28 January 2009

'The First Monks Had Seen the Endurance of the Martyrs'—St Paul of Thebes

Today, 15 January on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Paul of Thebes, ‘traditionally the first Christian hermit’ (David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 5th ed. [Oxford: Oxford U, 2004], p. 416). St Paul of Thebes was, according to St Jerome, a wealthy and highly educated young man and a Christian (St Jerome, ‘Life of Paul of Thebes’, Early Christian Lives, trans. and ed. Carolinne White [London: Penguin, 1998], pp. 76-7; another translation is available here on the CCEL site). He withdrew into the desert during the Decian persecution in the middle of the 3rd century as a result, first, of his brother-in-law’s determination to disinherit him, and second, of his desire to imitate the heroism of the early martyrs (see the Prologue). In this way, St Paul provides a clear illustration of the recognised impetal forces behind early monasticism in Egypt (see Douglas Burton-Christie’s discussion of these forces in The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism [NY: Oxford U, 1997], pp. 41-3), and St Jerome’s account of St Paul’s exposure to the persecutions (pp. 76-7) is reminiscent of a line Burton-Christie quotes from the 'Bohairic Life' of St Pachomius: ‘. . . [F]or those who were the first monks had seen the endurance of the martyrs’(Armand Veilleux, trans. and ed., Pachomian Koinonia, Vol. I [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1980], p. 24).

Thus motivated, St Paul then spent ninety years living in a cave with an opening at the top covered by the branches of a palm tree. According to St Jerome, ‘Paul fell in love with this dwelling as if it had been offered to him by God, and spent the rest of his life there in prayer and solitude’ (p. 77). The palm tree supplied all his wants, and St Jerome can tell us nothing else of St Paul’s life for all of those ninety years. For Dr White, this is one point in favour of the historicity of the Life (p. 24), which the Jesuit scholar, William Harmless, following Owen Chadwick, has suggested is a mere ‘fabrication’ (Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism [Oxford: Oxford U, 2004], pp. 98, 105).

It is at this point that the man responsible for making St Paul known to the Church, St Anthony the Great, enters the picture. In the middle of the night, it was revealed to him that there was a monk who was more perfect than he, and that he must go and find him. At dawn he set out, he knew not where, and was eventually given directions by a centaur (he subsequently met a satyr as well—this part of the story may require its own post someday, but suffice to say here that I take these strange creatures as another indicator that St Jerome has not merely ‘fabricated’ the story). Finally, St Anthony followed a wolf into the cave where the venerable anchorite lived, and as White puts it, ‘The meeting between the two hermits is both touching and gently amusing’ (p. 73). According to St Jerome:

At last, through the terrifying darkness of the night which made it impossible to see anything he discerned a light in the distance. As he quickened his pace in his eagerness, he bumped his foot against a stone, making a noise. When the blessed Paul heard this noise he closed and bolted a door that had been open. Then Antony fell down in front of this door and continued to beg to be allowed in until it was the sixth hour of the day or even later, saying, ‘You know who I am, where I come from and why I have come. I know that I do not deserve to see you but I will not go away unless I do. Why do you, who welcome animals, drive a person away? I have sought you and I have found you: I knock that it may be opened to me. If I do not get what I want, I shall die here in front of your door—and I trust you will bury my body when I am dead.’ . . . Then Paul smiled and unbolted the door. When it was open, they embraced each other, and greeting each other by name, they joined in giving thanks to the Lord. (pp. 79-80)

Having been so long in solitude, St Paul asks, ‘. . . [T]ell me, I beg you, how the human race is getting on. Are new buildings rising up in the old cities? What government rules the world? Are there still some people alive who are in the grip of the demons’ error?’ (St Jerome, p. 80). The two monks were brought some bread by a raven, and St Paul announced that he was not long for this world (being aged 113 years). He asked St Anthony to go and get the cloak he had received from St Athanasius to wrap his body in. On his way back to the cave, St Anthony ‘saw Paul among the hosts of angels, among the choirs of prophets and apostles, shining with a dazzling whiteness and ascending on high’ (St Jerome, p. 82). He was assisted by two lions in burying the remains of the holy man, and taking the tunic that St Paul ‘had woven for himself out of palm leaves like a wicker basket’, returned to the monastery and told the tale (St Jerome, p. 83).

White points out that the Life of Paul of Thebes is yet another illustration of St Jerome’s ‘inability to write without literary allusions even when he is aiming for a simple style’ (p. 74), and I count three quotations from Virgil in her notes. Included among these is one that stuck out in my mind the very first time I read the Aeneid (Aeneid III.57; Virgil, The Aeneid, trans. Robert Fitzgerald [NY: Random House, 1983], p. 67; qtd. in St Jerome, p. 77):

. . . To what extremes
Will you not drive the hearts of men, accurst
Hunger for gold!

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