Tuesday, February 7, 2012


St. Paul the Hermit

Feastday: January 15
Patron of San Pablo City, Philippines
229 - 342

Also known as Paul the First Hermit and Paul of Thebes, an Egyptian hermit and friend of St. Jerome. Born in Lower The baid, Egypt, he was left an orphan at about the age of fifteen and hid during the persecution of the Church under Emperor Traj anus Decius. At the age of twenty two he went to the desert to circumvent a planned effort by his brother in law to report him to authorities as a Christian and thereby gain control of his property. Paul soon found that the eremitical life was much to his personal taste, and so remained in a desert cave for the rest of his reportedly very long life. His contemplative existence was disturbed by St. Anthony, who visited the aged Paul. Anthony also buried Paul, supposedly wrapping him in a cloak that had been given to Anthony by St. Athanasius. According to legend, two lions assisted Anthony in digging the grave. While there is little doubt that Paul lived, the only source for details on his life are found in the Vita Pauli written by St. Jerome and preserved in both Latin and Greek versions.

 (also known as Paul of Thebes)
 Born in Thebaid, Egypt c. 230; died c. 342; feast day in the West was January 10 until the cultus was suppressed in 1969; Eastern feast day is either January 5 or 15.

 Saint Paul was from the lower Thebaid in Egypt and lived during a period in which Christians were hunted down like criminals for endangering the safety of the state. Paul, orphaned at 15, had a property inheritance; and his pagan brother-in-law saw a double opportunity in betraying him to the officers of Emperor Decius: first to get the reward promised to those who turned in Christians, and second to obtain for himself the inherited property.

 The 22-year-old Paul, already in hiding in a remote village, was warned by his sister and fled into the desert, not so much as a permanent place to live as much as a refuge because he feared that his faith may not be strong enough to endure persecution. Later, however, the thought of returning to his home left him, and the vastness of the desert surged up before him as the place where he would find God. (Remember that this is part of our Judaic heritage. The Israelites "found" God in the desert, where He led them as a pillar of fire.)

 Silence and solitude frighten most of us; we are afraid to be really alone. That was the first fruit of the life in the desert for Paul: he was strengthened in spirit, he learned to consecrate his soul to God alone, and to be alone with the alone. All masks fall away in such a solitary place; God's voice is no longer choked.

 Second, Paul learned in the desert to trust in God to supply all his needs. Having renounced all things, Paul needed very little: a palm tree to clothe him and perhaps to protect him from the sun, bread to nourish his body, and water to slake his thirst. The palm tree also provided his only food until he was 43 (about 21 years). Then, it is said that, like Elias, he was fed miraculously each day; a raven descended carrying just the right amount of bread for the day. Whether we trust such stories or not, life must have been difficult enough and it must have taken an enormous simplicity and trust in God for Paul to survive.

 The story of Paul is full of the comings and goings of a 'rival' hermit of the desert: Saint Antony. How they overcome their singular rivalry; how they sit down to eat their miraculous banquets together; how they pray and fast in a combat of spirituality: these are the tales biographers give us. They also suggest the profound friendship that must have existed at the deepest possible level for these two men of identical, yet altogether unusual, vocations.

 It is said that God first revealed Paul's existence to Antony, because he was tempted to vanity at the thought that he had served God longest in the desert. After the revelation, Antony searched three days to find Paul (here Jerome's narrative becomes a little bizarre with centaurs and satyrs, etc.). Finally, he followed a thirsty she-wolf into a cave thinking to find water for himself, and found Paul, too. They knew each other at once and praised God.

 While they were talking, a raven flew towards them, and dropped a loaf of bread before them. Upon which Paul said, "Our good God has sent us dinner. In this manner I have received half a loaf every day these 60 years past; now you are come to see me, Christ has doubled his provision for his servants."

 On that first meeting, it seemed that they would never eat. Paul insisted that his guest must have the privilege of breaking the bread, whereas the 90-year-old youngster Antony wanted to defer to the elder Paul. The stalemate was broken before the bread grew too stale--they acted simultaneously.

 Paul predicted to Antony the time of his death, and asked him to wrap and bury his body in a cloak given to Antony by Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria. Rushing to obtain the cloak, Antony saw Paul's body in a vision carried up to heaven attended by angels, prophets, and apostles. He found Paul's body kneeling in prayer with his arms stretched out, as was the custom. For the rest of his own life, Saint Antony cherished Paul's palm-leaf clothing, and wore it himself on important church feasts.

 According to Saint Jerome who was one of the hermit's biographers, Paul died in 342 at age 113, having spent about 90 years in the desert. It is said that two lions came and dug his grave.

 He is called Paul the First Hermit, not because he was the first desert solitary--though he may have been the first who was Christian, but in order to distinguish him from other hermits named Paul. Saint Jerome's Life of Paul, based on a Greek original, is almost the only source for the details of the hermit's life, but it is a mixture of fact and fantasy (Attwater, Benedictines, Bentley, Butler, Delaney, Encyclopedia, Farmer, Waddell).

 In art Saint Paul can be identified as an old man in plaited palm leaves breaking bread with Saint Antony (). At times (1) a raven brings them bread, (2) he is naked with only a girdle of palms leaves (not to be confused with Onuphrius) (3) with a hind by him, or (4) buried by Saint Antony with two lions nearby (Roeder). Scenes from Paul's life, especially the meeting with Antony, are depicted on the Ruthwell cross (c. 700) and on some Irish crosses. He also appears on the 15th-century rood-screen of Wolborough (Devon) with other monastic saints (Farmer).

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