St. Paul is called “the first hermit” in the Missal and Breviary, a rare distinction, for such titles are seldom appended. Our saint was the standard-bearer of those courageous men who for the love of Christ left the world and entered the wilderness to dedicate themselves wholly to contemplation amid all the privations of desert life. The hermits were the great men of prayer in those difficult times when the Church was locked in fierce struggle with heresy after heresy. For centuries the example of their lives served as the school of Christian perfection. Their action set the background for the rise of monasticism and religious orders in the Church.
Saint Paul, “The First Hermit” Jusepe de Ribera, Museo del Prado (1640)
The Breviary retains an edifying legend concerning today’s saint. One day St. Anthony, then ninety, was divinely inspired to visit the hermit Paul. Though they had never met previously, each greeted the other correctly by name. While they were conversing at length on spiritual matters, the raven that had always brought Paul half a loaf of bread, came with a whole loaf. As the raven flew away, Paul said: “See, the Lord, who is truly good and merciful, has sent us food. Every day for sixty years I have received half a loaf, but with your arrival Christ sent His servants a double ration.” Giving thanks, they ate by a spring.
After a brief rest, they again gave thanks, as was their custom, and spent the whole night praising God. At daybreak Paul informed Anthony of his approaching death and asked him to fetch the cloak he had received from St. Athanasius, that he might wrap himself in it. Later, as Anthony was returning from his visit, he saw Paul’s soul ascending to heaven escorted by choirs of angels and surrounded by prophets and apostles. Further traditional matter may be found in The Life of Paul the Hermit, written by St. Jerome about the year 376.