St. Paul, the First Hermit
ELIAS and St. John the baptist sanctified the deserts, and Jesus Christ himself was a model of the eremitical state during his forty day’s fast in the wilderness; neither is it to be questioned that the Holy Ghost conducted the saint of this day, though young, into the desert, and was to him an instructor there: but it is no less certain, that an entire solitude and total sequestration of one’s self from human society, is one of those extraordinary ways by which God leads souls to himself, and is more worthy of our admiration, than calculated for imitation and practice; it is a state which ought only to be embraced by such as are already well experienced in the practices of virtue and contemplation, and who can resist sloth and other temptations, lest instead of being a help, it prove a snare and stumbling-block in their way to heaven. 1
This saint was a native of the Lower Thebais in Egypt, and had lost both his parents when he was but fifteen years of age: nevertheless he was a great proficient in Greek and Egyptian learning, was mild and modest, and feared God from his earliest youth. The bloody persecution of Decius disturbed the peace of the church in 250; gad what was most dreadful, Satan by his ministers, sought not so much to kill the bodies, as by subtle artifices and tedious tortures to destroy the souls of men. Two instances are sufficient to show his malice in this respect: A soldier of Christ, who had already triumphed over the racks and tortures, had his whole body rubbed over with honey, and was then laid on his back in the sun, with his hands tied behind him, that the flies and wasps, which are quite intolerable in hot countries, might torment and gall him with their stings. Another was bound with silk cords on a bed of down, in a delightful garden, where a lascivious woman was employed to entice him to sin; the martyr, sensible of his danger, bit off part of his tongue and spit it in her face, that the horror of such an action might put her to flight, and the smart occasioned by it be a means to prevent, in his own heart, any manner of consent to carnal pleasure. During these times of danger, Paul kept himself concealed in the house of another; but finding that a brother-in-law was inclined to betray him, that he might enjoy his estate, he fled into the deserts. There he found many spacious caverns in a rock, which were said to have been the retreat of money-coiners in the days of Cleopatra, queen of Egypt. He chose for his dwelling a cave in this place, near which were a palm-tree 1 and a clear spring; the former by its leaves furnished him with raiment, and by its fruit with food; and the latter supplied him with water for his drink. 2
Paul was twenty-two years old when he entered the desert. His first intention was to enjoy the liberty of serving God till the persecution should cease; but relishing the sweets of heavenly contemplation and penance, and learning the spiritual advantages of holy solitude, he resolved to return no more among men, or concern himself in the least with human affairs, and what passed in the world: it was enough for him to know that there was a world, and to pray that it might be improved in goodness. The saint lived on the fruit of his tree till he was forty-three years of age, and from that time till his death, like Elias, he was miraculously fed with bread brought him every day by a raven. His method of life, and what he did in this place during ninety years, is unknown to us: but God was pleased to make his servant known a little before his death. 3
The great St. Antony, who was then ninety years of age, was tempted to vanity, as if no one had served God so long in the wilderness as he had done, imagining himself also to be the first example of a life so recluse from human conversation: but the contrary was discovered to him in a dream, the night following, and the saint was at the same time commanded, by Almighty God, to set out forthwith in quest of a perfect servant of his, concealed in the more remote parts of those deserts. The holy old man set out the next morning in search of the unknown hermit. St. Jerom relates from his authors, that he met a centaur, or creature not with the nature and properties, but with something of the mixed shape of man and horse, 2 and that this monster, or phantom of the devil, (St. Jerom pretends not to determine which it was,) upon his making the sign of the cross, fled away, after having pointed out the way to the saint. Our author adds, that St. Antony soon after met a satyr, 3 who gave him to understand that he was an inhabitant of those deserts, and one of that sort whom the deluded Gentiles adored for gods. Saint Antony, after two days and a night spent in the search, discovered the saint’s abode by a light that was in it, which he made up to. Having long begged admittance at the door of his cell, St. Paul at last opened it with a smile: they embraced, called each other by their names, which they knew by divine revelation. St. Paul then inquired whether idolatry still reigned in the world? While they were discoursing together, a raven flew towards them, and dropped a loaf of bread before them. Upon which St. Paul said, “Our good God has sent us a dinner. In this manner have I received half a loaf every day these sixty years past; now you are come to see me, Christ has doubled his provision for his servants.” Having given thanks to God, they both sat down by the fountain; but a little contest arose between them who should break the bread; St. Antony alleged St. Paul’s greater age, and St. Paul pleaded that Antony was the stranger; both agreed at last to take up their parts together. Having refreshed themselves at the spring, they spent the night in prayer. The next morning St. Paul told his guest that the time of his death approached, and that he was sent to bury him, adding, “Go and fetch the cloak given you by St. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, in which I desire you to wrap my body.” This he might say with the intent of being left alone in prayer, whilst he expected to be called out of this world; as also that he might testify his veneration for St. Athanasius, and his high regard for the faith and communion of the Catholic church, on account of which that holy bishop was then a great sufferer. St. Antony was surprised to hear him mention the cloak, which he could not have known but by divine revelation. Whatever was his motive for desiring to be buried in it, St. Antony acquiesced to what was asked of him: so, after mutual embraces, he hastened to his monastery to comply with St. Paul’s request. He told his monks that he, a sinner, falsely bore the name of a servant of God; but that he had seen Elias and John the Baptist in the wilderness, even Paul in Paradise. Having taken the cloak, he returned with it in all haste, fearing lest the holy hermit might be dead, as it happened. Whilst on his road, he saw his happy soul carried up to heaven, attended by choirs of angels, prophets, and apostles. St. Antony, though he rejoiced on St. Paul’s account, could not help lamenting on his own, for having lost a treasure so lately discovered. As soon as his sorrow would permit, he arose, pursued his journey, and came to the cave. Going in, he found the body kneeling, and the hands stretched out. Full of joy, and supposing him yet alive, he knelt down to pray with him, but by his silence soon perceived he was dead. Having paid his last respects to the holy corpse, he carried it out of the cave. Whilst he stood perplexed how to dig a grave, two lions came up quietly, and as it were mourning; and tearing up the ground, made a hole large enough for the reception of a human body. St. Antony then buried the corpse, singing hymns and psalms, according to what was usual and appointed by the church on that occasion. After this he returned home praising God, and related to his monks what he had seen and done. He always kept as a great treasure, and wore himself on great festivals, the garment of St. Paul, of palm-tree leaves patched together. St. Paul died in the year of our Lord, 342, the hundred and thirteenth year of his age, and the ninetieth of his solitude, and is usually called the first hermit, to distinguish him from others of that name. The body of this saint is said to have been conveyed to Constantinople, by the emperor Michael Comnenus, in the twelfth century, and from thence to Venice in 1240. 4 Lewis I. King of Hungary, procured it from that republic, and deposited it at Buda, where a congregation of hermits under his name, which still subsists in Hungary, Poland, and Austria, was instituted by blessed Eusebius of Strigonium, a nobleman, who, having distributed his whole estate among the poor, retired into the forests; and being followed by others, built the monastery of Pisilia, under the rule of the regular canons of St. Austin. He died in that house, January the 20th, 1270. 4
St. Paul, the hermit, is commemorated in several ancient western Martyrologies on the 10th of January, but in the Roman on the 15th, on which he is honoured in the anthologium of the Greeks. 5
An eminent contemplative draws the following portraiture of this great model of an eremitical life; 5 St. Paul, the hermit, not being called by God to the external duties of an active life, remained alone, conversing only with God, in a vast wilderness, for the space of nearly a hundred years, ignorant of all that passed in the world, both the progress of sciences, the establishment of religion, and the revolutions of states and empires; indifferent even as to those things without which he could not live, as the air which he breathed, the water he drank, and the miraculous bread with which he supported life. What did he do? say the inhabitants of this busy world, who think they could not live without being in a perpetual hurry of restless projects; what was his employment all this while? Alas! ought we not rather to put this question to them; what are you doing whilst you are not taken up in doing the will of God, which occupies the heavens and the earth in all their motions? Do you call that doing nothing which is the great end God proposed to himself in giving us a being, that is, to be employed in contemplating, adoring, and praising him? Is it to be idle and useless in the world, to be entirely taken up in that which is the eternal occupation of God himself, and of the blessed inhabitants of heaven? What employment is better, more just, more sublime, or more advantageous than this, when done in suitable circumstances? To be employed in any thing else, how great or noble soever it may appear in the eyes of men, unless it be referred to God, and be the accomplishment of his holy will, who in all our actions demands our heart more than our hand, what is it, but to turn ourselves away from our end, to lose our time, and voluntarily to return again to that state of nothing out of which we were formed, or rather into a far worse state? 6
Note 1. Pliny recounts thirty-nine different sorts of Palm-trees, and says that the best grow in Egypt, which are ever green, have leaves thick enough to make ropes, and a fruit which serves in some places to make bread.
Note 2. Pliny, l. 7. c. 3. and others, assure us that such monsters have been seen. Consult the note of Rosweide. [back]
Note 3. The heathens might feign their gods of the woods, from certain monsters sometimes seen. Plutarch, in his life of Sylla, says, that a satyr was brought to that general at Athens; and St. Jerom tells us, that one was shown alive at Alexandria, and after its death was salted and embalmed, and sent to Antioch, that Constantine the Great might see it.
Note 4. See the whole history of this translation, published from an original MS. by F. Gamans, a Jesuit, inserted by Bollandus in his collection.
Note 5. F. Ambrose de Lombez, Capuchin, Tr. de la Paix Intérieure (Paris, 1758.) p. 372.
Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume I: January.
The Lives of the Saints. 1866.