The first known Christian hermit, as distinct from the earlier ascetics, is the fabulous
PAUL OF THEBES, in Upper Egypt. In the twenty-second year of his age, during the
Decian persecution, A.D. 250, he retired to a distant cave, grew fond of the solitude,
and lived there, according to the legend, ninety years, in a grotto near a spring and a
palm tree, which furnished him food, shade, and clothing, until his death in 340. In
his later years a raven is said to have brought him daily half a loaf, as the ravens
ministered to Elijah. But no one knew of this wonderful saint, till Anthony, who under
a higher impulse visited and buried him, made him known to the world. After knocking
in vain for more than an hour at the door of the hermit, who would receive the visits
of beasts and reject those of men, he was admitted at last with a smiling face, and
greeted with a holy kiss. Paul had sufficient curiosity left to ask the question,
whether there were any more idolaters in the world, whether new houses were built in
ancient cities and by whom the world was governed? During this interesting
conversation, a large raven came gently flying and deposited a double portion of
bread for the saint and his guest. “The Lord,” said Paul, “ever kind and merciful, has
sent us a dinner. It is now sixty years since I have
daily received half a loaf, but since thou hast come, Christ has doubled the supply for
his soldiers.” After thanking the Giver, they sat down by the fountain; but now the
question arose who should break the bread; the one urging the custom of hospitality,
the other pleading the right of his friend as the elder.
This question of monkish etiquette, which may have a moral significance, consumed
nearly the whole day, and was settled at last by the compromise that both should
seize the loaf at opposite ends, pull till it broke, and keep what remained in their
hands. A drink from the fountain, and thanksgiving to God closed the meal. The day
afterward Anthony returned to his cell, and told his two disciples: “Woe to me, a
sinner, who have falsely pretended to be a monk. I have seen Elijah and John in the
desert; I have seen St. Paul in paradise.” Soon afterward he paid St. Paul a second
visit, but found him dead in his cave, with head erect and hands lifted up to heaven.
He wrapped up the corpse, singing psalms and hymns, and buried him without a
spade; for two lions came of their own accord, or rather from supernatural impulse,
from the interior parts of the desert, laid down at his feet, wagging their tails, and
moaning distressingly, and scratched a grave in the sand large enough for the body of
the departed saint of the desert! Anthony returned with the coat of Paul, made of
palm leaves, and wore it on the solemn days of Easter and Pentecost.
The learned Jerome wrote the life of Paul, some thirty years afterward, as it appears,
on the authority of Anathasius and Macarius, two disciples of Anthony. But he
remarks, in the prologue, that many incredible things are said of him, which are not
worthy of repetition. If he believed his story of the grave-digging lions, it is hard to
imagine what was more credible and less worthy of repetition.
In this Paul we have an example, of a canonized saint, who lived ninety years unseen
and unknown in the wilderness, beyond all fellowship with the visible church, without
Bible, public worship, or sacraments, and so died, yet is supposed to have attained
the highest grade of piety. How does this consist with the common doctrine of the
Catholic church respecting the necessity and the operation of the means of grace?
Augustine, blinded by the ascetic spirit of his age, says even, that anchorets, on their
level of perfection, may dispense with the Bible. Certain it is, that this kind of
perfection stands not in the Bible, but outside of it.
The proper founder of the hermit life, the one chiefly instrumental in giving it its
prevalence, was ST. ANTHONY of Egypt. He is the most celebrated, the most original,
and the most venerable representative of this abnormal and eccentric sanctity, the
“patriarch of the monks,” and the “childless father of an innumerable seed.”
Anthony sprang from a Christian and honourable Coptic family, and was born about
251, at Coma, on the borders of the Thebaid. Naturally quiet, contemplative, and
reflective, he avoided the society of playmates, and despised all higher learning. He
understood only his Coptic vernacular, and remained all his life ignorant of Grecian
literature and secular science. But he diligently attended divine worship with his
parents, and so carefully heard the Scripture lessons, that he retained them in
memory. Memory was his library. He afterward made faithful, but only too literal use
of single passages of Scripture, and began his discourse to the hermits with the very
uncatholic-sounding declaration: “The holy Scriptures give us instruction enough.” In
his eighteenth year, about 270, the death of his parents devolved on him the care of
a younger sister and a considerable estate.
Six months afterward he heard in the church, just as he was meditating on the
apostles’ implicit following of Jesus, the word of the Lord to the rich young ruler: “If
thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt
have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.” This word was a voice of God,
which determined his life. He divided his real estate, consisting of three hundred
acres of fertile land, among the inhabitants of the village, and sold his personal
property for the benefit of the poor, excepting a moderate reserve for the support of
his sister. But when, soon afterward, he heard in the church the exhortation, “Take no
thought for the morrow,” he distributed the remnant to the poor, and intrusted his
sister to a society of pious virgins. He visited her only once after—a fact
characteristic of the ascetic depreciation of natural ties.
He then forsook the hamlet, and led an ascetic life in the neighborhood, praying
constantly, according to the exhortation: “Pray without ceasing;” and also laboring,
according to the maxim: “If any will not work, neither should he eat.” What he did not
need for his slender support, he gave to the poor. He visited the neighboring
ascetics, who were then already very plentiful in Egypt, to learn humbly and
thankfully their several eminent virtues; from one, earnestness in prayer; from
another, watchfulness; from a third, excellence in fasting; from a fourth, meekness;
from all, love to Christ and to fellow men. Thus he made himself universally beloved,
and came to be reverenced as a friend of God.
But to reach a still higher level of ascetic holiness, he retreated, after the year 285,
further and further from the bosom and vicinity of the church, into solitude, and thus
became the founder of an anchoretism strictly so called. At first he lived in a
sepulchre; then for twenty years in the ruins of a castle; and last on Mount Colzim,
some seven hours from the Red Sea, a three days’ journey east of the Nile, where an
old cloister still preserves his name and memory.
In this solitude he prosecuted his ascetic practices with ever-increasing rigor. Their
monotony was broken only by basket making, occasional visits, and battles with the
devil. In fasting he attained a rare abstemiousness. His food consisted of bread and
salt, sometimes dates; his drink, of water. Flesh and wine he never touched. He ate
only once a day, generally after sunset, and, like the presbyter Isidore, was ashamed
that an
immortal spirit should need earthly nourishment. Often he fasted from two to five
days. Friends, and wandering Saracens, who always had a certain reverence for the
saints of the desert, brought him bread from time to time. But in the last years of his
life, to render himself entirely independent of others, and to afford hospitality to
travellers, he cultivated
a small garden on the mountain, near a spring shaded by palms.
Sometimes the wild beasts of the forest destroyed his modest harvest, till he drove
them away forever with the expostulation: “Why do you injure me, who have never
done you the slightest harm? Away with you all, in the name of the Lord, and never
come into my neighbourhood again.” He slept on bare ground, or at best on a pallet
of straw; but often he watched the whole night through in prayer. The anointing of
the body with oil he despised, and in later years never washed his feet; as if
filthiness were an essential element of ascetic perfection. His whole wardrobe
consisted of a hair shirt, a sheepskin, and a girdle. But notwithstanding all, he had a
winning friendliness and cheerfulness in his face.
Conflicts with the devil and his hosts of demons were, as with other solitary saints, a
prominent part of Anthony’s experience, and continued through all his life. The devil
appeared to him in visions and dreams, or even in daylight, in all possible forms, now
as a friend, now as a fascinating woman, now as a dragon, tempting him by
reminding him of his former wealth, of his noble family, of the care due to his sister,
by promises of wealth, honour, and renown, by exhibitions of the difficulty of virtue
and the facility of vice, by unchaste thoughts and images, by terrible threatening of
the dangers and punishments of the ascetic life. Once he struck the hermit so
violently, Athanasius says, that a friend, who brought him bread, found him on the
ground apparently dead. At another time he broke through the wall of his cave and
filled the room with roaring lions,
howling wolves, growling bears, fierce hyenas, crawling serpents and scorpions; but
Anthony turned manfully toward the monsters, till a supernatural light broke in from
the roof and dispersed them.
His sermon, which he delivered to the hermits at their request, treats principally of
these wars with demons, and gives also the key to the interpretation of them: “Fear
not Satan and his angels. Christ has broken their power. The best weapon against
them is faith and piety .... The presence of evil spirits reveals itself in perplexity,
despondency, hatred of the ascetics, evil desires, fear of death .... They take the
form answering to the spiritual state they find in us at the time.f315 They are the
reflex of our thoughts and fantasies. If thou art carnally minded, thou art their prey;
but if thou rejoicest in the Lord and occupiest thyself with divine things, they are
powerless .... The devil is afraid of fasting, of prayer, of humility and good works. His
illusions soon vanish, when one arms himself with the sign of the cross.”
Only in exceptional cases did Anthony leave his solitude; and then he made a
powerful impression on both Christians and heathens with his hairy dress and his
emaciated, ghostlike form. In the year 311, during the persecution under Maximinus,
he appeared in Alexandria in the hope of himself gaining the martyr’s crown. He
visited the confessors in the mines and prisons, encouraged them before the tribunal,
accompanied them to the scaffold; but no one ventured to lay hands on the saint of
the wilderness.
In the year 351, when a hundred years old, he showed himself for the second and last
time in the metropolis of Egypt, to bear witness for the orthodox faith of his friend
Athanasius against Arianism, and in a few days converted more heathens and
heretics than had otherwise been gained in a whole year. He declared the Arian
denial of the divinity of Christ worse than the venom of the serpent, and no better
than heathenism which worshipped the creature instead of the Creator. He would
have nothing to do with heretics, and warned his disciples against intercourse with
Athanasius attended him to the gate of the city, where he cast out an evil spirit from
a girl. An invitation to stay longer in Alexandria he declined, saying: “As a fish out of
water, so a monk out of his solitude dies.” Imitating his example, the monks
afterward forsook the wilderness in swarms whenever orthodoxy was in danger, and
went in long processions with wax tapers and responsive singing through the streets,
or appeared at the councils, to contend for the orthodox faith with all the energy of
fanaticism, often even with physical force.
Though Anthony shunned the society of men, yet he was frequently visited in his
solitude and resorted to for consolation and aid by Christians and heathens, by
ascetics, sick, and needy, as a heaven-descended physician of Egypt for body and
soul. He enjoined prayer, labor, and care of the poor, exhorted those at strife to the
love of God, and healed the sick and demoniac with his prayer. Athanasius relates
several miracles performed by him, the truth of which we leave undecided though
they are far less incredible and absurd than many other monkish stories of that age.
Anthony, his biographer assures us, never boasted when his prayer was heard, nor
murmured when it was not, but in either case thanked God. He cautioned monks
against overrating the gift of miracles, since it is not our work, but the grace of the
Lord; and he reminds them of the word: “Rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto
you; but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven.” To Martianus, an
officer, who urgently besought him to heal his possessed daughter, he said: “Man,
why dost thou call on me? I am a man, as thou art. If thou believest, pray to God,
and he will hear thee.” Martianus prayed, and on his return found his daughter whole.
Anthony distinguished himself above most of his countless disciples and successors,
by his fresh originality of mind. Though uneducated and limited, he had sound sense
and ready mother wit. Many of his striking answers and felicitous sentences have
come down to us. When some heathen philosophers once visited him, he asked them:
“Why do you give yourselves so much trouble to see a fool?” They explained, perhaps
ironically, that they took him rather for a wise man. He replied: “If you take me for a
fool, your labour is lost; but if I am a wise man, you should imitate me, and be
Christians, as I am.” At another time, when taunted with his ignorance, he asked:
“Which is older and better, mind or learning?”
The mind, was the answer. “Then,” said the hermit, “the mind can do without
learning.” “My book,” he remarked on a similar occasion, “is the whole creation, which
lies open before me, and in which I can read the word of God as often as I will.” The
blind church-teacher, Didymus, whom he met in Alexandria, he comforted with the
words: “Trouble not thyself for the loss of the outward eye, with which even flies see;
but rejoice in the possession of the spiritual eye, with which also angels behold the
face of God, and receive his light.” Even the emperor Constantine, with his sons,
wrote to him as a spiritual father, and begged an answer from him. The hermit at first
would not so much as receive the letter, since, in any case, being unable to write, he
could not answer it, and cared as little for the great of this world as Diogenes for
Alexander. When told that the emperor was a Christian, he dictated the answer:
“Happy thou, that thou worshippest Christ. Be not proud of thy earthly power.
Think of the future judgment, and know that Christ is the only true and eternal king.
Practise justice and love for men, and care for the poor.” To his disciples he said on
this occasion: “Wonder not that the emperor writes to me, for he is a man. Wonder
much more that God has written the law for man, and has spoken to us by his own
During the last years of his life the patriarch of monasticism withdrew as much as
possible from the sight of visitors, but allowed two disciples to live with him, and to
take care of him in his infirm old age. When he felt his end approaching, he
commanded them not to embalm his body, according to the Egyptian custom, but to
bury it in the earth, and to keep the spot of his interment secret. One of his two
sheepskins he bequeathed to the bishop Serapion, the other, with his underclothing,
to Athanasius, who had once given it to him new, and now received it back worn out.
What became of the robe woven from palm leaves, which, according to Jerome, he
had inherited from Paul of Thebes, and wore at Easter and Pentecost, Athanasius
does not tell us. After this disposition of his property,
Anthony said to his disciples: “Children, farewell; for Anthony goes away, and will be
no more with you.” With these words he stretched out his feet and expired with a
smiling face, in the year 356, a hundred and five years old. His grave remained for
centuries unknown. His last will was thus a protest against the worship of saints and
relics, which, however, it nevertheless greatly helped to promote.
Under Justinian, in 561, his bones, as the Bollandists and Butler minutely relate,
were miraculously discovered, brought to Alexandria, then to Constantinople, and at
last to Vienne in South France, and in the eleventh century, during the raging of an
epidemic disease, the so-called “holy fire,” or “St. Anthony’s fire,” they are said to
have performed great wonders.
Athanasius, the greatest man of the Nicene age, concludes his biography of his friend
with this sketch of his character: “From this short narrative you may judge how great
a man Anthony was, who persevered in the ascetic life from youth to the highest age.
In his advanced age he never allowed himself better food, nor change of raiment, nor
did he even wash his feet. Yet he continued healthy in all his parts. His eyesight was
clear to the end, and his teeth sound, though by long use worn to mere stumps. He
retained also the perfect use of his hands and feet, and was more robust and
vigorous than those who are accustomed to change of food and clothing and to
washing. His fame spread from his remote dwelling on the lone mountain over the
whole Roman empire. What gave him his renown, was not learning nor worldly
wisdom, nor human art, but alone his piety toward God .... And let all the brethren
know, that the Lord will not only take holy monks to heaven, but give them celebrity
in all the earth, however deep they may bury themselves in the wilderness.”
The whole Nicene age venerated in Anthony a model saint. This fact brings out most
characteristically the vast difference between the ancient and the modern, the old
Catholic and the evangelical Protestant conception of the nature of the Christian
religion. The specifically Christian element in the life of Anthony, especially as
measured by the Pauline standard, is very small. Nevertheless we can but admire the
needy magnificence, the simple, rude grandeur of this hermit sanctity even in its
Anthony concealed under his sheepskin a childlike humility, an amiable simplicity, a
rare energy of will, and a glowing love to God, which maintained itself for almost
ninety years in the absence of all the comforts and pleasures of natural life, and
triumphed over all the temptations of the flesh. By piety alone, without the help of
education or learning, he became one of the most remarkable and influential men in
the history of the ancient church. Even heathen contemporaries could not withhold
from him
their reverence, and the celebrated philosopher Synesius, afterward a bishop, before
his conversion reckoned Anthony among those rare men, in whom flashes of thought
take the place of reasonings, and natural power of mind makes schooling needless.
Lives of the Saints
Paul of Thebes and St. Anthony