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 cat; 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, or concern himself in the least with human affairs, and 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 was 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. Antony 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 buried 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.
Connection for our times: Our world is saturated with demonic activity as a result of the inundation of sin in all of society. Saint Paul the First Hermit shows us the power of mortification and a poverty of spirit in warding off the wickedness and snares of the devil in our lives.