Wednesday, January 15, 2020

St Paul the First Hermit

On the calendars of the Extraordinary Form and of the Byzantine Rite, today is the feast of St Paul the First Hermit, an Egyptian anchorite whose life was written by St Jerome around the year 375AD, only 15-20 years after Paul’s death at the age of 113. As recounted by Jerome, Paul was from the city of Thebes (in the Byzantine tradition, he is called “Paul the Theban”), and at the age of 16, on the death of his parents, received a large inheritance. The persecution of Christians under the Emperors Decius (249-51) and Valerian (253-60) was then raging, (Jerome gives particularly awful examples of its ferocity in the deaths of two unnamed martyrs); Paul’s sister had recently married, and her husband thought to get ahold of the inheritance by betraying his young brother-in-law to the authorities.

St Paul the First Hermit, by Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652), 1640, now in the Prado Museum in Madrid. This representation of the Saint is very similar to that of St Jerome in the Counter-Reformation period, but he is distinguished from the latter by his garment of palm branches, where Jerome traditionally wears the red robes of a cardinal. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
Paul therefore fled into the desert, where he happened upon a cave at the foot of a rocky mountain; to this day, there is a Coptic monastery named for him in the eastern desert of Egypt on the site of this cave, roughly 100 miles south-east of Cairo, and 8 miles from the Red Sea. St Jerome says that the cave was “like a large hall, open to the sky, but shaded by the wide-spread branches of an ancient palm”, and contained within itself a stream of water. Paul immediately “fell in love with the dwelling place, as if it were a gift offered to him by God”, and thus remained there for the rest of his life in prayer and solitude, the palm tree being the only source of both his food and clothing. Jerome spent a great deal of time among monks and anchorites in different parts of the Mediterranean world, and for the sake of those who find it incredible that a man might live so, calls “Jesus and his holy angels to witness” that he had personally known monks in Syria who lived in similarly austere conditions.

The Monastery of St Paul (Image by LorisRomito from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)
The largest part of the book (chapters 6-16) is taken up with the meeting between Paul and St Anthony the Abbot, whom the East traditionally calls “St Anthony the Great.” This took place when the former was very close to the end of his life, and the latter 90 years old. In the West, St Paul’s feast was formerly kept on January 10, exactly one week before Anthony’s, to symbolize that he preceded Anthony in the monastic life; at the Tridentine reform, it was moved out of the octave of the Epiphany to its Byzantine date.

The thought once came to Anthony that there was no monk in the desert more perfect than himself, but it was revealed to him in a dream that there was indeed such a one, and that he must go to visit him. Although neither the man’s name or dwelling place was revealed along with this information, Anthony at once set out to find him, guided on his way first by a centaur, which pointed the way to the man of God, and then by a satyr. Jerome states that the first of these may have been one of the wild creatures that dwell in the desert, or a devil in disguise sent to terrify Anthony (who had many similar visions in his long career), brought to heel, as it were, by the sign of the Cross which the Saint made over himself. The satyr, however, actually spoke to Anthony, and confessed that the gentiles in their error worshipped creatures like himself, but that he was a mortal, and, speaking on behalf of his people, said “We pray you on our behalf to entreat the favor of your Lord and ours, who, we have learned, came to save the world.”

At last, he was led to the cave by a she-wolf, and upon finally meeting Paul, they greeted each other by name, though they had never met before. As they conversed, there arrived a crow which for many decades had been wont to bring Paul half a loaf of bread each day, this time carrying a full loaf, at which Paul exclaimed, “See, the Lord, truly loving, truly merciful, has sent us a meal. For the last sixty years I have always received half a loaf: but at your coming Christ has doubled his soldier’s rations.” This episode is referred to in the Byzantine Canon for his feast day: “Nourished by heavenly bread, as once was Elias, though the ministry of a crow, o Father, you fled the Jezabel of the senses under the protection of Christ.”

The Isenheim Altarpiece, by Matthias Grünewald (ca. 1470-1528), ca. 1515. Left panel, the Visit of St Anthony to St Paul; right panel, the Temptation of St Anthony, based on chapters 8 and 9 of St Athanasius’Life of St Anthony, which give vivid descriptions of the demonic attacks which St Anthony suffered, and have inspired many rather wild artistic depictions. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
Paul then revealed to Anthony that he knew that his time to die was very near, and sent him back to his own place to fetch a cloak which he had received from St Athanasius, which he was to bring back and use to bury Paul’s body. Weeping, Anthony kissed him goodbye, and returned to his monastery to fetch the cloak; when the two disciples who regularly attended him asked him where he had been for the previous several days, Anthony replied, “Woe to me a sinner, who falsely bear the name of monk. I have seen Elias, I have seen John in the desert, and truly, I have seen Paul in Paradise.” This last refers to the words of Paul’s namesake the Apostle, who was “caught up into paradise, and heard secret words, which it is not granted to man to utter”, (2 Cor. 12, 4), but also to Anthony, who, when pressed to explain his meaning, simply replied, “There is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” (Ecc. 3, 7)

While returning with the cloak, however, Anthony beheld at a distance Paul’s soul ascending to heaven, at which he prostrated himself and lamented his friend’s departure. On reaching the cave, he found Paul kneeling upright in an attitude of prayer, and at first thinking him to be somehow alive, knelt down next to him to join him, only to realize that “even the Saint’s dead body, in the office of its posture, was praying to God unto whom all things live.” [1] He therefore brought the body out for burial, “singing hymns and psalms in accordance with Christian tradition” [2], but had no shovel with which to dig a grave. This service was provided by two lions who came out of the desert, dug the grave with their claws, and then would not depart until they had received Anthony’s blessing. When he departed from the place, Anthony took with him the cloak which Paul had woven for himself of palm leaves, and wore it each year on Easter and Pentecost.

A capital of the abbey of St Mary Magdalene in Vézelay, France, showing the burial of St Paul, a modern (i.e. 19th-century) restoration by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, based on an original fragment now in the museum of Vézelay. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
In the official commentary on the post-Conciliar reform of the calendar of Saints, published in 1969 by the Vatican Polyglot Press, the entry for St Paul states that his feast “is left to particular calendars, for many difficulties are found in regard to the historical character of (his) life written by St Jerome.” I am certain that this refers not just to the more fantastic elements of the story such the centaur and the satyr, but to the miraculous element in general, which the modern reform downplays or eliminates from the cult of the Saints at almost every turn. [3] This strikes me as a very jejune and drearily modern way of thinking. There is nothing about the miracles reported by Jerome, such as those of the crow and the lions, or the mutual recognition between the two Saints at their first meeting, that particularly stretches the credulity of anyone who believes in the reality of miracles and the providence of a loving God.

As to the centaur and the satyr, even if we discount his supposition that the former may have been some kind of supernatural apparition, St Jerome was certainly not the only educated man in antiquity who believed in such things. Pliny the Elder, for example, writes in his Natural History (6.3), “Claudius Caesar writes that a hippo-centaur was born in Thessaly and died the same day; and in his reign we actually saw one that was brought here for him from Egypt preserved in honey.” He also names the “satyrs” (5.8) as one of the many tribes to be found in Africa; his description of them is far from the strangest given in that chapter. Is it really so difficult to suppose that Jerome’s account of the satyr as a “little man with hooked snout, horned forehead, and extremities like goats’ feet” is merely a pre-scientific exaggeration, received second-hand, of a man of very small stature and unusual appearance? And more to the point, why should the “failures” of a man of that era in the field of natural science, which were the failures of the era, and not of the man, cause us to discount his ability and trustworthiness as a biographer of his fellow men?

Writing about some rather radical proposals made in the 19th century for reforming the Saints’ lives in the breviary, Fr. Pierre Batiffol offers the following quotation from his esteemed contemporary, the liturgist Dom Alexandre Grospellier: “It is, in my opinion, to form an erroneous idea of the breviary to require in it the scientific strictness of a collection of critical hagiography. Certain legends have become the inheritance of Christian tradition, not by virtue of their historical certitude, but because of their expression of lively and fervent piety in regard to the saints: they have influenced the way of thinking, feeling and praying, on the part of our forefathers, and they come to us charged with a spiritual life which is indeed sometimes characterized by simplicity, but often full of power, and almost always able to touch the heart. These legends, therefore, belong to the history of the Church just in the same way as legendary lays and ballads belong to the history of nations. It would be something like vandalism to banish them altogether from the book of public prayer, even as it would be vandalism to break the painted windows of cathedrals or tear the canvases of early masters, on the ground that the representations in those windows or pictures are not accurate historical documents like a charter or a monumental inscription.” (History of the Roman Breviary, p. 314 of the English edition published by Longman, Green and Co., 1912; footnote 3, citing Dom Alexandre Grospellier, De l’état actuel des livres liturgiques et de leur revision (Rome, 1911), p. 34.)

[1] The Latin words here translated as “even the Saint’s dead body, in the office of its posture, was praying to God unto whom all things live”, are “etiam cadaver sancti Deum, cui omnia vivunt, officio gestus precaretur.” It is tempting to think this passage, the first occurrence in Latin Christian literature of the phrase “cui omnia vivunt”, may have inspired the composition of the invitatory for the Office of the Dead, “Regem, cui omnia vivunt, venite, adoremus.”

[2] This passage is an important witness to the fact that by the mid-4th century, when Jerome was very young, and Paul and Anthony very old, there was already some kind of funeral service distinct from the rest of the Church’s prayers.

[3] To give only one of countless possible examples, the original collect of St Francis Xavier used to begin “O God, who didst will by the preaching and miracles of blessed Francis, to add the nations of the Indies to thy Church...”; as a Saint canonized after Trent, this was the only collect of him that ever existed. In the Novus Ordo, it now begins “O God, who by the preaching of the blessed Francis, did acquire many peoples to Thyself...”

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