As we heard last week, St. Anthony of the Desert went off to live his radically counter-cultural life of simplicity and prayer in the Nitrian Desert. Interestingly, however, he was the not the first to do so. Although St. Anthony didn’t know it at the time, he was doing the same thing as St. Paul the Hermit had done twenty years before him!
Paul was born in the city of Thebes in Egypt around 228, and lived with his married sister. When they lost their parents around the age of 22, their lives were thrown into turmoil. Paul’s brother-in-law saw an opportunity to seize Paul’s inheritance, and reported him as a Christian to the Roman authorities in Thebes.
St. Paul fled into the desert outside Thebes, and found a place to live in an oasis, complete with a comfy cave, palm trees, and a spring. While his original departure from civilization seemed to be out of desperation to flee the persecution of Emperor Decius, he grew into his new life of simplicity and prayer. The leaves of the palms gave him some shade, and he even wore a tunic out of them, almost like Adam in the Garden. Legends tell us that he lived almost exclusively on coconuts until the age of 43, at which point a RAVEN started bringing bread to him each day! Now that’s service. It may seem a little far-fetched, but it certainly gets the point across that St. Paul depended entirely on God for his existence, both physically and spiritually.
Remember St. Anthony? Well, at one point in his life, he became tempted to vanity in taking pride that he was the first to live this way. Thankfully, God gave him the opportunity to grow in humility, when someone told him about St. Paul.
When St. Anthony heard about this other monk who had been living the same way, he sought out St. Paul, and the two Desert Fathers famously met around the year 342. As they came together, they took the time to share bread, just as Jesus had done with his friends. Each invited the other to bless it, then held on to each side of the bread, tearing it in half. It might seem like a strange ritual, but this meeting showed their mutual respect and honor for each other, as well as their brotherhood in Christ.
That was the last time St. Anthony saw St. Paul the Hermit alive. When he returned a few years later, St. Paul had died. St. Anthony buried him (supposedly with the help of two lions!) and took St. Paul’s palm leaf tunic. He chose to wear the tunic twice a year on Easter and Pentecost in honor of St. Paul’s example of humility and holiness.