Saint of the Day – 15 January – St Paul the Hermit – also known as Paul of Thebes – The First Hermit – (c 227 in the Thebaid region of Egypt-c 342) is regarded as the first Christian hermit, who lived alone in the desert from his sixteenth to the one hundred and thirteenth year of his life. Attributes – two lions, palm tree, raven. Patronage – San Pablo (Philippines). He is not to be confused with Paul the Simple, who was a disciple of Anthony the Great.
St Paul’s story is told in the book Life of Saint Paul the First Hermit (Vitae Patrum (Vita Pauli primi eremitae) was composed in Latin by Saint Jerome, probably in 375–376.
A Christian from his youth, Paul was orphaned at age 15. In 250 the persecution by Decius forced him into hiding, first at a friend’s house and then, fearing exposure, to a cave in the Egyptian desert. He had planned to return home after things quieted down but the peaceful solitude of the desert seduced him to stay. A palm tree and a spring near his cave provided him food, clothing and water until he turned 43. After that time, as it had happened for Elias, a raven brought him half a loaf of bread each day.
In Paul’s 90th year in the desert his presence was revealed to St Anthony, who immediately went to find him. Anthony met Paul in his cave when the latter was aged 113 and the two hermits became friends overnight. They shared a whole loaf of bread brought by the raven, discussed world events and prayed. Anthony thought he had found a companion but Paul knew that God had sent Anthony to help him die. The biography described their meeting:
Blessed Paul said to Anthony: “For a long time now, I have known that you dwelled in these regions. And for a long time God had promised you to me for a companion. Since my hour of eternal sleep has arrived and because I have always desired ‘to be dissolved and to be with Christ’ (see Philippians 1:23), having ‘finished the course, . . . a crown of justice’ (see 2 Timothy 4:7–8) remains for me. You have been sent by God to bury my miserable body, rather to return earth to earth.”
Anthony listened to these words with tears and groans, begging Paul not to leave him behind but to accept him as a companion on that journey. Paul answered: “You ought not seek your own interests but those of another. It is indeed profitable for you to cast off the burden of the flesh to follow the Lamb but it is also profitable for the rest of your brethren that they may be the more instructed by your example. I beg of you, hasten, if is not too much to ask and bring back the cloak which Athanasius the bishop gave you, to wrap about my wretched body.” Now, blessed Paul made this request, not because he cared at all whether or not his body decayed covered up or naked, since for a long time now he had been wearing garments woven from palm leaves but because he wanted to spare Anthony the grief of witnessing his death.
Anthony went to get the cloak. When he returned he found Paul kneeling with arms outstretched but already dead. Two lions dug Paul’s grave and Anthony buried him. But he kept Paul’s outer garment woven from palm leaves, which he treasured from that time and which he always wore on the great feast days of Easter and Pentecost.
St Paul’s Monastery (Deir Mar Boulos) is traditionally believed to be on the site of the cave where the saint lived and where his remains are kept. The monastery is located in the eastern desert mountains of Egypt near the Red Sea. The Cave Church of St Paul marks the spot where St Anthony, “the Father of Monasticism” and St Paul, “the First Hermit”, are believed to have met.
St Paul is also the patron saint of the Diocese of San Pablo (Philippines) and is the titular of the Cathedral of the said Diocese in San Pablo, Laguna, Philippines. The Order of Saint Paul the First Hermit was founded in Hungary in his honour in the 13th century. He is usually represented with a palm tree, two lions and a raven.