Hermits & artists

We commemorate today, in the Old Mass if not in the New, one of my favourites: Saint Paul, “the first hermit.” His biography was written by Saint Jerome: see his Vita Sancti Pauli Primi eremitae, which gentle reader may find english’d on the Internet (here). Off into the desert mountains above Thebes in Egypt went our Paul, to escape the persecution of Decius, and there he stayed, in prayer and penance, living to an extremely old age.

Among the Copts in Egypt, I was delighted by the “legendary accretions” to his story — how, after living for decades in his mountain cave near a spring, clothed and fed by the products of a date palm, a raven began to bring him half a loaf of bread every day. How the great desert father, Saint Anthony, learnt of him in a dream, and then found him. How the cloak of Saint Athanasius, the great Archbishop of Alexandria (himself frequently on the run from the secular authorities of his day) was fetched, to wrap around Paul when he was dying. How it was delivered, a little too late. How, in the end, his grave was dug by the same, very aged, Anthony Abbot, with the help of two lions.

The Copts are very close to my heart, and what most Western visitors take for their credulity much appeals to me. They think God can do anything. What we in the West have forgotten is that He can: do almost anything. (He cannot do evil, or contradict Himself, unlike some other middle-eastern deities.) Should God assign a raven to be a courier, I should think the raven could be persuaded to obey. Should God need extra hands to dig a grave, why wouldn’t He summon the local lions? They have the paws for it, after all. The reasoning of my Coptic friends, including one “Western educated” bishop of considerable intellectual sophistication, struck me as incontestable.

This “Paul of Thebes” has been, since Saint Jerome’s charming life was published in 375, a Patron to many, many artists who have served the Church, both East and West. I can’t speak for the “liturgy committees,” which must not think him terribly important, but I will speak for artists. We have callings, as priests, nuns, and many others have callings; our vocations often involve solitude, isolation, the hermitage: going our own way, but with God. This is why we so often see Paul the Hermit represented in Western art, with the very attributes at which “the sophisticated” may sneer: the palm, the raven with the loaf, the lions. Even should the factoti in Rome happen to misplace his file, we will remember him, and what he has done for us, and what he still does.

Saint Paul, hermit of the Theban wilderness, pray for us.