It was in Egypt that the great monastic movement began in the fourth century. Thousands upon thousands of men and women moved into the nearby deserts to undertake lives of penance and prayer. One of the leaders in this mass movement was St. Anthony the Hermit. But Anthony himself, though a pioneer, was eventually informed in a dream that the first Egyptian to undertake the monastic life, years before, was St. Paul the Hermit, who still lived in the remote wasteland.
Most of the early monks entered the desert when Christianity was no longer persecuted. St. Paul had fled during the persecution of the Roman Emperor Decius, which raged in the years 250-251. Decius’ attack on Christianity was particularly diabolical in that he sought less to kill Christians than to encourage them to apostatize. To that end he made the denial of faith a very easy thing.
Paul, a native of Upper Thebes in Egypt, was only 15 when Decius issued this decree, but he was already well educated in letters and in Christian faith. Fearing that he would be sought out and tempted by government officials, he went into hiding at the farm of a friend. (Our Lord himself had advised, “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next.” Matt. 10:23).
When he learned later that his brother-in-law, who coveted his property, was about to betray him to the government, Paul fled once more, now to the wild desert. Here he found some caves formerly occupied by counterfeiters. An ancient palm tree gave shade to the oasis, and a spring of clear water watered it.
It had been Paul’s intention to live in the desert only until the persecution was over. But the longer he remained, the more content he became with the solitary life of work and prayer. The tree gave him food and clothing (and after 21 years a crow daily brought him a half loaf of bread). Thus the life of prayer and penance became St. Paul’s second nature, and he remained in this secret garden of delights for the remaining 90 years of his life.
God did not permit Paul to die utterly unknown to the rest of humankind. St. Anthony of Egypt, who headed a monastery a three-days’ journey away from St. Paul’s cell, and was now himself 90, was apprised in a dream of the existence and whereabouts of this original Egyptian hermit. He found the old man in time to have with him a moving discussion of holy things. Paul, knowing that he was about to die, asked Anthony to bring him the cloak that St. Athanasius had given to Anthony. He wanted to be buried in it, he said. Anthony obeyed, but when he returned from his monastery with the cloak, he discovered that St. Paul had died while kneeling in prayer. The first hermit was then 113 years old.
While St. Anthony was wondering how to dig the grave without a shovel, two lions came up, mourned over the body of St. Paul, and then dug a grave for him. Their task finished, they came up to Anthony as if to seek a blessing from him. He blessed them and dismissed them. He then laid the aged saint into the grave they had dug. But he kept for himself, as a precious relic, the tunic made of palm leaves that Paul had worn. Ever after, St. Anthony would wear this tunic on the solemnities of Easter and Pentecost.
St. Jerome is the principal source of our information about St. Paul the First Hermit. He wrote a short, perhaps fictionalized, biography of him around 376, with an eye to popularizing the hermit life. Jerome himself was living as a hermit in those days and he saw in the story of Paul a good illustration of the value of the hermetic vocation as a means of detachment from both the threats and the seductions of the secular world.
–Father Robert M. McNamara