St. Paul the First Hermit   
A.D. 342
Elias and St. John the Baptist sanctified the deserts, and Jesus Christ himself was a
model of the eremitical state during his forty days' fast in the wilderness, neither is
it to be questioned but 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.
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 the
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;
and 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, * 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.
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 nor to concern himself in
the least with human affairs and with 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.
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. Jerome
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, * and that this
monster, or phantom of the devil (St. Jerome 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, * 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. St. 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, while 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 wee 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. Anthony 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. While 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. While 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 hurled 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. * 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.
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 honored in the
anthologium of the Greeks.
An eminent contemplative draws the following portraiture of this great model of an
eremitical life: * 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 near a hundred years, ignorant of all that passed in the world -- the
progress of sciences, the establishment of religion, and the revolutions of states and
empires -- and indifferent even as to those things without which he could not live --
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 these
questions to them: "What are you doing while 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 anything else, however
great or noble, howsoever 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?"
From his life, compiled by St. Jerome, in 365. Pope Gelasius I. in his learned Roman
council, in 494, commends this authentic history. St. Paul is also mentioned by
Cassian, St. Fulgentius, Sulpitius Severus Sidonius, Paulinus, in the life of St.
Ambrose &c. St. Jerome received this account from two disciples of St. Antony --
Amathas and Macarius. St. Athanasius says that he only wrote what he had heard
from St. Antony's own mouth or from his disciples, and desires others to add what
they know concerning his actions. On the various readings and manuscript copies of
this life, see the disquisition of F. Jer. de Prato, an oratorian of Verona, in his new
edition or the works of Sulpitius Severus, t 1, app. 2, p 403. The Greek history of St.
Paul the hermit, which Bollandus imagines St. Jerome to have followed, is evidently
posterior and borrows from him, as Jos. Assemani shows. Comm. in Calend. Univ. t.
6, p 82. See Gudij Epistolae, p. 278.
[1]  Butler's Lives of the Saints – January 15.
Lives of the Saints