St. Paul the Simple

(Died 339)

This monk is referred to thus to distinguish him from St. Paul of Egypt, the First Hermit. Both Pauls lived near enough to the same time, and P.T.S. was, furthermore a disciple of St. Anthony, of Egypt, and considered the First Hermit his mentor.

The younger Paul deserved his unusual title particularly because he was an honest, direct man, who when faced with problems, humbly sought advice and followed it.

It was a family problem, in fact, that prompted Paul to seek counsel about the religious life. Up to the age of 60 this Egyptian had supported his family as a common laborer. During his married life his wife had been increasingly unfaithful to him. Paul had been patient and nonjudgmental until one day when he caught her and her current lover together. This whole family difficulty had no doubt contributed to his increasing desire to “leave the world.” Finally, without a word of explanation to his spouse, he set on a week-long journey to the Thebaid desert to seek the great patriarch of hermits himself, St. Anthony of Egypt. Anthony would surely accept him as a disciple!

Anthony was not all that ready to take on the tutorship of a man as old as Paul. So he treated the postulant curtly, and told him to go back into society where he could ply his honest trade, or at least to knock at some monastery where they would not be unwilling to have “a stupid member.” Abbot Anthony then shut his cell door.

But Paul had a manly stubbornness that would not let him be satisfied with so peremptory an answer. He spent the next four days outside St. Anthony’s cell, fasting and praying. On the Fourth day, Anthony opened the door and asked him why he had not left. “I cannot die anywhere but here,” the caller replied. So Anthony, realizing that the man had had nothing to eat, grudgingly brought him inside and fed him. Finally he agreed, “You can be saved if you are obedient and do whatever I tell you.” “I will do everything you command,” Paul promised eagerly.

The patriarchal Anthony gave him no easy course in obedience. First he ordered him to stay outside, in rain or shine, praying and fasting, until instructed otherwise. This Paul did punctiliously. Then Anthony brought the man inside and told him to weave mats and panels of palm fronds as he himself was doing. Paul wove diligently, fasting and praying as he worked. But when he showed his mentor 15 completed products, the abbot said they were made all wrong. Take them apart, he ordered, and start all over again. St. Paul complied without batting an eye.

These were intended by St. Anthony as tests, and he was good at thinking up such trials. One morning he instructed Paul to moisten six loaves of bread for them to eat later in the day. Then he arranged so stern a schedule of daylong work and prayer that there was no time to eat the bread. Finally they got around to eating, each man a single loaf. “Would you like another?” the abbot asked when each had finished his loaf. “Yes, if you do,” replied the hungry but cautious disciple. Anthony decided, “It is enough for me; I am a monk.” Paul replied, “Then it is enough for me. I also wish to become a monk.”

In other words, whatever St. Paul was ordered to do, he did with prompt good cheer, and nary a grudging glance or remark. Wildest of the tests was the incident of the honey. One day St. Anthony spilled a pot of honey on the ground. He instructed his pupil to collect the spilt honey, but be careful not to pick up any of the dust in the process.

Admittedly the laborer aspiring to become a monk had little formal education. Once in the presence of guests he asked who came first, Jesus or the Old Testament prophets. Anthony told him to hold his tongue and go elsewhere. The patriarch then forgot that he had given such an order. He would have known nothing about it had not the other monks reported that Paul was keeping total silence. St. Anthony discovered that his pupil had taken “hold your tongue” as a command, and was following it out to a “T”. Anthony said admiringly to the rest, “How this monk puts us all to shame! He immediately obeys man’s simplest order!”

Not only did St. Anthony accept Paul as one of his monks. Seeing that God had given him many special graces, he often called on his assistance. Frequently he held up St. Paul the Simple as a model to his other disciples of what they should be.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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