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Ch. 2: Saint Paul




Many have often doubted by which of the monks the desert was first inhabited. For some, looking for the beginnings of Monachism in earlier ages, have deduced it from the blessed Elias and John; of whom Elias seems to us to have been rather a prophet than a monk; and John to have begun to prophesy before he was born. But others (an opinion in which all the common people are agreed) assert that Antony was the head of this rule of life, which is partly true. For he was not so much himself the first of all, as the man who excited the earnestness of all. But Amathas and Macarius, Antony's disciples (the former of whom buried his master's body), even now affirm that a certain Paul, a Theban, was the beginner of the matter; which (not so much in name as in opinion) we also hold to be true. Some scatter about, as the fancy takes them, both this and other stories; inventing incredible tales of a man in a subterranean cave, hairy down to his heels, and many other things, which it is tedious to follow out. For, as their lie is shameless, their opinion does not seem worth refuting.

Therefore, because careful accounts of Antony, both in Greek and Roman style, have been handed down, I have determined to write a little about the beginning and end of Paul's life; more because the matter has been omitted, than trusting to my own wit. But how he lived during middle life, or what stratagems of Satan he endured, is known to none.


Under Decius and Valerius, the persecutors, at the time when Cornelius at Rome, and Cyprian at Carthage, were condemned in blessed blood, a cruel tempest swept over many Churches in Egypt and the Thebaid.

Christian subjects in those days longed to be smitten with the sword for the name of Christ. But the crafty enemy, seeking out punishments which delayed death, longed to slay souls, not bodies. And as Cyprian himself (who suffered by him) says: "When they longed to die, they were not allowed to be slain." In order to make his cruelty better known, we have set down two examples for remembrance.

A martyr, persevering in the faith, and conqueror amid racks and red-hot irons, he commanded to be anointed with honey and laid on his back under a burning sun, with his hands tied behind him; in order, forsooth, that he who had already conquered the fiery gridiron, might yield to the stings of flies.

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In those days, in the Lower Thebaid, was Paul left at the death of both his parents, in a rich inheritance, with a sister already married; being about fifteen years old, well taught in Greek and Egyptian letters, gentle tempered, loving God much; and, when the storm of persecution burst, he withdrew into a distant city. But

"To what dost thou not urge the human breast Curst hunger after gold?"

His sister's husband was ready to betray him whom he should have concealed. Neither the tears of his wife, the tie of blood, or God who looks on all things from on high, could call him back from his crime. He was at hand, ready to seize him, making piety a pretext for cruelty. The boy discovered it, and fled into the desert hills. Once there he changed need into pleasure, and going on, and then stopping awhile, again and again, reached at last a stony cliff, at the foot whereof was, nigh at hand, a great cave, its mouth closed with a stone. Having moved which away (as man's longing is to know the hidden), exploring more greedily, he sees within a great hall, open to the sky above, but shaded by the spreading boughs of an ancient palm; and in it a clear spring, the rill from which, flowing a short space forth, was sucked up again by the same soil which had given it birth. There were besides in that cavernous mountain not a few dwellings, in which he saw rusty anvils and hammers, with which coin had been stamped of old. For this place (so books say) was the workshop for base coin in the days when Antony lived with Cleopatra.

Therefore, in this beloved dwelling, offered him as it were by God, he spent all his life in prayer and solitude, while the palm-tree gave him food and clothes; which lest it should seem impossible to some, I call Jesus and his holy angels to witness that I have seen monks one of whom, shut up for thirty years, lived on barley bread and muddy water; another in an old cistern, which in the country speech they call the Syrian's bed, was kept alive on five figs each day. These things, therefore, will seem incredible to those who do not believe; for to those who do believe all things are possible.

But to return thither whence I digressed. When the blessed Paul had been leading the heavenly life on earth for 113 years, and Antony, ninety years old, was dwelling in another solitude, this thought (so Antony was wont to assert) entered his mind--that no monk more perfect than he had settled in the desert. But as he lay still by night, it was revealed to him that there was another monk beyond him far better than he, to visit whom he must set out. So when the light broke, the venerable old man, supporting his weak limbs on a staff, began to will to go, he knew not whither. And now the mid day, with the sun roasting above, grew fierce; and yet he was not turned from the journey he had begun, saying, "I trust in my God, that he will show his servant that which he has promised." And as he spake, he sees a man half horse, to whom the poets have given the name of Hippocentaur. Seeing whom, he crosses his forehead with the salutary impression of the Cross, and, "Here!" he says, "in what part here does a servant of God dwell?" But he, growling I know not what barbarous sound, and grinding rather than uttering, the words, attempted a courteous speech from lips rough with bristles, and, stretching out his right hand, pointed to the way; then, fleeing swiftly across the open plains, vanished from the eyes of the wondering Antony. But whether the devil took this form to terrify him; or whether the desert, fertile (as is its wont) in monstrous animals, begets that beast likewise, we hold as uncertain.

So Antony, astonished, and thinking over what he had seen, goes forward. Soon afterwards, he sees in a stony valley a short manikin, with crooked nose and brow rough with horns, whose lower parts ended in goat's feet. Undismayed by this spectacle likewise, Antony seized, like a good warrior, the shield of faith and habergeon of hope; the animal, however, was bringing him dates, as food for his journey, and a pledge of peace. When he saw that, Antony pushed on, and, asking him who he was, was answered, "I am a mortal, and one of the inhabitants of the desert, whom the Gentiles, deluded by various errors, worship by the name of Fauns, Satyrs, and Incubi. I come as ambassador from our herd, that thou mayest pray for us to the common God, who, we know, has come for the salvation of the world, and his sound is gone out into all lands." As he spoke thus, the aged wayfarer bedewed his face plenteously with tears, which the greatness of his joy had poured forth as signs of his heart. For he rejoiced at the glory of Christ, and the destruction of Satan; and, wondering at the same time that he could understand the creature's speech, he smote on the ground with his staff, and said, "Woe to thee, Alexandria, who worshippest portents instead of God! Woe to thee, harlot city, into which all the demons of the world have flowed together! What wilt thou say now? Beasts talk of Christ, and thou worshippest portents instead of God." He had hardly finished his words, when the swift beast fled away as upon wings. Lest this should move a scruple in any one on account of its incredibility, it was corroborated, in the reign of Constantine, by the testimony of the whole world. For a man of that kind, being led alive to Alexandria, afforded a great spectacle to the people; and afterwards the lifeless carcase, being salted lest it should decay in the summer heat, was brought to Antioch, to be seen by the Emperor.

But--to go on with my tale--Antony went on through that region, seeing only the tracks of wild beasts, and the wide waste of the desert. What he should do, or whither turn, he knew not. A second day had now run by. One thing remained, to be confident that he could not be deserted by Christ. All night through he spent a second darkness in prayer, and while the light was still dim, he sees afar a she-wolf, panting with heat and thirst, creeping in at the foot of the mountain. Following her with his eyes, and drawing nigh to the cave when the beast was gone, he began to look in: but in vain; for the darkness stopped his view. However, as the Scripture saith, perfect love casteth out fear; with gentle step and bated breath the cunning explorer entered, and going forward slowly, and stopping often, watched for a sound. At length he saw afar off a light through the horror of the darkness; hastened on more greedily; struck his foot against a stone; and made a noise, at which the blessed Paul shut and barred his door, which had stood open.

Then Antony, casting himself down before the entrance, prayed there till the sixth hour, and more, to be let in, saying, "Who I am, and whence, and why I am come, thou knowest. I know that I deserve not to see thy face; yet, unless I see thee, I will not return. Thou who receivest beasts, why repellest thou a man? I have sought, and I have found. I knock, that it may be opened to me: which if I win not, here will I die before thy gate. Surely thou shalt at least bury my corpse."

"Persisting thus he spoke, and stood there fixed: To whom the hero shortly thus replied."

"No one begs thus to threaten. No one does injury with tears. And dost thou wonder why I do not let thee in, seeing thou art a mortal guest?"

Then Paul, smiling, opened the door. They mingled mutual embraces, and saluted each other by their names, and committed themselves in common to the grace of God. And after the holy kiss, Paul sitting down with Antony thus began--

"Behold him, whom thou hast sought with such labour; with limbs decayed by age, and covered with unkempt white hair. Behold, thou seest but a mortal, soon to become dust. But, because charity bears all things, tell me, I pray thee, how fares the human race? whether new houses are rising in the ancient cities? by what emperor is the world governed? whether there are any left who are led captive by the deceits of the devil?" As they spoke thus, they saw a raven settle on a bough; who, flying gently down, laid, to their wonder, a whole loaf before them. When he was gone, "Ah," said Paul, "the Lord, truly loving, truly merciful, hath sent us a meal. For sixty years past I have received daily half a loaf, but at thy coming Christ hath doubled his soldiers' allowance." Then, having thanked God, they sat down on the brink of the glassy spring.

But here a contention arising as to which of them should break the loaf, occupied the day till well-nigh evening. Paul insisted, as the host; Antony declined, as the younger man. At last it was agreed that they should take hold of the loaf at opposite ends, and each pull towards himself, and keep what was left in his hand. Next they stooped down, and drank a little water from the spring; then, immolating to God the sacrifice of praise, passed the night watching.

And when day dawned again, the blessed Paul said to Antony, "I knew long since, brother, that thou wert dwelling in these lands; long since God had promised thee to me as a fellow servant: but because the time of my falling asleep is now come, and (because I always longed to depart, and to be with Christ) there is laid up for me when I have finished my course a crown of righteousness; therefore thou art sent from the Lord to cover my corpse with mould, and give back dust to dust."

Antony, hearing this, prayed him with tears and groans not to desert him, but take him as his companion on such a journey. But he said, "Thou must not seek the things which are thine own, but the things of others. It is expedient for thee, indeed, to cast off the burden of the flesh, and to follow the Lamb: but it is expedient for the rest of the brethren that they should be still trained by thine example. Wherefore go, unless it displease thee, and bring the cloak which Athanasius the bishop gave thee, to wrap up my corpse." But this the blessed Paul asked, not because he cared greatly whether his body decayed covered or bare (as one who for so long a time was used to clothe himself with woven palm leaves), but that Antony's grief at his death might be lightened when he left him. Antony astounded that he had heard of Athanasius and his own cloak, seeing as it were Christ in Paul, and venerating the God within his breast, dared answer nothing: but keeping in silence, and kissing his eyes and hands, returned to the monastery, which afterwards was occupied by the Saracens. His steps could not follow his spirit; but, although his body was empty with fastings, and broken with old age, yet his courage conquered his years. At last, tired and breathless, he arrived at home. There two disciples met him, who had been long sent to minister to him, and asked him, "Where hast thou tarried so long, father?" He answered, "Woe to me a sinner, who falsely bear the name of a monk. I have seen Elias; I have seen John in the desert; I have truly seen Paul in Paradise;" and so, closing his lips, and beating his breast, he took the cloak from his cell, and when his disciples asked him to explain more fully what had befallen, he said, "There is a time to be silent, and a time to speak." Then going out, and not taking even a morsel of food, he returned by the way he had come. For he feared--what actually happened--lest Paul in his absence should render up the soul he owed to Christ.

And when the second day had shone, and he had retraced his steps for three hours, he saw amid hosts of angels, amid the choirs of prophets and apostles, Paul shining white as snow, ascending up on high; and forthwith falling on his face, he cast sand on his head, and weeping and wailing, said, "Why dost thou dismiss me, Paul? Why dost thou depart without a farewell? So late known, dost thou vanish so soon?" The blessed Antony used to tell afterwards, how he ran the rest of the way so swiftly that he flew like a bird. Nor without cause. For entering the cave he saw, with bended knees, erect neck, and hands spread out on high, a lifeless corpse. And at first, thinking that it still lived, he prayed in like wise. But when he heard no sighs (as usual) come from the worshipper's breast, he fell to a tearful kiss, understanding how the very corpse of the saint was praying, in seemly attitude, to that God to whom all live.

So, having wrapped up and carried forth the corpse, and chanting hymns of the Christian tradition, Antony grew sad, because he had no spade, wherewith to dig the ground; and thinking over many plans in his mind, said, "If I go back to the monastery, it is a three days' journey. If I stay here, I shall be of no more use. I will die, then, as it is fit; and, falling beside thy warrior, Christ, breathe my last breath."

As he was thinking thus to himself, lo! two lions came running from the inner part of the desert, their manes tossing on their necks; seeing whom he shuddered at first; and then, turning his mind to God, remained fearless, as though he were looking upon doves. They came straight to the corpse of the blessed old man, and crouched at his feet, wagging their tails, and roaring with mighty growls, so that Antony understood them to lament, as best they could. Then not far off they began to claw the ground with their paws, and, carrying out the sand eagerly, dug a place large enough to hold a man: then at once, as if begging a reward for their work, they came to Antony, drooping their necks, and licking his hands and feet. But he perceived that they prayed a blessing from him; and at once, bursting into praise of Christ, because even dumb animals felt that he was God, he saith, "Lord, without whose word not a leaf of the tree drops, nor one sparrow falls to the ground, give to them as thou knowest how to give." And, signing to them with his hand, he bade them go.

And when they had departed, he bent his aged shoulders to the weight of the holy corpse; and laying it in the grave, heaped earth on it, and raised a mound as is the wont. And when another dawn shone, lest the pious heir should not possess aught of the goods of the intestate dead, he kept for himself the tunic which Paul had woven, as baskets are made, out of the leaves of the palm; and returning to the monastery, told his disciples all throughout; and, on the solemn days of Easter and Pentecost, always clothed himself in Paul's tunic.

I am inclined, at the end of my treatise, to ask those who know not the extent of their patrimonies; who cover their houses with marbles; who sew the price of whole farms into their garments with a single thread--What was ever wanting to this naked old man? Ye drink from a gem; he satisfied nature from the hollow of his hands. Ye weave gold into your tunics; he had not even the vilest garment of your bond-slave. But, on the other hand, to that poor man Paradise is open; you, gilded as you are, Gehenna will receive. He, though naked, kept the garment of Christ; you, clothed in silk, have lost Christ's robe. Paul lies covered with the meanest dust, to rise in glory; you are crushed by wrought sepulchres of stone, to burn with all your works. Spare, I beseech you, yourselves; spare, at least, the riches which you love. Why do you wrap even your dead in golden vestments? Why does not ambition stop amid grief and tears? Cannot the corpses of the rich decay, save in silk? I beseech thee, whosoever thou art that readest this, to remember Hieronymus the sinner, who, if the Lord gave him choice, would much sooner choose Paul's tunic with his merits, than the purple of kings with their punishments.

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This is the story of Paul and Antony, as told by Jerome. But, in justice to Antony himself, it must be said that the sayings recorded of him seem to show that he was not the mere visionary ascetic which his biographers have made him. Some twenty sermons are attributed to him, seven of which only are considered to be genuine. A rule for monks, too, is called his: but, as it is almost certain that he could neither read nor write, we have no proof that any of these documents convey his actual language. If the seven sermons attributed to him be really his, it must be said for them that they are full of sound doctrine and vital religion, and worthy, as wholes, to be preached in any English church, if we only substitute for the word "monk," the word "man."

But there are records of Antony which represent him as a far more genial and human personage; full of a knowledge of human nature, and of a tenderness and sympathy, which account for his undoubted power over the minds of men; and showing, too, at times, a certain covert and "pawky" humour which puts us in mind, as does the humour of many of the Egyptian hermits, of the old-fashioned Scotch. These reminiscences are contained in the "Words of the Elders," a series of anecdotes of the desert fathers collected by various hands; which are, after all, the most interesting and probably the most trustworthy accounts of them and their ways. I shall have occasion to quote them later. I insert here some among them which relate to Antony.


A monk gave away his wealth to the poor, but kept back some for himself. Antony said to him, "Go to the village and buy meat, and bring it to me on thy bare back." He did so: and the dogs and birds attacked him, and tore him as well as the meat. Quoth Antony, "So are those who renounce the world, and yet must needs have money, torn by daemons."

Antony heard high praise of a certain brother; but, when he tested him, he found that he was impatient under injury. Quoth Antony, "Thou art like a house which has a gay porch, but is broken into by thieves through the back door."

Antony, as he sat in the desert, was weary in heart, and said, "Lord, I long to be saved, but my wandering thoughts will not let me. Show me what I shall do." And looking up, he saw one like himself twisting ropes, and rising up to pray. And the angel (for it was one) said to him, "Work like me, Antony, and you shall be saved."

One asked him how he could please God. Quoth Antony, "Have God always before thine eyes; whatever work thou doest, take example for it out of Holy Scripture: wherever thou stoppest, do not move thence in a hurry, but abide there in patience. If thou keepest these three things, thou shalt be saved."

Quoth Antony, "If the baker did not cover the mill-horse's eyes he would eat the corn, and take his own wages. So God covers our eyes, by leaving us to sordid thoughts, lest we should think of our own good works, and be puffed up in spirit."

Quoth Antony, "I saw all the snares of the enemy spread over the whole earth. And I sighed, and said, 'Who can pass through these?' And a voice came to me, saying, 'Humility alone can pass through, Antony, where the proud can in no wise go.'"

Antony was sitting in his cell, and a voice said to him, "Thou hast not yet come to the stature of a currier, who lives in Alexandria." Then he took his staff, and went down to Alexandria; and the currier, when he found him, was astonished at seeing so great a man. Said Antony, "Tell me thy works; for on thy account have I come out of the desert." And he answered, "I know not that I ever did any good; and, therefore, when I rise in the morning, I say that this whole city, from the greatest to the least, will enter into the kingdom of God for their righteousness: while I, for my sins, shall go to eternal pain. And this I say over again, from the bottom of my heart, when I lie down at night." When Antony heard that, he said, "Like a good goldsmith, thou hast gained the kingdom of God sitting still in thy house; while I, as one without discretion, have been haunting the desert all my time, and yet not arrived at the measure of thy saying."

Quoth Antony, "If a monk could tell his elders how many steps he walks, or how many cups of water he drinks, in his cell, he ought to tell them, for fear of going wrong therein."

At Alexandria, Antony met one Didymus, most learned in the Scriptures, witty, and wise: but he was blind. Antony asked him, "Art thou not grieved at thy blindness?" He was silent: but being pressed by Antony, he confessed that he was sad thereat. Quoth Antony, "I wonder that a prudent man grieves over the loss of a thing which ants, and flies, and gnats have, instead of rejoicing in that possession which the holy Apostles earned. For it is better to see with the spirit than with the flesh."

A Father asked Antony, "What shall I do?" Quoth the old man, "Trust not in thine own righteousness; regret not the thing which is past; bridle thy tongue and thy stomach."

Quoth Antony, "He who sits still in the desert is safe from three enemies: from hearing, from speech, from sight: and has to fight against only one, his own heart."

A young monk came and told Antony how he had seen some old men weary on their journey, and had bidden the wild asses to come and carry him, and they came. Quoth Antony, "That monk looks to me like a ship laden with a precious cargo; but whether it will get into port is uncertain." And after some days he began to tear his hair and weep; and when they asked him why, he said, "A great pillar of the Church has just fallen;" and he sent brothers to see the young man, and found him sitting on his mat, weeping over a great sin which he had done; and he said, "Tell Antony to give me ten days' truce, and I hope I shall satisfy him;" and in five days he was dead.

Abbot Elias fell into temptation, and the brethren drove him out. Then he went to the mountain to Antony. After awhile, Antony sent him home to his brethren; but they would not receive him. Then the old man sent to them, and saying, "A ship has been wrecked at sea, and lost all its cargo; and, with much toil, the ship is come empty to land. Will you sink it again in the sea?" So they took Elias back.

Quoth Antony, "There are some who keep their bodies in abstinence: but, because they have no discretion, they are far from God."

A hunter came by, and saw Antony rejoicing with the brethren, and it displeased him. Quoth Antony, "Put an arrow in thy bow, and draw;" and he did. Quoth Antony, "Draw higher;" and again, "Draw higher still." And he said, "If I overdraw, I shall break my bow." Quoth Antony, "So it is in the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure, they fail."

A brother said to Antony, "Pray for me." Quoth he, "I cannot pity thee, nor God either, unless thou pitiest thyself, and prayest to God."

Quoth Antony, "The Lord does not permit wars to arise in this generation, because he knows that men are weak, and cannot bear them."

Antony, as he considered the depths of the judgments of God, failed; and said, "Lord, why do some die so early, and some live on to a decrepit age? Why are some needy, and others rich? Why are the unjust wealthy, and the just poor?" And a voice came to him, "Antony, look to thyself. These are the judgments of God, which are not fit for thee to know."

Quoth Antony to Abbot Pastor, "This is a man's great business--to lay each man his own fault on himself before the Lord, and to expect temptation to the last day of his life."

Quoth Antony, "If a man works a few days, and then is idle, and works again and is idle again, he does nothing, and will not possess the perseverance of patience."

Quoth Antony to his disciples, "If you try to keep silence, do not think that you are exercising a virtue, but that you are unworthy to speak."

Certain old men came once to Antony; and he wished to prove them, and began to talk of holy Scripture, and to ask them, beginning at the youngest, what this and that text meant. And each answered as best they could. But he kept on saying, "You have not yet found it out." And at last he asked Abbot Joseph, "And what dost thou think this text means?" Quoth Abbot Joseph, "I do not know." Quoth Antony, "Abbot Joseph alone has found out the way, for he says he does not know it."

Quoth Antony, "I do not now fear God, but love Him, for love drives out fear."

He said again, "Life and death are very near us; for if we gain our brother, we gain God: but if we cause our brother to offend, we sin against Christ."

A philosopher asked Antony, "How art thou content, father, since thou hast not the comfort of books?" Quoth Antony, "My book is the nature of created things. In it, when I choose, I can read the words of God."

Brethren came to Antony, and asked of him a saying by which they might be saved. Quoth he, "Ye have heard the Scriptures, and know what Christ requires of you." But they begged that he would tell them something of his own. Quoth he, "The Gospel says, 'If a man smite you on one cheek, turn to him the other.'" But they said that they could not do that. Quoth he, "You cannot turn the other cheek to him? Then let him smite you again on the same one." But they said they could not do that either. Then said he, "If you cannot, at least do not return evil for evil." And when they said that neither could they do that, quoth Antony to his disciples, "Go, get them something to eat, for they are very weak." And he said to them, "If you cannot do the one, and will not have the other, what do you want? As I see, what you want is prayer. That will heal your weakness."

Quoth Antony, "He who would be free from his sins must be so by weeping and mourning; and he who would be built up in virtue must be built up by tears."

Quoth Antony, "When the stomach is full of meat, forthwith the great vices bubble out, according to that which the Saviour says: 'That which entereth into the mouth defileth not a man; but that which cometh out of the heart sinks a man in destruction.'"

[This may be a somewhat paradoxical application of the text: but the last anecdote of Antony which I shall quote is full of wisdom and humanity.]

A monk came from Alexandria, Eulogius by name, bringing with him a man afflicted with elephantiasis. Now Eulogius had been a scholar, learned, and rich, and had given away all he had save a very little, which he kept because he could not work with his own hands.

And he told Antony how he had found that wretched man lying in the street fifteen years before, having lost then nearly every member save his tongue, and how he had taken him home to his cell, nursed him, bathed him, physicked him, fed him; and how the man had returned him nothing save slanders, curses, and insults; how he had insisted on having meat, and had had it; and on going out in public, and had company brought to him; and how he had at last demanded to be put down again whence he had been taken, always cursing and slandering. And now Eulogius could bear the man no longer, and was minded to take him at his word.

Then said Antony with an angry voice, "Wilt thou cast him out, Eulogius? He who remembers that he made him, will not cast him out. If thou cast him out, he will find a better friend than thee. God will choose some one who will take him up when he is cast away." Eulogius was terrified at these words, and held his peace.

Then went Antony to the sick man, and shouted at him, "Thou elephantiac, foul with mud and dirt, not worthy of the third heaven, wilt thou not stop shouting blasphemies against God? Dost thou not know that he who ministers to thee is Christ? How darest thou say such things against Christ?" And he bade Eulogius and the sick man go back to their cell, and live in peace, and never part more. Both went back, and, after forty days, Eulogius died, and the sick man shortly after, "altogether whole in spirit."

Charles Kingsley