivered an intelligible answer, (by some supernatural power) with an acknowledgment of God, and of Jesus Christ, His Son; which gave the Saint occasion to glorify our Lord, and to reproach the unbelieving city of Alexandria, which refused to acknowledge the true and living God, whom even beasts adored, and worshipped these very beasts instead of Him. At which words of the Saint the monster fled away with incredible speed, and was seen no more.

Antony having spent-two nights watching in prayer, at break of day on the third morning, he perceived a wolf at a distance panting for thirst, going into a cavern at the foot of a mountain. Whereupon coming up to the place after the beast was-gone, he ventured into the cave, advancing cautiously and silently in the dark, till at length he perceived at some distance a glimmering of light (from the opening from above over the porch of the cell of the Saint,) upon which in hastening forward he stumbled upon a stone, when the noise gave occasion to St. Paul to shut his door, and fasten it within. Antony was now convinced that he found the person whom he sought: and coming up to the door earnestly begged for admittance, with many tears, lying prostrate on the ground from morning till noon, (to teach us the necessity of fervour and perseverance in prayer, if we would obtain what we ask,) till at length the holy old man opened the door to him. Then after falling upon each other’s neck, embracing each other, and calling one another by their proper names, as if they had been of long acquaintance, they joined in giving thanks to God. When they had sat down together, Paul said to Antony, behold here the man whom thou hast taken so much pains to seek, and who very speedily must return to dust: tell me, then, if thou pleasest, how mankind goes on; what is the present state of the empire; are there any still, remaining that worship devils, &c. ?– Whilst they were discoursing on these matters, they perceived a raven alighting upon one of the branches of the palm-tree, which descending gently, dropped a loaf of bread before them, and then flew away. Behold, said Paul, how our loving and merciful Lord has sent us a dinner! There are now sixty years elapsed since I have daily received from him half a loaf, but upon thy coming, Christ hath been pleased to send his soldier a double proportion. Then after praying and thanksgiving, they sat down by the edge of the spring, to take the meal which God hath sent them: but not without an humble contention who should break the loaf; which they at last decided by breaking it conjointly. After taking a moderate refreshment, they laid themselves down to sip at the fountain: and then returned to prayer and the praises of God, in which they spent the evening, and the whole of the following night.

The next morning Paul thus accosted Antony: “It is a long time, brother, since I have known of your dwelling in these, regions: and the Lord , long ago promised me your company. But as my time is now come to go to rest, (as I have always desired to be dissolved and to be with Christ,) and my race being finished, the crown of justice waits for me, thou art now sent by the Lord to cover this body with ground, or rather to commit earth to earth.” Which when Antony heard, breaking out into sighs and tears, he began to entreat him not to leave him, but to take him along with him for his companion in so happy a journey. “Thou oughtest not,” said Paul, “to seek in this thy own interest, but what may be for the good of others. It would be expedient indeed to thee to lay down this load of flesh, and to follow the Lamb: but it is necessary to the rest of the brethren, that thou shouldest continue here, to instruct them by thy example. Wherefore go, I beseech thee, if it be not too much trouble, and bring hither the cloak which was given thee, by bishop Athanasius, to wrap up my body for its burial:” which, says St. Jerome, he asked, not that he who for many years had used no other clothing but the leaves of the palm-tree, cared much whether his body was committed to the earth covered or naked, but that Antony being absent when he died, might be less afflicted with his death. To which our church historians add another reason, viz. that by his desiring to be buried in the cloak of Athanasius (at that time violently persecuted by the Arians, for the Catholic faith of the Trinity) he might bear testimony to the cause of God and his truth, and declare to the world his communion with this illustrious prelate, who was then, and had been all his lifetime, one of the principal champions of God and His church against the Arian heresy.

Antony being astonished to hear him speak of Athanasius, and of the cloak (of which he could no otherwise have been informed but by revelation,) as if he saw Christ himself in Paul, without making any further reply, kissed his hands with tears, and departing from him, made the best of his way home to his own monastery. Here his two disciples (Amathas and Macarias,) asked him where he had been so long? To whom he made no answer, but,”wo to me a sinner, who deserve not to bear the name of a religious man! I have seen Elias: I have seen John in the wilderness: I have seen with truth, Paul in paradise.” And thus without explaining himself any further, he went into his cell, striking his breast, and taking up the cloak, instantly hastened away without staying to take any refreshment; having Paul continually in his mind, and fearing, that which indeed happened, lest Paul should die before he reached his cave. On the second morning, when he had travelled for about three hours, he saw the soul of Paul encompassed in great glory ascending to heaven, attended with an innumerable multitude of angels and saints. At this sight falling down on the ground, he cried out lamenting and mourning: “O Paul, why dost thou leave me ? why dost thou go without, letting me salute thee? too late, alas! have I come to know thee, and dost thou depart from me so soon?” Then rising up, he went on the remaining part of the way, notwithstanding his great age, and his having been before greatly fatigued, with such unaccustomed speed, that, as he himself afterwards relates, he seemed rather to fly than walk!

When he arrived and had entered into the cave, he found the body of the Saint in the posture of one at prayer, kneeling with uplifted hands; so that thinking he might be yet alive, he knelt down to pray with him. But not perceiving him to sigh, as he, was accustomed at his prayers, he was convinced he was dead. Wherefore weeping and embracing the dead body, he wrapt it up in the cloak, and carried it out; singing hymns and psalms according to the christian tradition. But here no small difficulty, occurred, how he should bury the body, having no spade or other instrument to dig a grave: so that what to do he knew not: to go back to his monastery, was three-days’ journey; to stay where he was, was doing nothing. Whilst he remained in this perplexity, behold two lions, from the remoter part of the wilderness, came running with all speed towards him. At the sight of them Antony was at first surprised; but presently went and laid themselves down at the feet of the deceased saint, and seemed, in their way, to lament his death. Then going a little distance off, they began to scratch up the sandy ground with their claws, and did not cease till they had made a hole big enough to answer the purpose of a grave; which when they had done, coming to Antony as it were for their wages, wagging their ears and hanging down their heads, they licked licked his hands and feet.

The Saint conceiving that in their mute way they craved his blessing, took occasion to praise and glorify God, whom all His creatures serve; and then prayed in this manner: “O Lord, without whose disposition not a leaf falls from the tree, nor a sparrow to the ground, give to them as thou knowest best:” and so making them a sign with his hand he sent them away. Then taking the dead body of St. Paul, he laid it down in the grave which they had made, and covered it with the earth; and so returned home, carrying with him the garment made of the leaves of the palm-tree, which Paul had worn (which for the remaining years of his life he always put on upon the solemn festivals of Easter and Pentecost,) and related all that he had seen and done to his disciples, from whom St. Jerome had his account.

And here it may not be improper to reflect, with this holy Doctor of the church in the conclusion of his life of this Saint, on the difference between the clothing, eating, drinking, lodging, and, in a word, the whole manner of living of this servant of God,, and that of worldings, who never think they have enough, and are always slaves to their own corrupt inclinations. Paul coveted nothing; and wanted nothing; and therefore was always easy and content: they are always coveting and wanting, and never perfectly easy. Paul with his mean fare enjoyed long life and health, together with a good conscience and interior peace: their intemperances and lusts, their passions, their pride, their ambition, their avarice, their envy, their cares and fears, and the contradictions of their will and humour, to which they are perpetually exposed, rob them of their health, shorten their days, and banish both grace and peace far from their souls. In fine, Paul with all his poverty and mortifications, was happy even here in the experience of the love of His God, in the sense of His divine presence, in the contemplation of His heavenly truths, in the sweets He found in mental prayer, and an inward conversation with our Lord; in the consolations of the Holy Ghost, &c. and by this means he passed his days in good things, (truly such) till he was in an instant put in full possession, by death, of the sovereign and infinite good for eternity: whereas they, after their short deluding dreams of an imaginary happiness, which is ever flying away from them, awake in a moment, and find themselves, immersed in the bottomless pit of real, endless, and insupportable miseries. (1)

In art he is shown wearing a long bushy beard and clothed as hermit; sometimes there is a raven with bread in his beak nearby. He is the Patron of mat makers and his name in Latin means small in stature and humble. (2)

Image: Saint Anthony the Great and Saint Paul the Anchorite, artist Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez  (8)

Research by REGINA Staff


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