Saint Paul The First Hermit

“Any history of the Desert Fathers will credit Antony as the first of the Christian hermits, made famous by the biography of St. Athanasius of Alexandria. In any case, Antony became the model for ascetic training, desert reclusion, charity, perseverance, and especially of resistance to temptation. But Antony was not the first Christian hermit.
St. Jerome, living on the desert outskirts of Syria in the early fifth century, composed the Life of St. Paul the First Hermit. He was influenced by Evagrius, a wealthy patron writing a biography of Antony (A popular undertaking at the time) and by Malchus, who told Jerome about Paul and who himself had passed years as a desert solitary. Whether his devotion was kindled by these friends or perhaps his jealousy we cannot know, but Jerome was a stormy, passionate companion who tried the desert life, failed, and redirected his considerable energies to scholarship. That is another story. But his biography of Paul was written in the early years of optimism.
Of all his essays on Illustrious Lives, the elder Jerome was to place the short but moving Life of St. Paul first in the list. It was Jerome’s own ideal, an ideal that upstages the famous Antony: “There is a good deal of uncertainty abroad as to which monk it was who first came to live in the desert … Yet Athanasius, who buried the body of his master, and Macerius, both of them Antony’s disciples, now affirm that a certain Paul of Thebes was the first to enter on the road. This is my own judgment, not so much from the facts as from conviction.””
paul hermit 1
“Saint Paul The first Hermit (Anba Boula) (Ava Pavly) , commonly known as Saint Paul the First Hermit or St Paul the Anchorite (d. c. 341) is regarded as the first Christian hermit. The Life of Saint Paul the First Hermit, was composed in Latin by Saint Jerome, probably in 375/376. The legend according to Jerome’s Vitae Patrum (Vita Pauli primi eremitae) is that, as a young man, Paul fled to the Theban desert during the persecution of Decius and Valerianus around AD 250.
At that time Paul and his married sister, both of whom lived in the Thebaid, lost their parents. In order to obtain Paul’s inheritance, his brother-in-law sought to betray him to the persecutors. He lived in the mountains of this desert in a cave near a clear spring and a palm tree, the leaves of which provided him with raiment and the fruit of which provided him with his only source of food until he was 43 years old, when a raven started bringing him half a loaf of bread daily. He would remain in that cave for the rest of his life, almost a hundred years.
Paul of Thebes is known to posterity because Anthony, around the year 342, was told in a dream about the older hermit’s existence, and went to find him.
Familiar stories from the Life include: the meeting of St. Paul and St. Anthony, the raven who brought them bread, St. Anthony being sent to fetch the cloak given him by “Athanasius the bishop” to bury St. Paul’s body in, St. Paul’s death before he returned, and the grave dug by lions.”
paul hermit
“…Paul and his newly married sister were bereaved of both their parents, he being about sixteen years of age. He was heir to a rich inheritance, highly skilled in both Greek and Egyptian learning, gifted with a gentle disposition and a deep love for God. Amid the thunders of persecution he retired to a house at a considerable distance and in a more secluded spot. But to what crimes does not the “accursed thirst for gold” impel the human heart? His brother-in-law conceived the thought of betraying the youth whom he was bound to conceal. Neither a wife’s tears which so often prevail, nor the ties of blood, nor the all-seeing eye of God above him could turn the traitor from his wickedness. “He came, he was urgent, he acted with cruelty while seeming only to press the claims of affection.”
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5. The young man had the tact to understand this, and, conforming his will to the necessity, fled to the mountain wilds to wait for the end of the persecution. He began with easy stages, and repeated halts, to advance into the desert. At length he found a rocky mountain, at the foot of which, closed by a stone, was a cave of no great size. He removed the stone (so eager are men to learn what is hidden), made eager search, and saw within a large hall, open to the sky, but shaded by the wide-spread branches of an ancient palm. The tree, however, did not conceal a fountain of transparent clearness, the waters whereof no sooner gushed forth than the stream was swallowed up in a small opening of the same ground which gave it birth. There were besides in the mountain, which was full of cavities, many habitable places, in which were seen, now rough with rust, anvils and hammers for stamping money. The place, Egyptian writers relate, was a secret mint at the time of Antony’s union with Cleopatra.
paul of thebes
6. Accordingly, regarding his abode as a gift from God, he fell in love with it, and there in prayer and solitude spent all the rest of his life. The palm afforded him food and clothing. And, that no one may deem this impossible, I call to witness Jesus and His holy angels that I have seen and still see in that part of the desert which lies between Syria and the Saracens’ country, monks of whom one was shut up for thirty years and lived on barley bread and muddy water, while another in an old cistern (called in the country dialect of Syria Gubba) kept himself alive on five dried figs a day. What I relate then is so strange that it will appear incredible to those who do not believe the words that “all things are possible to him that believeth.”
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7. But to return to the point at which I digressed. The blessed Paul had already lived on earth the life of heaven for a hundred and thirteen years, and Antony at the age of ninety was dwelling in another place of solitude (as he himself was wont to declare), when the thought occurred to the latter, that no monk more perfect than himself had settled in the desert. However, in the stillness of the night it was revealed to him that there was farther in the desert a much better man than he, and that he ought to go and visit him. So then at break of day the venerable old man, supporting and guiding his weak limbs with a staff, started to go: but what direction to choose he knew not. Scorching noontide came, with a broiling sun overhead, but still he did not suffer himself to be turned from the journey he had begun. Said he, “I believe in my God: some time or other He will shew me the fellow-servant whom He promised me.” He said no more. All at once he beholds a creature of mingled shape, half horse half man, called by the poets Hippocentaur. At the sight of this he arms himself by making on his forehead the sign of salvation, and then exclaims, “Holloa! Where in these parts is a servant of God living?” The monster after gnashing out some kind of outlandish utterance, in words broken rather than spoken through his bristling lips, at length finds a friendly mode of communication, and extending his right hand points out the way desired. Then with swift flight he crosses the spreading plain and vanishes from the sight of his wondering companion. But whether the devil took this shape to terrify him, or whether it be that the desert which is known to abound in monstrous animals engenders that kind of creature also, we cannot decide….
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17. I may be permitted at the end of this little treatise to ask those who do not know the extent of their possessions, who adorn their homes with marble, who string house to house and field to field, what did this old man in his nakedness ever lack? Your drinking vessels are of precious stones; he satisfied his thirst with the hollow of his hand. Your tunics are of wrought gold; he had not the raiment of the meanest of your slaves. But on the other hand, poor though he was, Paradise is open to him; you with all your gold will be received into Gehenna. He though naked yet kept the robe of Christ; you, clad in your silks, have lost the vesture of Christ. Paul lies covered with worthless dust, but will rise again to glory; over you are raised costly tombs, but both you and your wealth are doomed to the burning. Have a care, I pray you, at least have a care for the riches you love. Why are even the grave-clothes of your dead made of gold? Why does not your vaunting cease even amid mourning and tears? Cannot the carcases of rich men decay except in silk?”
From “The Life of Paulus the First Hermit” by Saint Jerome:
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“According to Saint Jerome’s description of Saint Paul (written in the Syrian Desert in A.D. 374 or 375) Saint Paul was born in the area of Thebes, Egypt in about A.D. 227. He was the son of wealthy family, but his parents died while he was still a teenager. Saint Jerome describes Saint Paul as a young man “gifted with a gentle disposition and a deep love for God.”

During the persecution of Decius and Valerianus (about A.D. 250) Saint Paul fled to the Theban Desert where he took refuge in a cave near a clear spring and a palm tree. For the rest of his life, Saint Paul would remain in that cave, taking his only food from the nearby spring and palm tree until, at about the age of 43, a raven began daily bringing Saint Paul about a half a loaf of bread. Saint Paul lived in the cave for nearly 100 years. He died in A.D. 341 at an age of about 114.
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Saint Paul of Thebes is regarded as the first Christian hermit. He certainly existed, as history has kept these few scant details of his life, but much of what is know of Saint Paul now is legend. Apparently Saint Anthony the Great met Saint Paul very late in his life. The story is that they two spoke at length for one day and one night. When Saint Anthony the Great later returned to visit Saint Paul he found that he had died in the position of prayer. Clothing Saint Paul’s body in a tunic that was a gift of Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, Saint Anthony buried the body with the assistance of two lions, who helped dig the grave.

The fame of Saint Paul spread quickly in the ancient Christian world and the hermetic life became popular, especially in the Balkan countries of Hungary and Croatia. The Order of Saint Paul the First Hermit (the Pauline Fathers) was founded in Hungary in honor of Saint Paul in the thirteenth century.”
paul hermit teniers
“Saint Anthony of Egypt and Saint Paul the Hermit” by David Teniers the Younger (1610 – 1690)

“On this day of the year 341 A.D., the great saint Anba Paul, the first hermit, departed. This Saint was from the city of Alexandria, and had a brother whose name was Peter.
After the departure of their father, they divided the inheritance between them. When his brother took the greater share, Paul’s feelings were hurt, by his brother’s action. He said to his brother, “Why don’t you give me my rightful share of the inheritance of my father?” Peter responded, “You are a young man, and I am afraid that you might squander it. As for me, I will keep it for you.”
When they did not agree with each other, they went to the governor to judge between them. On their way, they saw a funeral procession. Paul asked one of the mourners about the deceased man. Paul was told that he was one of the noble and rich people of the city, and that he left his riches and his wealth behind, and that they were taking him to bury him with only his garment.
St. Paul sighed in his heart and said to himself, “What do I have to do then with all the money of this temporal world which I shall leave naked?” He looked to his brother and said to him, “My brother, let us return, for I shall not ask you for anything, not even for what is mine.”
On their way back, Paul left his brother and went on his way until he came out of the city. Paul found a grave where he stayed for three days praying to the Lord Christ to guide him to what pleases Him. As for his brother, he searched for Paul diligently and when he did not find him, he was very sorry for what he had done.
God sent St. Paul an angel who took him out of this place, and walked with him until they reached the eastern inner wilderness. He stayed there for 70 years, during which he saw no one. He put on a tunic made of palm tree fiber. The Lord sent him a raven every day with a half loaf of bread.
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When the Lord wanted to reveal the holiness of St. Paul and his righteousness, He sent His angel to St. Antony (Antonius) the Great, who thought that he was the first to dwell in the wilderness. The angel told St. Antony, “There is a man who lives in the inner wilderness; the world is not worthy of his footsteps. By his prayers, the Lord brings rain and dew to fall on the earth, and bring the flood of the Nile in its due season.”
When St. Antony heard this, he rose right away and went to the inner wilderness, a distance of one day’s walk. God guided him to the cave of St. Paul. He entered, and they bowed to each other, and sat down talking about the greatness of the Lord.
In the evening, the raven came bringing a whole loaf of bread. St. Paul said to St. Antony, “Now, I know that you are one of the children of God. For 70 years, the Lord has been sending to me everyday, half a loaf of bread, but today, the Lord is sending your food also. Now, go and bring me back in a hurry the tunic that Emperor Constantine had given to Pope Athanasius.”
St. Antony went to St. Athanasius, and brought the tunic from him and returned to St. Paul. On his way back, he saw the soul of St. Paul carried by the angels up to heaven. When he arrived to the cave, he found that St. Paul had departed from this world. He kissed him, weeping, and clothed him in the tunic that he asked for, and he took his fiber tunic.
When St. Antony wanted to bury St. Paul, he wondered how could he dig the grave? Two lions entered the cave, bowed their heads before the body of St. Paul, and shook their heads as if they were asking St. Anthony what to do. St. Antony knew that they were sent from God. He marked the length and width of the body on the ground, and they dug the grave with their claws, according to St. Antony’s directions. St. Anthony then buried the holy body, and went back to Pope Athanasius and told him what had happened. St. Athanasius sent men to bring St. Paul’s body to him. They spent several days searching in the mountains, but they could not find the place of his grave. St. Paul appeared to the Pope in a vision and told him that the Lord would not allow the revelation of the location of his body. He asked the Pope not to trouble the men, but to have them brought back.
Pope Athanasius used to put the palm fiber tunic on three times a year during the Divine Liturgy. One time, he wanted to let the people know about the holiness of the owner of that tunic. He put it over a dead man, and the dead man rose up instantly. The news of this miracle spread all around the land of Egypt.”
From the Coptic Synaxarium:
paul hermit cabanel
“Paul the First Hermit with Lions” by Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889)

see further
cave church st paul
William Lyster (ed) “The Cave Church of Paul the Hermit At the Monastery of St. Paul in Egypt” [Yale University Press, 2008]. See
paul hermit vel
“St. Anthony the Abbot and St. Paul the First Hermit” (c. 1635) by Diego Velazquez (1599-1660).


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