St. Paul the First Hermit (St. Paul of Thebes) is very dear to the Pauline Fathers. He lived long before the foundation of the order and so was not the founder of the order named after him. Nevertheless, he was the saint that our founding fathers took as their patron and guide.
The Life of St. Paul the First Hermit
The Life of St. Paul the First Hermit written by St. Jerome of Stridon with a commentary by Fr. Casimir
A Vita is a particular form of literature that marks a transition from the acts of martyrdom to more hagiographical writings equally seeking to inspire and edify Christians. It is not a biography in the modern sense and is written for a specific set purpose with a particular aim to inspire. It is not devoid of historical facts but uses various symbols and images to illustrate its meaning. The Vita presents a new type of Hero for a new kind of Christian living in a new age, which, not least of all, includes Jerome himself.
Early Christian asceticism In the Vita of St. Paul the First Hermit
Early Christian asceticism In the Vita of St Paul the First Hermit is an essay written about St. Paul the First hermit by Fr. Casimir in 2016 as part of a seminar on Christian Asceticism at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. It provides an interesting commentary and insight into the person of St. Paul the First Hermit.
St. Paul the First Hermit, Patron of our Order
St. Paul the First Hermit, also known as St. Paul of Thebes, was born around 227 AD. in the Thebaid region of Egypt. He is best known in the West through an account of his life recorded by St. Jerome.
St. Jerome tells us that as a young man, he was gifted in learning and filled with a deep love of God. Unfortunately, he lost both parents when he was about 16, leaving him and his married sister a rich inheritance. However, his brother-in-law desiring all the inheritance, planned to take advantage of the persecution then raging in Egypt and denounce him as a Christian. So Paul chose to flee into the desert until the persecution should pass. However, he soon fell in love with this new life and stayed. He spent the rest of his life in prayer and solitude in the desert. From this life, the Order named after him would take its motto, Solus cum Deo solo — alone with God alone.
Life in the Desert
He would survive this time in the desert living in a cave where a stream of water flowed. He would eat the dates from the palm tree that grew outside and use its leaves to weave a course garment. God would also begin to send him a raven with half a loaf of bread each day, recalling the time in the desert of Elijah the prophet.
It would be these elements that the Order would later use for its coat of arms, the Palm tree, and the raven with the bread it brought, along with two lions from the account of his death. The Pauline flag would use colours to represent similar elements, green for the palm tree, yellow for the desert sand, black for the raven, and white for the bread it brought.
St. Anthony seeks the First Hermit
Before his death, after nearly 90 years in the desert, St. Paul would receive his first visitor. The account given to us tells us that St. Anthony the Abbot was tempted to think he was the first and the greatest of the hermits. However, God revealed to him in a dream that there was another. So St. Anthony, who was already advanced in years, set out to find St. Paul. The account given to us includes some fantastic events that happened to him during this search that, in one way or another, symbolise the trials, both physical and spiritual, of the desert.
Once he found St. Paul, it would be some time before St. Paul would admit him to his cave. Something that seems much less strange when we realise this was common practice for a spiritual master to let the one seeking him wait outside to test the seriousness of his quest.
After a dispute over who should have the honour of breaking the bread, an entire loaf being brought that day by the raven, St. Paul revealed to St. Anthony that he had known that he would come just before his death. To soften his guest’s sorrow at learning of his approaching death, he asked him to bury him in the cloak St. Athanasius had given him.
St. Anthony hurried off to fetch it, but on the way back, he saw the soul of St. Paul taken up into heaven. When he arrived, he was troubled that he had no means of digging a grave to bury the saint. Then, two lions came and dug the needed grave with their paws. St. Anthony then wrapped him in the cloak and buried him. After that, he would take St. Paul’s garment of palm leaves with him and only wear them on the most solemn of occasions.
An Order inspired
In the 13th century, the Order that now bears St. Paul the First Hermit’s name, would take him to be its Heavenly Patron when Blessed Eusebius gathered the hermits then living in the Pilis mountains together into the monastery of the Holy Cross. These hermits markedly devoted to the desert fathers chose St. Paul the First Hermit as their example and patron.
The Order of St. Paul the First Hermit celebrates his Solemnity on the 15th of January. In the lead-up to the Solemnity, a Novena is celebrated in his Honor.
St. Paul the First Hermit FAQ
St. Paul the First Hermit is the patron saint of the Order that bears his name: the Order of Saint Paul the First Hermit (OSPPE).
He is also the patron saint of Children. This comes from a 15th-century tradition that arose because of several miracles worked through his intercession for parents of sick or dying infants or children. The Pauline Fathers continue to do a blessing of children on his feast day.
He is also the patron saint of the Diocese of San Pablo (Philippines) and its cathedral.
He was canonized in 491 by Pope Gelasius I.
That means 150 years after his death in 341, 135 years after the death of St. Anthony the Great, who first spread devotion to him, and 51 years after the death of St. Jerome, who wrote the Life of St. Paul the First Hermit.
St. Paul of Thebes is typically pictured as an old man wearing a rough robe made of palm leaves. He is often depicted with a half loaf of bread or the raven that brought it to him. Sometimes also palm dates or lions.