St. Paul of Thebes, also called St. Paul the Hermit, who is traditionally regarded as the first Christian hermit of the desert of Egypt.
According to St. Jerome, his biographer, Paul fled to the Theban desert in Egypt during the persecution of Christians (249–251) under the Roman emperor Decius. Jerome considered Paul to be the first Christian hermit, an honour in modern times generally accorded to St. Anthony of Egypt.
During the year 250, the Roman Emperor Decius carried out a notorious persecution of the Church, executing clergy and forcing laypersons to prove their loyalty by worshiping idols. The state used torture, as well as the threat of death to coerce believers into making pagan sacrifices.
Born in approximately 230, in a very rich family, the future hermit Paul received a solid religious and secular education, but lost his parents at age 15. Left orphaned, he suffered many things from a greedy relative over his inheritance. Paul went into hiding during the Decian persecution, but became aware of his brother-in-law’s plan to betray him to the authorities.
The young man retreated to a remote desert location, where he discovered a large abandoned cave that had once been used as a facility for making counterfeit coins. He found that he could survive on water from a spring. A raven brought him half a loaf of bread daily.
Settling into a mountain cave, Saint Paul dwelt there for ninety-one years, praying incessantly to God both day and night. Surviving in the Egyptian desert on a small amount of daily food, St. Paul the Hermit lived in close communion with God. He sustained himself on dates and bread, which a raven brought him, and he clothed himself with palm leaves.
Forced into the wilderness by circumstance, Paul found he loved the life of prayer and simplicity that it made possible. Thus, he never returned to the outside world, even though he lived well into the era of the Church’s legalization and acceptance by the Roman Empire.
The desert Father Saint Anthony the Great, who also lived as an ascetic in the Thebaid desert, was tempted to vain-glory, thinking he was the first to dwell in the desert, had a revelation from God concerning Saint Paul. Then God said to him, “Anthony, there is a servant of God more excellent than you, and you should go and see him.” Saint Anthony thought that there was no other desert dweller such as he. In obedience to a vision, he set forth to find his predecessor.
Saint Anthony went into the desert and came to Saint Paul’s cave. Falling to the ground before the entrance to the cave, he asked to be admitted. The Elders introduced themselves, and then embraced one another. They conversed through the night, and Saint Anthony revealed how he had been led there by God.
Saint Paul disclosed to Saint Anthony that for sixty years a bird had brought him half a loaf of bread each day. Now the Lord had sent a double portion in honor of Saint Anthony’s visit.
The next morning, Saint Paul spoke to Anthony of his approaching death, and instructed him to bury him. He also asked Saint Anthony to return to his monastery and bring back the cloak he had received from Saint Athanasius. He did not really need a garment, but wished to depart from his body while Saint Anthony was absent.
As he was returning with the cloak, Saint Anthony beheld the soul of Saint Paul surrounded by angels, prophets, and apostles, shining like the sun and ascending to God. He entered the cave and found Abba Paul on his knees with his arms outstretched. Saint Anthony mourned for him, and wrapped him in the cloak. He wondered how he would bury the body, for he had not remembered to bring a shovel. Two lions came running from the wilderness and dug a grave with their claws.
Saint Anthony buried the holy Elder, and having given him Athanasius’ cloak, St. Anthony took back to his hermitage the garment which St. Paul of Thebes had woven for himself from palm leaves. Saint Anthony kept this garb as a precious inheritance, and wore it only twice a year, on Pascha and Pentecost.
Saint Paul of Thebes died in the year 341, when he was 113 years old. He did not establish a single monastery, but soon after his end there were many imitators of his life, and they filled the desert with monasteries. Saint Paul is honored as the first desert-dweller and hermit.
St.Anthony passed on the account of his journey and the saint’s life to his own growing group of monastic disciples, and it was written down by St. Jerome around the year 375 – approximately 33 years after the death of the first hermit.
In the twelfth century Saint Paul’s relics were transferred to Constantinople and placed in the Peribleptos monastery of the Mother of God, on orders of the emperor Manuel (1143-1180). Later, they were taken to Venice, and finally to Hungary, at Ofa. Part of his head is in Rome.