The First Hermit ca. 228–ca. 341 • Pre-Congregation Memorial: January 15
Let’s be honest: Many of us find prayer, well, boring. We get distracted. We rattle off a litany of wants and needs. We pray for certain people. “Thanks, God, for X, Y, Z.” Make the sign of the cross. There. Finished. Wasn’t that exciting?
Prayer, however, really can be stimulating. Each of us has the capacity to talk with God in a way that is transporting. When you have that, the world pretty quickly loses its allure. And some people are so good at prayer that they renounce a normal life. That’s what happened to St. Paul of Thebes, the first Christian hermit.
In the beginning Paul practiced his faith but wasn’t particularly religious. When he was sixteen his father died, and Paul and his older sister inherited the family fortune. His brother-in-law, Peter, wanted two-thirds of the estate, leaving Paul one-third. Paul refused and took Peter to court.
Walking to court, Paul saw the funeral procession for a deceased rich man, a well-known sinner. This man wore only a simple linen undershirt to his grave. Paul was dumbstruck. So much for the value of money, he thought.
Paul also learned that his brother-in-law planned to turn him over to the authorities for being a Christian. This was during the persecution of Decius and Valerianus (ca. 251–253). The persecution included torture and killing.
Now, through the centuries, many Christians have actively desired martyrdom. Not Paul. He didn’t want to die or suffer persecution of any kind, so he fled to the desert.
There he found a mountain cave near a running stream and a date palm. He wove the palm’s fronds into clothing, and he ate its fruit. For two decades those dates were his only food. Then a black raven began delivering a daily loaf of bread. This provision continued another fifty-five to sixty-five years.
One day St. Anthony of the Desert, who lived in the same wilderness, was humbly considering how history would know him as the first Christian hermit. That night God mentioned in a dream that an even older hermit was nearby. Upon waking, Anthony set off to find him. He traveled three days, never sure where he was headed. He simply trusted Jesus to show the way, which he did at last through a she wolf. When Anthony arrived at Paul’s cave, Paul invited him in, and a few minutes later Paul’s raven brought two loaves for them.
Paul died shortly thereafter. He who had clothed himself in woven palm fronds for almost a century was wrapped in an elaborate winding sheet provided by St. Athanasius, patriarch of Alexandria. After first being buried in the desert, his relics were next taken to Alexandria, then Venice after Egypt’s fall to Islamic forces, and then Hungary, where they rest today.
Why St. Paul deserves our attention and devotion
After the persecutions ended, St. Paul could have left the desert, but he chose to stay because he had come to love prayer. It put him in God’s joyful, peaceful, compelling presence. In short, he found heaven on earth. Paul teaches us to persevere in our devotions. Eventually prayer will become more satisfying than we ever thought possible.
Lord Jesus, living in the desert was not St. Paul’s dream existence. And yet this curve in the road made him phenomenally content and happy. Through his intercession, help us accept life’s twists and turns. Then let us use them to glorify you.
This is an excerpt from Saint Who?: 39 Holy Unknowns by Brian O’Neel.