20 March 2009

'His Soul Was Perfect Before God'—Holy Abba Paul the Simple


Today, 7 March on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of Holy Abba Paul the Simple (c. 339), disciple of St Anthony the Great. His story is told in the De Vitis Patrum of Palladius of Helenopolis (translated from a Syriac text by E.A. Wallis Budge in The Paradise of the Holy Fathers, Vol. I [Blanco, TX: New Sarov, 1994], pp. 125-8), as well as the Historia Monachorum in Aegypto (translated by Norman Russell in The Lives of the Desert Fathers [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1980], p. 115). As the latter account is by far the briefer, I shall quote it in full, merely supplementing it with a few passages from Palladius:

XXIV On Paul

1. There was a disciple of Anthony’s called Paul, who was surnamed ‘the Simple’.

Here, Palladius points out that he ‘was more simple and innocent in nature than are [usually] the children of men’ (Budge, p. 125).

He caught his wife in the very act of adultery, and without saying a word to anyone set off into the desert to find Antony.

Palladius adds that when he finds them, ‘he laughed chastely, and answered and said, “It is good, it is good, truly she is not accounted mine by me. By Jesus, henceforth I will not take her again. Get thee gone, and behold she is thine, she and her children: and as for me, I will go and become a monk”’ (Budge, p. 125).

And falling at his [St Antony’s] knees, he begged him to let him life with him because he wished to be saved. Antony said to him, ‘You can be saved if you have obedience; whatever I tell you, that is what you will do.’ Paul replied, ‘I shall do everything you command.’ 2. To test his inward disposition Antony said to him, ‘Stand on this spot and pray while I go in and fetch some work for you to do.’ He went into the cave and watched Paul through the window. The latter remained motionless on that spot the whole week, roasting in the sun.

3. At the end of the week he came out and said to him, ‘Come and have something to eat.’

At this point, Palladius tells us that St Anthony was worried that St Paul would die, and thus endanger St Anthony’s soul (Budge, p. 126)!

When he had prepared the table and set out the food, he said, ‘Sit down and do not eat until the evening; simply keep watch over the dishes.’ 4. When it was evening and Paul had still not eaten, Antony said to him, ‘Get up and pray and then lie down and sleep.’ Leaving the table, Paul did as he was told. At midnight Antony woke him up for prayer and prolonged the prayers until the ninth hour of the day. He then set the table and again ordered him to eat. 5. As Paul was about to take his third morsel of bread, Antony commanded him to get up without touching any water, and sent him out to wander in the desert, saying to him, ‘Come back after three days.’

The story of the first meal is very much softer (as is St Anthony’s demeanor in general) in Palladius’s account. He tells us that St Anthony, seeing that St Paul ‘was neither angry nor wrathful, and that he made no complaint’, became merciful and offered him some bread (Budge, pp. 126-7). St Paul’s response, ‘As it pleaseth thee, father’, is said to have ‘especially shamed Mâr Anthony’ (Budge, p. 127). Having allowed him a loaf, St Anthony tells him that as he is a monk, one is enough for him, to which St Paul replies, ‘I also have had enough, for I also seek to become a monk’ (Budge, p. 127).

6. After he had returned, some brothers came to visit Antony. Paul watched the father to see what tasks he would set him. Antony said to him, ‘Serve the brethren in silence and do not taste anything until the brethren have resumed their journey.’ 7. When they had stayed a full three weeks without Paul’s haven eaten anything, the brethren asked him why he kept silent. When he did not reply, Antony said to him, ‘Why are you silent? Speak to the brothers.’ And he spoke to them.

8. Another time, when he had brought Antony a jar of honey, the father said, ‘Break the jar and pour out the honey.’ He did so. Then he said to him, ‘Gather up the honey again with a spoon without collecting any dirt with it.’ 9. And again, he ordered him to draw water the whole day. He taught him to weave baskets, and some days later ordered him to undo them all. He unstitched his cloak and ordered him to sew it up again. Again he unstitched it and again Paul sewed it up.

Palladius has a paragraph that I think worthwhile to insert in full here:

And when Anthony saw that the old man was carrying out with gladness a rule of life similar unto his own in every respect, he said unto him, ‘If thou art able to bear every day passed in this wise, then stay with me.’ Paul said unto him, ‘Although I know nothing else, yet the things which I do know I can perform easily’; and on another day Anthony said unto him, ‘Behold, thou hast become a monk.’ And a few months afterward when Anthony saw that his soul was perfect before God, and that he was simple beyond measure, and that Divine Grace was helping him, he built him a cell at a distance of about three or four miles away, and said unto him, ‘Behold, thou art a monk, and henceforth thou must live by thyself so that thou mayest receive the temptation of devils.’ Now when Paul had lived by himself for a year, the gift of healing and of casting out devils was given unto him. (Budge, p. 127)

And now, back to the Historia (Russell, p. 115):

10. And the disciple acquired such absolute obedience that God gave him the grace to drive out demons. Indeed, those demons which Antony was unable to exorcise he sent to Paul, who drove them out instantly.

Finally, Palladius concludes his account with a longish narrative of precisely one such exorcism, which ends as follows:

[St Paul prays, then . . . ] And whilst these words were yet in his mouth the devil cried out by reasson of his tribulation, and said, ‘By Hercules, by whom am I ruled, by Hercules, I am being persecuted with violence, for the simplicity of Paul pursueth me; whither shall I go?’ Paul saith unto him, ‘To the uttermost depths of the abyss’; and straightway the devil went forth from the man, and he transformed himself and became like unto mighty dragon seventy cubits long, and he wriggled along the ground and in this wise went down to the Red Sea, that might be fulfilled that which is written, Perfect faith removeth mountains’ (Matt. 17:20). This is the triumph of Paul, who was called the ‘Simple’ by the whole brotherhood. (Budge, p. 128)

There are two other stories about St Paul the Simple. One is a brief story further illustrating St Paul’s simplicity and obedience, interpolated into Rufinus’s Latin translation of the Historia Monachorum in Aegypto (Russell, p. 155).

The other is the single apophthegm associated with St Paul in the Gerontikon (Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, rev. ed. [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1984], pp. 205-7). It tells of St Paul visiting a coenobium and watching the brethren enter the church for the synaxis, ‘for he had received the grace from the Lord of seeing the state of each one’s soul, just as we see their faces’ (Ward, p. 205). While most of the monks seem to have entered in a state of grace, St Paul saw that one of them was dark and surrounded by demons who led him, while his guardian angel followed, in mourning, at a distance. The simple elder left the church and sat weeping outside in sorrow for what he had seen.

But at the end of the synaxis, the holy Abba Paul saw the same brother come out completely transformed, shining with light and with his angel rejoicing. According to the Gerontikon (Ward, p. 206):

Then Paul leaped for joy and began to cry out, blessing God, ‘O the ineffable loving-kindness and goodness of God!’ and he went running up to an elevated place and in a powerful voice he said, ‘Come, see the works of the Lord, how terrible they are and worthy of our wonder! Come and see him who wills that all men should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth! Come, let us bow down and thorw ourselves at his feet and let us say, “Only You can take sins away!”’

Then all of the other monks gathered round and St Paul insisted that the regenerated brother tell them what had happened to him. He said (Ward, p. 206-7):

Then the man whom Paul pointed out told all that had happened to him in front of everyone, saying, ‘I am a sinful man; I have lived in fornication for a long time, right up to the present moment; when I went into the holy church of God, I heard the holy prophet Isaiah being read, or rather, God speaking through him: “Wash you, make you clean, take away the evil from your hearts, learn to do good before mine eyes. Even though your sins are as scarlet I will make them white like snow. And if you will, and if you listen to me, you shall eat the good things of the earth” (cf. Is. 1:16-19). And I’, he continued, ‘the fornicator, am filled with compunction in my heart because of this word of the prophet and I groan within myself, saying to God, “God, who came into the world to save sinners, that which You now proclaim by the mouth of Your prophet, fulfil in me who am a sinner and an unworthy man.” From now on, I give my word, I affirm and promise in my heart that I will not sin any more, but I renounce all unrighteousness and I will serve You henceforth with a pure conscience. Today, O Master, from this time forward, receive me, as I repent and throw myself at Your feet, desiring in future to abstain from every fault.’ He continued, ‘With these promises, I came out of the church, sure in my soul that I would no longer commit any evil before God.’ At these words they all with one voice cried out to God, ‘How manifold are thy works, Lord, in wisdom hasst thou made them all’ (Ps. 104:24). So, as Christians, having learnt from the holy Scriptures and from holy revelations, let us know the great goodness of God for those who sincerely take refuge in him and who correct their past faults, by repentance, and let us not despair of our salvation. In truth, as it was proclaimed by the prophet Isaiah, God washes those who are dirty with sin, whitens them as wool and as snow and bestows on them the good things of the heavenly Jerusalem on them; just as, in the prophet Ezekiel, God has sworn by an oath, to satisfy us and not to let us be lost. ‘For I have now pleasure in the death of anyone says the Lord God; so turn, and live’ (Ezek. 18:32).

The icon above shows the holy Abba Paul the Simple on the left, with, from left to right, St Barsanuphius of Tver, Ss Guri and German of Kazan, and the Holy Evdokia.

2 comments:

Gabriel said...

Thank you for compiling this. Information on this saint is hard to come by online.

aaronandbrighid said...

I'm glad to know someone appreciated it. This one took some real work!