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Our Fathers the Anchorites by H.H. Pope Shenouda III

 

 The Life of our Holy Father:

St.  Paul the First Anchorite

By Saint Jerome.

         It has been a subject of widespread and frequent discussion of who was the first monk to give the first example of a hermits life.  For some go back to the times of holy men such as Elijah and John who seem to have been more than monks and afterwards begun to prophesize before His birth.  Others say it was Anthony who was the originator of this fashion of life, which is partly true.  Amathas and Macarius, two of Anthonys disciples who laid their master into the grave, affirm that a certain Paul of Thebes was the leader in the movement, though not the first time to bear the name, assert it even at the present day and this opinion of Amathas and Macarius has my approval also.  Some, as they think, have circulated stories saying things such as he was a man living in an underground cave with flowing hair down to his feet, and invented many incredible tales which would be useless to detail.  Both Greek and Roman writers handed down careful accounts of Anthony.  I am determined to write a short history of Pauls early and latter days.  In this story, many questions will be answered such as: what Pauls life was like and what snares of Satan he experienced.

          During the persecutions of Decius and Valerian, when Cornelius in Rome and Cyprian in Carthage shed their blood in blessed martyrdom, many churches in Egypt and the Thebaid were laid to waste by the fury of the storm.   At that time, the Christians would often pray that the sword might press them for the name of Christ.   But the desire of the crafty enemy was to slay the soul, not the body, and this he did by searching diligently for slow but deadly tortures.  In the words of Cyprian himself who suffered at his hands: They long for death, and dying is denied them We give two illustrations, both especially noteworthy, to make the cruelty of the enemy better known.

    A martyr, steadfast in faith, who stood fast as conqueror amidst the racks and burning plates, was ordered by him to be smeared with honey and to be made to lie under a blazing sun with his hands tied behind his back.  He had already surmounted the heat of the frying pan and been beaten by the stings of the flies.  Another who was in the bloom of his youth was taken by his command to some delightful gardens.  Among the gardens were white lilies and blushing roses, close to the murmuring stream.   Above was a soft whisper of the wind playing among the leaves of the trees; the martyr was laid upon a deep luxurious feather bed, bound with chains of sweet garlands to prevent his escape.  When all bad had left him, a harlot of great beauty drew and began with sensual embrace to throw her arms around his neck.  The woman thought once the lusts of the flesh were roused, she might accomplish her licentious purpose.  What to do, and where to turn, the soldier of Christ knew not.  Unconquered by tortures he was being overcome by pleasure.  At last with an inspiration form heaven he bit off the end of his tongue and spat it in her face as she kissed him.  Hence the intense pain that followed subdued the sensations of lust. 

       While such enormities were being perpetrated in the lower part of the Thebaid, the death of both parents of Paul left him heir to a great fortune in the Lower Thebaid: his sister was already married, and Paul was about sixteen years old.  Paul was highly skilled in both Greek and Egyptian learning, gifted with a gentle disposition and a deep love for God.  Amid the thunders of persecution, Paul retired to a house at a considerable distance and in a more secluded spot.  But to what crime does not the hateful thirst for gold impel the human hearts? Pauls brotherin-law conceived the thought of betraying the youth whom it was his duty to conceal.  Neither his wifes tears that so often prevailed, nor the bond of blood, nor the all-seeing eye of God above him, could turn the traitor from his wickedness.  He came, he was urgent, and he acted with cruelty while seeming only to press the claims of affection.

     The young man had the grace to understand this, and conforming his will to the necessity, fled to the mountain wilds, there to wait while the persecution ran its course.  Little by little he made his way, sometimes turning back and again returning, to make his way into the desert.  At length he found a rocky mountain, at the foot of which, closed by a stone, was a cave of enormous size.  He removed the stone and saw within a large hall, open to the sky, but shaded by the widespread branches of an ancient palm.  The palm tree, however, did not conceal a fountain of clear shining water, the waters no sooner gushed forth a stream which was swallowed up in a small opening of the habitable places, in which were seen, now rough with rust, hammers for stamping coins.  The place, Egyptian writers relate, had a secret mint at the time of Anthonys union with Cleopatra.

     Paul regarded his home as a gift from God; he fell in love with it, and lived the rest his life through prayer and solitude.  The palm tree provided him with food and clothing.  No one may believe this is possible; I call to witness Jesus and His holy angels that I have seen and still see in that part of the desert which lies betweens Syria and Saracens country, monks of whom one was shut up for thirty years and lived on barely bread and muddy water.   These things will seem incredible to those who do not believe that all things are possible to him who believes.

      St. Paul had already lived the life of heaven on earth for a hundred and thirteen years, and Anthony at the age of ninety was dwelling in another place of solitude when the thought occurred to him, that no monk more perfect than himself had settled in the desert.  However, in the stillness of the night, it was revealed to him that farther in the desert was a much better man than he, and that Anthony ought to go and visit him.  So then at the break of day the venerable old man, Anthony, supporting and guiding his weak limbs with a staff, started to go: but what direction to choose, he knew not.  At noon, with the scorching sun over him, Anthony still did not let himself turn away from the journey he had begun.  He said, I believe in my God: He will show me, His servant, as He promised to me. Anthony said no more. 

        To pursue my proposed story, Anthony traversed the region on which he had entered, seeing only the traces of wild beasts, and the wide waste of the desert.  What to do, where to make his way, Anthony knew not.  Another day had now passed.  One thing alone was left of him, his confident belief that Christ could not forsake him.  The darkness of the second night he wore away in prayer.  While it was still twilight, he saw not far away a she-wolf gasping with parching thirst and creeping to the foot of the mountain.  He followed it with his eyes; and after the beast had disappeared in a cave he drew near and began to look within the cave.  His curiosity did not benefit him: the darkness hindered his vision.  But, as the Scripture says, perfect love casts out fear. With uncertain steps and discounted breath, he entered, carefully feeling his way.  He advanced little by little and his ear caught a sound.  Afar off, through the fearful midnight darkness, a light appeared in the distance.  In his eager haste, he struck his foot against a stone and roused the echoes.   At this sound, the blessed Paul closed the open door which had been opened and bolted it.  Then Anthony sank to the ground outside the door and until the sixth hour prayed for admission, saying, Who I am,  and when and why I have come, you know.  I know I am not worthy to look upon you; yet unless I see you, I will not go away.  You welcome beasts; why not a man? I asked and I have found.  I knock that it may be opened to me.  But if I do not succeed, I will die here on your threshold.  Surely you will bury my corpse.  And so he stood unmoved with his constant cry.  To him the hero answered, Prayers like these do not mean threats; there is no deception in tears.  And thus smiling, Paul opened the door.  They threw themselves into each others arms and greeted one another and joined in thanksgiving to God. 

       After the sacred kiss, Paul sat down and began to address Anthony.  Behold the man whom you have sought with so much labor, his limbs decayed with age, his gray hairs unkempt, you see before you a man who in time will be dust.  But since love endures all things, tell me therefore, I pray you, how fares the human race? Are new homes sprung up the ancient cities? What government directs the world? Are there still some remaining for the demons to carry away by their delusions? As they talked, they noticed with wonder a raven, which had settled on the branch of a tree, flying gently down till it came and laid a whole loaf of bread before them.  They were astonished, and when it had left, Paul said: See, the Lord, truly loving and 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 soldiers meal.

            And when they had given thanks to God, they sat down together on the edge of the crystal spring.  At this point, a dispute arose as to who should break the bread, and nearly the whole day until evening was spent in this discussion.  Paul insisted on the right of the guest, while Anthony countered by the right of seniority.  At length, they agreed that each one should seize the loaf on the side nearest to him, pull towards him, and keep for his own, the part left in his hands.  They drank a little water, holding their mouths to the spring, and, offering to God the sacrifice of praise, passed the night in vigil.

       At the return of day, the blessed Paul spoke to Anthony, I knew long since, brother, that you were dwelling in these parts.  Long ago God promised you to me for a fellow servant.   Since the time of my falling asleep now draws near, and I have always longed to be dissolved and to be with Christ, my course is finished and there remains for me a crown of righteousness.  Therefore you have been sent by the Lord to lay my poor body in the ground to return earth to earth.

        At hearing this, Anthony, with tears and groans, began to pray that Paul would not desert him, but would take him for a companion on his journey.  His friend replied: You must not seek your own, but another persons good.  It is appropriate for you to lay aside the burden of the flesh to follow the Lamb; but is desirable for the rest of the brethren to be trained by your example.  Wherefore be so good as to go and fetch the cloak that Bishop Athanasius gave to you, to wrap my poor body in. The blessed Paul asked this favor not because he cared much about whether his decayed corpse were clothed or naked, but rather to try and soften his friends regrets to the decease.   Anthony, amazed to find that Paul had heard of Athanasius and his cloak, dared make no answer.   It seemed to him that he saw Christ in Paul, and he worshiped God in Pauls heart.  Silently weeping, he once more kissed Pauls eyes and hands, and set out on his return to the monastery; the same monastery that was seized by the Saracens after the death of St. Paul.  His steps indeed could not keep pace with his spirit.  Yet, exhausted as he was, fasting and broken by age, his mind triumphed over his years.

      Exhausted and panting for breath, Anthony completed his journey and reached his little dwelling.  Two disciples who of long time had ministered to Anthony, ran to meet him, saying Where have you stayed so long, father? Anthony replied, Woe to me a sinner!  I do not deserve the name of monk.  I have seen Elijah, I have seen John in the desert, and I have really seen Paul in Paradise. He then closed his lips, beat upon his breast, and brought out the cloak from his cell.  When his disciples asked him to explain what was going on more fully, Anthony answered, There is a time to keep silent, and a time to speak.

         He then left the house, and without taking so much as a bite of food, returned the same way he came, longing for Paul alone, thirsting to see him, having eyes and thought for none but him.  He was afraid, that in his absence, his friend might give up his spirit to Christ.  And now the second day dawned upon him, and for three hours he had been on the way, when he saw robes of snowy white ascending on high among the bands of angels, and the choirs of prophets and apostles.  He immediately fell on his face, and threw coarse sand upon his head, weeping and wailing as he cried, Why do you cast me from you Paul?  Why do you go without ones farewell?  Have you made yourself known so late only to depart so soon?

     The blessed Anthony afterwards traversed the rest of the distance at such speed that he flew along like a bird.   It was not without reason.  Upon entering the cave he saw the lifeless body in a kneeling position, with head erect and hands uplifted.  The first thing he did, thinking Paul was alive, was to pray by his side.  But when Anthony did not hear the sighs which usually come from one in prayer, he kissed him weeping, and then understood that even the dead body of the saint still knelt and prayed to God, to whom all things live.

     So then he wrapped the body and carried it outside, while chanting hymns and psalms according to the Christian tradition.  Anthony began to lament that he had no spade to dig the ground.  So in a surging sea of thought and pondering he said: If I return to the monastery, which is a four-day journey, if I stay here I shall do no good.  Let me die then, as is fitting, beside Your warrior, O Christ, and will quickly breathe my last breath.

       While he pondered these things, behold, two lions came coursing toward him, their manes flying from the inner desert.  At first he was horrified at the sight, but again turning his thoughts to God, he waited without alarm, as though they were doves that he saw.  They came straight to the corpse of the blessed Paul and there stopped, fawned upon it and lay down at its feet, roaring aloud as if to make it known that they were mourning in the only way possible to them.  Then they began to paw the ground close by, and compete with one another in digging up the sand, until they dug a place just large enough to hold a man.  And immediately, as if demanding a reward for their work, pricked up their ears while they lowered their heads and came to Anthony and began to lick his hands and feet.  He noticed that they were begging a blessing from him.  At once with an outburst of praise to Christ that even dumb animals felt His divinity, he said, Lord, without Whose command not a leaf drops from the tree, not a sparrow falls to the ground, grant them what You know to be best. Then he waved his hand and signed them to depart.  When they were gone, he bent his aged shoulders beneath the burden of the saints body, laid it in the grave, covered it with the excavated soil, and raised over it the customary mound.  Another day dawned, and the affectionate heir might not be without something belonging to the dead, he took for himself the tunic, which the saint had woven out of palm-leaves, as one weaves baskets.  Returning to the monastery he told the whole story to his disciples as it occurred, and on the feast days of Easter and Pentecost he always wore Pauls tunic.

     I may be permitted at the end of this little exposition to ask those who do not know the extent of their possessions, who embellish their homes with marble, who string house to house and field to field, what did this old man in his nakedness ever lack? Your drinking vessels are of precious stones; he satisfied his thirst with the hollow of his hand.  Your tunics are of wrought gold; he had not the raiment of the meanest of your slaves.  But on the other hand, though he was poor, Paradise is open to him; you with all your gold will be received into Gehenna.  He, though naked, yet kept the robe of Christ; you, clad in your silks, have lost the vesture of Christ.  Paul lies covered with worthless dust, but will rise again to glory; costly tombs are raised over you, but both you and your wealth are doomed to be burning.  Have a care, I pray that you, at least care for the riches you love.  Why are the grave-clothes of your dead made of gold? Why does not your vaunting cease even amid mourning and tears? Cannot the carcasses of rich men decay except in silk?

 

I beseech you, reader, whoever you may be, to remember Jerome the sinner.  He, if God would give him his choice, would much sooner take Pauls tunic with his merits, than the purple of kings with their punishment.