Paul, the First Christian Hermit
Any history of the Desert Fathers will credit Antony as the first of the Christian hermits, made famous by the biography of St. Athanasius of Alexandria. In any case, Antony became the model for ascetic training, desert reclusion, charity, perseverance, and especially of resistance to temptation. But Antony was not the first Christian hermit.
St. Jerome, living on the desert outskirts of Syria in the early fifth century, composed the Life of St. Paul the First Hermit. He was influenced by Evagrius, a wealthy patron writing a biography of Antony (A popular undertaking at the time) and by Malchus, who told Jerome about Paul and who himself had passed years as a desert solitary. Whether his devotion was kindled by these friends or perhaps his jealousy we cannot know, but Jerome was a stormy, passionate companion who tried the desert life, failed, and redirected his considerable energies to scholarship. That is another story. But his biography of Paul was written in the early years of optimism.
Of all his essays on Illustrious Lives, the elder Jerome was to place the short but moving Life of St. Paul first in the list. It was Jerome's own ideal, an ideal that upstages the famous Antony.
There is a good deal of uncertainty abroad as to which monk it was who first came to live in the desert ... Yet Athanasius, who buried the body of his master, and Macerius, both of them Antony's disciples, now affirm that a certain Paul of Thebes was the first to enter on the road. This is my own judgment, not so much from the facts as from conviction.
Paul lived in the lower Thebaid of Egypt of a wealth family. He was fifteen when his parents died; an older sister had married and left the household. When the persecutions of Decius and Valerian reached Egypt, young Paul fled to his sister's estate, but escaped to the mountains when his sister's husband was about to denounce him. There Paul discovered a great cave, an abandoned mint, with plenty of water and palm trees nearby to supply food and clothing. There Paul was to live the rest of his hundred and thirteen years.
Jerome tells no more about Paul's daily life, except to note that he "lived the life of heaven upon earth." Instead, the story shifts to Paul's contemporary, Antony himself, who upon hearing of a famous desert hermit sets out to visit him. By now Antony is ninety years old, and ill-provisioned to travel alone under the burning desert sun. He encounters two fabulous beasts. (Jerome insets a couple of quotations from Virgil's Aeneid, revealing his continuing nemesis, which he was to confess as a temptation to prefer Cicero to Christ). When at last Antony finds Paul, the noise of the former's entrance to the cave sets Paul to barricade himself deeper within.
Antony falls to his knees, imploring Paul. "I know that I am not worthy to behold you: nevertheless, unless I see you, I will not go. ... I have sought and I have found; I knock that it may be opened to me. But if I do not prevail, here shall I die before your door. Assuredly you will bury my corpse."
Paul opens, jesting aloud that someone coming intent upon injuring him would not have entreated him so. They embrace and begin conversing. It is the first person Paul has seen in nearly a hundred years. He asks in a now famous saying exemplifying the Desert Fathers:
Tell me, I pray, how fares the human race: if new roofs be risen in the ancient cities, whose empire it is that now holds sway in the world, if any still survive, snared in the error of demons.
Paul is described as having a shaggy white head, limbs worn out with age. The pair partakes of a miraculous loaf of bread, Paul quipping that for sixty years he has only been given half a loaf daily. They quibble over who should break bread -- guest or host -- and compromise by tugging each on an end, accepting what befalls them. They drink from the spring, and pass the night in vigil.
In the morning, Paul pronounces Antony's coming auspicious, and requests of him a clock to cover his soon-to-be corpse. Paul specifically asks for the cloak Athanasius gave to Antony. (Do we see a hint of the preeminence Jerome wants to assign to Paul, even over the word of Athanasius?) Of course, Paul is accustomed to woven palm leaves as his covering and cares nothing for a tunic, seeking only to spare Antony the sight of Paul's dying. Antony returns to his dwelling, exhausted and weak. He confesses to his disciples, "Woe is me that falsely bear the name of monk. I have seen Elias, John in the desert, indeed Paul in heaven." Antony takes the treasured cloak and rushea out, refusing the pleas of his disciples for information. "There is a time to speak, and a time to be silent," he insists.
On the second day of his journey back to Paul's cave, three hours before his destination, Antony looks up to witness angels, prophets, and apostles with Paul the hermit, ascending the heights of heaven, Paul brilliant as snow. Antony falls to his face, weeping. Now he knows that Paul had sent him away. Laments Antony, "So late to be known, so swift to depart."
When Antony reached the cave, he found the body of Paul kneeling as in prayer, arms outstretched. He wrapped the body in the precious cloak and carried it outside, realizing, however, that he had no spade or other tool to dig the grave. Two lions appear (the lion was to become Jerome's favorite representation). The lions roar their grief and set to pawing out a grave, then licking Antony's hands for approval. Then Antony lay the body to rest, claiming for himself not the cloak of Athanasius but the modest woven tunic of palm leaves worn by Paul.
In this short biography, Jerome has restored the simplicity of the desert father to its essential component: the solitude of the hermit, in communion with God and his surroundings, wanting nothing.