There are many reasons why Christians have fled to the desert or a monastery to live an ascetic life. Doing this because your brother-in-law was going to report you to the authorities is not a common one! But that is how the monastic life of St. Paul, the first hermit, began.
Paul was born in Thebes around the year 228. He and his sister were orphaned when he was fifteen years old and they inherited the sizable fortune of their parents. The two had been raised as Christians and Paul was particularly devout. When the Emperor Decius began his persecution of Christians around 250, Paul was concerned for his and his sister’s safety. But his sister’s husband threatened to turn Paul in to the authorities, perhaps as a way to wrest Paul’s portion of the inheritance from him.
So Paul fled to the nearby desert and found a cave where he could hide out until the political climate was more favorable for Christians to worship in peace and safety. Surprisingly, Paul discovered that camping out in the desert appealed to him and that he felt closer to God away from the tumult and temptations of the world. So he decided to remain in the desert a while longer. There was a spring nearby the cave from which he could have fresh water, and a palm tree growing close to the cave provided fruit for eating. Paul even made clothes from the large leaves of the tree. Here he started down the path to sainthood.
Others may never have known of the existence of St. Paul had not St. Anthony the Great – who was thought to be the first who had gone out into the desert to lead an ascetic life – saw him in a dream and traveled away from his monastery to find this predecessor. When St. Anthony discovered the cave in which St. Paul was praying, he waited a long time to be admitted, but then Paul and Anthony greeted each other and had a long talk in which the details of St. Paul’s desert sojourn were told. St. Anthony at this time was 90 years old and St. Paul had lived to the astonishing age of 114! He related how he had survived on the fruit of the tree (literally a “tree of life” for him) for many years until a raven began bringing him bread. St. Anthony observed other animals of the desert being completely tame in the presence of the hermit. St. Paul inquired as to whether the persecutions had ended and St. Anthony was humbled in discovering that he was not the first to lead this life.
At the end of their conversation, St. Paul told St. Anthony that he knew that he was near death and asked him to be responsible for his burial. He also asked that the cloak which had been given by St. Athanasius to St. Anthony be used as his burial shroud. The younger saint agreed and left to go back to his monastery to retrieve the cloak.
When St. Anthony returned, he found St. Paul praying in his cave as before. He waited respectfully for some time before going into the cave, but then discovered that the first hermit had died as he lived – in prayer. St. Anthony kept his promise to bury St. Paul in the cloak of St. Athanasius and it is said that two lions helped to dig the grave. This was in the year 343. This story spread among monastics in the Middle East and thirty years later, St. Jerome wrote the story of St. Paul’s life for posterity.
We can learn from St. Paul the Hermit that escaping from a worldly problem may lead us to discover spiritual treasures. May St. Paul intercede for us as we strive to lead prayerful lives.