“In Thebais, the birthday of St. Paul, the first hermit, who lived alone in the desert from the sixteenth to the one hundred and thirteenth year of his age. His soul was seen by St. Anthony carried by angels among the choirs of apostles and prophets. His feast is celebrated on the 15th of this month.”
That is the description on the 10th of January in the old Roman Martyrology.
On the 15th it says:
“St. Paul, the first hermit, who was carried to the home of the blessed on the tenth of this month.”
St. Jerome’s Life of Paul the First Hermit provided much of what is known of the man, and various subsequent accounts have offered further amplification. According to them, Paul was young Christian man of wealth and education in Upper Egypt, when he was orphaned at the age of fifteen, during the persecutions of Christians under Valerian and Decius. Fearing that he would not be able to withstand the tortures inflicted on Christians to make them apostatize, he moved his abode to the desert, trusting God to supply his needs. There he stayed for the next ninety years.
In the Middle Ages, a favorite part of Paul's story pointed to the certain temptations of the flesh and the painful way that such temptations can be overcome. As recounted in The Gold Legend, Paul fled to the desert when he saw two Christian men “cruelly tormented.” The first was covered in honey and allowed to be bitten by wasps and flies, while the other was ordered to be put “… in a right soft bed between two sheets, among flowers and delectable roses and herbs sweet smelling, and therein was he bound so that he might not move." The judge then sent a harlot “to him alone for to touch his members and his body, to move to lechery. Finally, when the voluptuosity of his flesh surmounted him, and he might not defend himself nor his members, he bit off a piece of his tongue and spit it in her visage, which always enticed him to lechery by touching and by kissings, and so he voided the temptation fleshly, and the ribald also, and deserved to have laud and victory.”
Saint Anthony Abbot makes his appearance here as well.
Saint Anthony, who thought himself a pretty hot stuff as hermits go, learned that there was one greater and holier than himself, and set out (at the advanced age of 90) to visit Paul, who “has served God in solitude and penance for ninety years.” After receiving directions from a centaur (above), a satyr, and a she-wolf, he found the cave which served for Paul’s hermitage. They had long conversations together, and then Paul said that Anthony was destined to bury his body, and desired him to bring the mantle given Anthony by the holy bishop Athanasius, to be used as his shroud. The abbot made his arduous way home, found the mantle, and once again set out to find Paul in the desert. Before he arrived at the cell, he saw a vision of the shining soul of the venerable hermit ascending into heaven surrounded by angels, prophets, and apostles, and knew that the good man was dead. Since he had only brought the mantle as a winding sheet, but nothing with which to dig a grave, two lions came and dug out a hole just large enough to contain the corpse. Anthony then took Paul’s coat and wore it with great reverence.
St. Jerome ends his tale by contrasting the humble and simple life of Paul with the wealthy, materialistic citizens of his own day: “… poor though he was, Paradise is open to him; you with all your gold will be received into Gehenna.”
The cookies called HERMITS would be a good treat today, especially if it is a dark and dreary and cold day. There are lots of different recipes for these cookies – pick your favorite. Here’s one of mine (because it uses sour milk):
Preheat the oven to 350° F.
Grease cookie sheets.
Dissolve ½ teaspoon of baking soda in ½ cup of sour milk or buttermilk.
In a large bowl, cream together 1-½ cups of dark brown sugar with ½ cup of butter or shortening. Drop in 2 eggs, one at a time, and beat until light after each addition.
In another bowl, sift together 3 cups of flour, 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, and ½ teaspoon EACH of ground cloves and ground nutmeg. Stir in 1-½ cups of raisins and 1 cup of chopped nuts. Add flour mixture to the batter alternately with the milk until well blended.
Drop by rounded teaspoons onto greased cookie sheets. [A sprinkle of white sugar on each is optional]. Bake for 10 to15 minutes. Remove immediately from sheet and allow to cool on a baking rack.
Makes an awful lot of cookies, about 4 dozen or so.
“St. Paul receiving his daily provision from God” from Pictorial Lives of the Saints by John Gilmary Shea (1889)
Jean de Limbourg. “St. Paul sees a Christian tempted”. The Belles Heures of Jean, Duc de Berry (c1405). Paul turns away in horror at the cruel torment inflicted on the young man. Look closely, and you can see the brave young Christian spit his piece of tongue in the harlot’s face. (the white spot in the center is from the original)
Jean de Limbourg. “St. Anthony directed by a Centaur”. The Belles Heures of Jean, Duc de Berry (c1405). The centaur points to the Red Sea (really red, so you know what it is), beyond which St. Paul sits reading beside a sarcophagus, unaware that a really big centipede is crawling his way.