Saint Paul, the First Hermit
by Saint Jerome
During the reign of Decius and Valerian, the persecutors, about the time when Cornelius at Rome, Cyprian at Carthage, spilt their glorious blood, a fierce tempest made havoc of many churches in Egypt. It was the Christian’s prayer in those days that he might, for Christ’s sake, die by the sword. But their crafty enemy sought out torments wherein death came slowly, desiring rather to slaughter the soul than the body. As Cyprian wrote, who was himself to suffer, “They long for death, and dying is denied them….
Leaving the World
Now at this very time, while such deeds as these were being done, the death of both parents left Paul heir to great wealth in the Lower Egypt, his sister was already married. He was then about fifteen years of age, excellently versed alike in Greek and Egyptian letters, of a gentle spirit, and a strong lover of God. When the storm of persecution began its thunder, he betook himself to a farm in the country, for the sake of its remoteness and secrecy. But his brother-in-law, began to meditate on the betrayal of the lad whom it was his duty to conceal. Neither the tears of his wife, nor the bond of blood, nor God looking down upon it, cold call him back from the crime which was spurred on by a cruelty that seemed to ape religion. The boy, far-sighted as he was, had the wit to discern it, and took flight to the mountains, there to wait while the persecution ran its course. What had been his necessity became his free choice.
Little by little he made his way sometimes turning back and again returning, till at length he came upon a rocky mountain, and at its foot, a huge cave, its mouth closed by a stone. There is a thirst in men to pry into the unknown, he moved the stone, and eagerly exploring, came within on a spacious courtyard open to the sky, roofed by the wide-spreading branches of an ancient palm, and with a spring of clear shining water, a stream ran hasting from it and was soon drunk again, through a narrow opening by the same earth that had given its waters birth. There were, moreover, not a few dwelling-places in that hollow mountain, where one might see chisels and anvils and hammers for the minting of coin. Egyptian records show that the counterfeit coins were used at the time of Cleopatra.
The Saint is Sought
So then, in this beloved habitation, offered to him as it were by God himself, he lived his life through prayer and solitude, the palm-tree provided him with food and clothing. Lest this should seem impossible to any, I call Jesus to witness and His holy angels, that I myself, in that part of the desert which for a hundred and thirteen years the Blessed Paul lived and the life of heaven upon earth, while in a hundred and thirteen years the Blessed Paul lived the life of Heaven upon earth, while in an other part of the desert Antony abode, an old man of ninety years.
As Antony himself would tell, there came suddenly into his mind the thought that no better monk than he had his dwelling in the desert. But as he lay quiet that night it was revealed to him that there was deep in the desert another better by far than he, and that he must make haste to visit him. As day was breaking the venerable old man set out, supporting his feeble limbs on his staff, but where was he to go?
At high noon came and the scorching sun overhead, yet he would not flinch from the journey he began, saying, “I believe in my God that He will show me His servant as He said.” Hardly had he spoken when he saw a man that was part horse, whom the imagination of poets has called the Hippo-centaur. At the sight of this being, the saint did arm his forehead with the sign of the cross. “Ho there,” he said, “in what part of the country does the servant of God live?” The creature gnashed out some kind of barbarous speech, and rather grinding his words than speaking them, sought with his bristling jaws to utter as gentle as he could, holding out his right hand he pointed out the way, and made off swiftly to the open plains and vanished from the saint’s wondering eyes. Whether the devil had assumed this shape to terrify him, or whether the desert that breeds monstrous beasts begot this creature also, we have no certain knowledge.
Antony, in great amazement and turning over in his mind the thing that he had seen, continued on his way. Nor was it long till in a rocky valley he saw a dwarfish figure, its nostrils joined together, and its forehead bristling with horns, the lower part of its body ended in goat’s feet. Unshaken by the sight, Antony, like a good soldier, caught up the shield of faith and the buckler of hope. The creature however, made to offer him dates as tokens of peace and perceiving this, Antony hastened his step, and asking him who he might be, gave this reply: “Mortal am I, and one of the dwellers in the desert, who the heathen worship in their error, calling us Fauns, Satyrs, and Incubi. I come on an errand from my tribe. We pray thee that you would entreat for us our common God who did come, we know for the world’s salvation, and His sound has gone forth over all the earth.”
Hearing the creature speak those words, the old man let his tears run down, tears that sprang from the mighty joy that was in his heart. For he rejoiced for Christ’s glory and the fall of Satan, marveling that he could understand his discourse, and striking the ground with his staff cried, “Woe to thee, Alexandria, who worships monsters in room of God. Woe to thee, harlot city, in whom the demons of all the earth have flowed together. What have you to say now? The beasts speak of Christ and you worship monsters in room of God.” He had not stop speaking, when the frisky creature made off as if on wings.
Antony continued to travel through the region, gazing at the tracks of wild beasts, and now at the vastness of the broad desert, what he should do, where he should turn, he did not know. The second day had ebbed to its close. All night long he spent the darkness in prayer, and in the doubtful light of dawn he saw a she-wolf, panting in a madness of thirst, slip into the side of the mountain. Antony followed her with his eyes, and coming up to the cave into which the beast had disappeared, he began to peer inside, but his curiosity was fruitless because the darkness repelled his sight. Yet perfect love, as the Scripture says, cast out fear, so holding his breath he stepped cautiously into the cave to explore.
Finding the Hermit
Advancing little by little, and often standing still, his ear caught a sound. Deep in the dread blindness of the dark he saw a light, hurrying too eagerly, he struck his foot against a stone, and raised a commotion. At the sound the Blessed Paul shut the door which had been open, and bolted it. Then Antony fell upon the ground outside the door, and there he prayed for entrance until the sixth hour. “Who I am,” he said, “and why I have come, you know. I know that I am not worthy to see you, nevertheless, unless I see you, I will not leave. You receive beasts, why do you turn away men? I have sought, and I have found, I knock, that it may be opened to me. But if I do not prevail, here I will die before your door. Assuredly you will bury my corpse.”
Paul teased from the other side of the door, “No man pleads this way, who comes to threaten: no man comes to hurt, who comes in tears: and do you wonder that I do not receive you, if it is a dying man that comes?” Paul opens the door. The two embraced each other and greeted one another by their names, and together returned thanks to God. Paul sat down beside Antony, and began to speak. “Behold you have sought me with so much effort, a shaggy white head and limbs worn out with age. Behold, you look on a man that is soon to be dust. Yet because love endures all things, tell me, I pray, how fares the human race: if new roofs are risen in the ancient cities, whose empire is it now that sways the world; and if any still survive, snared in the error of the demons.”
As they talked they perceived that a crow had settled on a branch of the tree, and softly flying down, deposited a whole loaf of bread before their wondering eyes. When the crow flew away Paul said, “Behold, God has sent us our dinner, God the merciful, God the compassionate. For sixty years a crow has brought me everyday a half a loaf of bread, but since you are here, Christ has doubled His soldiers’s rations.” When they had given thanks to God, they sat down beside the fresh spring. But now sprang up a contention between them as to who should break the bread, Paul insisting on the right of the guest, Antony countering by right of seniority. At length they agreed that each should take hold of the loaf and pull toward themselves, and let each take what remained in his hands. Then they drank from the spring and offering to God the sacrifice of praise, they passed the night in prayer.
As daylight returned the Blessed Paul spoke to Antony. “For a long time, my brother, I have known that you were living in these parts, long ago God had promised that you, my fellow-servant, would come to me. But since the time has come for sleeping, and (I have ever desired to be dissolved and to be with Christ) the race is run, there remains for me a crown of righteousness; you have been sent by God to shelter this poor body in the ground, returning earth to earth.”
Death of Saint Paul
At this Antony, weeping and groaning, began pleading with him not to leave him but take him with him as a fellow-traveller on that journey. “You must not,” replied the other, “seek thine own, but another’s good. It was good for you, the burden of the flesh flung down, to follow the Lamb, but it is good for the other brethren that they should have your example for their grounding. I pray, unless it be too great a trouble, go and bring the cloak which Athanasius the Bishop gave you, to wrap around my body.” Blessed Paul asked this, not because he cared much whether his dead body should rot covered or naked. For indeed he had been clothed for so long a time in woven palm-leaves, but he hoped Antony would be far from him, that he might spare him the pain of seeing him die.
Then Antony, amazed that Paul should have known of Athanasius and the cloak, dared not to speak, it seemed to him that he saw Christ in Paul, and he worshipped God in Paul’s heart, silently weeping, he said farewell, and set out on the return journey to the monastery. Antony’s steps could not keep pace with his spirit, for the length of days had broken a body worn out with fasting, his mind triumphed over his years. Exhausted and panting, he reach his dwelling, the journey ended. Two disciples who had ministered to him ran to meet him, saying, “Where have you been so long Master?”
“I am sorrowful,” he answered, “for I falsely bear the name of monk. I have seen Elias, I have seen John in the desert, yes, I have even seen Paul in paradise.” So, with tight-pressed lips and his hand beating his breast, he carried the cloak from his cell. To his disciples eager to now more of what took place, he answered, “There is a time to speak, and there is a time to be silent.” Leaving the house and not even taking some small provision for the journey, he again took the road by which he had come, longing to see Paul, his eyes and mind were intent. For he feared, that in his absence Paul might have rendered his spirit back to Christ and that is just what happened.
Now the second day dawned upon him, and for three hours he had been in the way, when he saw amid a host of angels and amid the companies of prophets and apostles, Paul climbing the steps of Heaven, and shining white as snow. Antony falling face down on the ground he threw sand upon his head and wept, saying, “Paul, why did you send me away? Why do you go without a goodbye? So slow to be known, you are so swift to go?”
Years later Blessed Antony would tell how speedily he covered the rest of the road, as if flying like a bird. Nor was it without cause. Entering the cave, he saw on the lifeless body of Paul in the kneeling position and head erect and his hands stretched out to Heaven. At first Antony thought he was still alive, so he knelt and prayed beside him. Yet no accustomed sigh of prayer came from him, weeping, he knew now that the dead body of the holy man still knelt and prayed to God, to whom all things live.
Then Antony wrapped the body of Paul with the cloak and carried it outside, chanting the hymns and psalms of Christian tradition. But sadness came over Antony, because he had no spade to dig the grave. His mind was shaken, turning this way and that of a solution. For if I should go back to the monastery, he said, it is a three day journey, if I stay here, there is no more that I can do. Let me die therefore and fall beside your soldier, Christ, let me draw my last breath.
But even as he pondered, behold two lions, came coursing, their manes flying, from the inner desert, and came toward him. At the sight of them, he was filled with fear, then turning his mind to God, he waited undismayed, as though he looked on doves. The lions came straight to the body of the holy man, and halted by it, wagging their tails, then couched themselves at his fee, roaring with all their might; and Antony well knew they were lamenting the holy Paul, as best they could. Then, going off a little way, they began to scratch up the ground with their paws, vying with one another in throwing up the sand, until they had dug a grave large enough for Paul’s remains; and immediately, as though to ask a reward of their work, they came up to Antony, with drooping ears and down bent heads, and began licking his hands and his feet. He saw that they were begging for his blessing, and pouring out his soul in praise to Christ for that even the dumb beasts feel that there is a God, “Lord,” he said, “without Whom no leaf appears on the tree, nor a single sparrow falls upon the ground, give unto these even lions as Thou know.”
Then, motioning with is hand, he signed to them to depart. When they had gone away, he bowed his aged shoulders under the weight of the holy body, and laying it in the grave, he then gathered the earth and mounded it over the grave. At day break Paul claimed for himself the tunic which Paul had woven out of palm-leaves. Then returning to the monastery, he told the whole story to his disciples in order as it happened. On the solemn feasts of Easter and Pentecost, he wore the tunic of Paul.
…I pray you, whoever you be who read this, that you be mindful of Jerome the sinner, who, if the Lord gave him his choice, would rather have the tunic of Paul with his merits, than the purple of Kings with their thrones.