In the silence of the remote and uninhabited parts of the earth, there is a great desert of sand, called by men of old times, the Thebaid. Hither, some two hundred and fifty years after the sweet Son of God had gone up into heaven, came a Christian youth named Paolo, fleeing from the cruel persecution of the heathen. His parents being dead, the husband of his sister, a hard and avaricious man, had betrayed him to the magistrates, hoping to inherit his riches if he were put to death; but Paolo, aided by his sister, had escaped to the wilderness. He was fifteen years of age, beautiful in person, learned in all the wisdom of that age, and loved God exceedingly. Not knowing where he might find shelter, he wandered on through the burning sand, fainting with weariness and tormented by thirst. At last he came to the foot of a rocky hill, and, seeking carefully, found an aperture closed by a heap of stones. Peering in between them, Paolo saw that it led into a deep cavern, and, lifting away the stones, he made his way in and lay down to rest awhile in the cool shadow. When he was somewhat refreshed he rose up, and, following the windings of the grotto, came suddenly into a great chamber, open to the sky, where beneath the leafy shade of an ancient palm-tree, sprang a fountain of exceeding clear water, which, incessantly bursting up through an aperture in the earth, was received into a stone basin, and its overflow sucked back into the ground by another channel. It is believed by learned men that this was the secret place, where, many ages before, the famous Queen Cleopatra had been used to meet her warrior lover, the great Anthony. The youth Paolo, to whom it seemed that God Himself had led him hither, knelt down and gave thanks; then, taking up his abode, he dwelt there in solitude from that day forth, feeding on the fruit of the palm, and clothing himself with the leaves. He passed his time in prayer and the singing of hymns, and those rocky walls, which had once resounded to the songs of feasting and earthly love, now heard, night and day, only the sound of God’s holy praise. Thus his life passed slowly away, and nigh upon a century went by ere the habitation of this pious hermit was made known to his fellow men, in what manner will be told hereafter.
About twenty years later, a young man sat one day upon the bank of the great river Nile, pondering many things in his mind. He was a monk, named Antonio. Being left, on the death of his parents, in possession of great riches, he had heard the clerk read one Sunday in church that portion of Scripture wherein it is written how Christ bids the young man sell all his possessions and give to the poor, and follow him. Antonio immediately went out and fulfilled the word of the Lord, distributing his wealth to the poor; then, taking the habit of religion, he began to lead such an exceeding holy life, and to teach with so much wisdom and sweetness, that men flocked from all parts to listen to him. After a time he began to be troubled, because their veneration inclined his heart to pride, and they left him no leisure for prayer and meditation. For that cause he had fled from the monastery, and was resolved to seek solitude in the wilderness. But now, being come to the great river, he hesitated to cross and venture into the unknown country beyond. So, betwixt longings and fears, the hours passed, and all at once he heard a voice above him, saying, “Antonio, whither dost thou go, and wherefore?” And he, wondering and yet not afraid, answered boldly, “Because the people will not leave me in peace, I desire to go into the wilderness. I pray thee, teach me what I ought to do, and give me courage that I may overcome my fear.” The voice answered, “If thou wouldest go into the wilderness, and reach a place where it is possible for man to dwell, thou must endure hard and bitter toil. Yet, if thou dost verily desire peace, go.” Antonio said, “Who will show me the road, for I am ignorant of those regions.” The voice indicated a caravan of Saracens, who were wont to come down into Egypt with merchandise, and who were at that moment approaching the river, on the way to their own country. Antonio ran to them joyfully, and asked them if they would guide him into the desert, and they consenting, he joined their company.
After journeying three days and nights they came to the edge of the wilderness, and there, the Saracens taking another direction, Antonio parted from them, and went on by himself. And now he began to be assailed with all manner of strange temptations, for the enemy of mankind was resolved, if he might, to draw him back into the world. First, a bar of silver was thrown on the path, as if it had been dropped, but Antonio, knowing the craftiness of the Evil One, withheld himself from picking it up, and said, “How comes this silver in the desert? The way is solitary, there are no footmarks of travellers, neither could it have fallen from a load of merchandise, for the owner would have missed it, and returned for it. This is thine artifice, O Evil One. May thy silver go with thee to perdition.” Immediately the bar of silver turned into fiery smoke, and vanished. Shortly after, he spied a great heap of gold, lying in the road. Fearing lest he might be lured by the shining beauty of the metal from his search for the true riches, which are of heaven, he began to run very fast, like one escaping from fire. When he had gone a long way, he grew exceeding weary, and looking about for some place where he might repose himself, saw, far off, a mountain, towards which he bent his steps, and, arriving at last, was refreshed by the sight of a wide space of verdure round the foot of the mountain, overgrown with a few neglected palm trees, and moistened by a stream of sweet water. He drank eagerly of the stream, and, ascending the mountain, found thereon a ruined castle, full of venomous beasts and reptiles, which fled with a horrible hissing when he stepped within, as if unable to endure the presence of the holy man. He made his way betwixt the fallen stones, and came upon a little stone chamber, which was still whole, and here he determined to make his dwelling. He had brought with him bread to serve him for six months, and on this, with a little water, he set himself to endure the pains of a solitary life, trusting, that when his food was consumed, the Lord would show him a way to procure more.
Now, the castle was haunted by evil spirits, who dared not enter in any more, because of the sanctity of the new inhabitant. But they came continually with a great tumult and fury, and all night long knocked at the door, crying out with human voices, “Wherefore dost thou intrude thyself into the habitations of others? Withdraw thyself, thou mayst not dwell here, for we will drive thee out by subtlety.” Antonio, taking no heed of them, but continuing his prayers with a tranquil countenance, they went discontented away. One night the saint was keeping vigil, and had left the door of his cell open for the very great heat. Suddenly he perceived around him a multitude of wild animals, as if all the beasts of the wilderness were gathered there. But when, with horrid distended jaws, they came towards him, he knew them to be demons, and addressed them thus, “If God suffers you, I am willing that you shall devour me; but, if you are sent by the Evil One, avaunt! for I am the servant of Christ.” This said, with one mingled roar of terror they fled incontinently.
The devil, seeing these wiles to be useless, sought to prevail by more insidious means, tempting the hermit to impatience and vain longing. He was sitting one day outside his cell, and his soul was filled with weariness, and there was a great confusion and trouble in his thoughts, so that he cried out to God, “Lord, I desire to be at peace, but my thoughts will not suffer me, being evil. What shall I do in this tribulation, and in what manner may I be saved?” And getting up, he walked a little way, and saw one like unto himself, sitting and working; and Antonio, watching, saw him rise up from work and pray, then again, after a little space, sit down and plait palm-leaves, and afterward return to prayer. Then he knew that this was an angel sent by the Lord to correct him, and he heard the voice of the angel say, “Do thus, and thou shalt be saved.” Whereupon he took much comfort, and from that time set himself to follow the manner of life shown forth by the angel, occupying himself continually in prayer and work.
Now six months had passed away, and the stock of bread was exhausted, so that Antonio was compelled to support himself upon the few dates afforded by the palm trees. One day, to his great joy, the Lord sent some merchants, who had lost their way in the desert, and, after reposing a while in his dwelling, they gave him a supply of bread and departed on their journey. Some time later they came again, bringing with them messages from his brethren in the world, and a bag of seed, and some implements wherewith he might till the ground. Thereupon Antonio, carefully searching round the mountain, and finding the place to be apt for cultivation, made haste to dig and sow, and in a short space there came up wheat, which, when it was ripe, he gathered in and made himself bread, rejoicing and praising God that he was able to live by the labour of his own hands in the wilderness. And now his abode and his holy life becoming known by means of the merchants, many persons, notwithstanding the toil of the journey, began to visit him, and Antonio, distressed because he had nothing wherewith to relieve their fatigue when they arrived, set himself to cultivate a few olive trees on a little plot of ground that he might have some oil to give them.
But the wild beasts, coming out of the desert to drink at the stream, devoured the harvests of the saint, and laid waste his garden. Antonio catching them one day, reproached them thus: “Wherefore do you do me evil, seeing you suffer no harm by me? Go hence, and in the Name of the Lord refrain from taking that which is another’s.” Who would believe it? The animals, as if struck with fear, molested the garden no more.
Antonio having thus penetrated the trackless wilderness and made the waste places habitable, other pious men began now to arrive, desirous to become his disciples and to follow his holy example. They made cells for themselves on the mountain, and aided him in tilling the ground, and he taught them willingly, imparting to them the treasures of his grace. But all lived solitary, each in his cell apart, and when they met to work, kept silence, only on feast days permitting themselves any discourse together. And in process of time a fair garden grew up around that mountain, a garden of beautiful trees and plants, and likewise of sweet and righteous souls. The hermits not only subdued the stony ground and their own hard hearts, but even the savage beasts, taming their wild natures to gentleness and obedience. For this one found a young bear, whom he reared and taught to sit up and beg for food, and that other, having caught a panther, bridled it and rode thereon; and he that was called Hilario, having occasion to go on a long journey, took with him a wild ass, which carried him with perfect patience. Even the horrid crocodiles, which will swallow a man whole if he come in their way, submitted themselves meekly to the bidding of these pious hermits, for one of them, named Pachimo, being on a certain day under the necessity of crossing the great river, compelled one of those hideous monsters to bear him on its back, and swimming swiftly across, it landed him where he desired.
Yet their life in the desert was very hard and difficult, so that many, coming thither, grew quickly faint-hearted, and returned to the world. There came one day a certain Paolo, a husbandman, exceeding benevolent and simple in his ways, who, being abandoned by his wicked wife, desired to become a hermit. He went to Antonio’s cell, and knocked at the door. The saint, letting him in, asked, “What seekest thou?” Paolo said, “I desire to become a hermit.” Antonio answered him, “An old man of sixty years like thee cannot become a hermit. Return to the fields, and earn thy bread, giving thanks to God.” Paolo said, “If thou wilt teach me, I can learn.” Antonio answered again, “I tell thee, thou art too old, and canst not become a hermit. Go; or else, if it pleases thee, betake thyself to a monastery, where there are many brethren, who will guide thy foolishness. For I live here alone in this cell, oft-times eating only once in fifteen days. This is too hard for thee.” With these words he put Paolo out, and keeping the door fast shut, did not go forth for the space of three days. On the fourth day, Antonio opened the door and stepped out, and seeing Paolo still there, cried, “Go hence, old man; wherefore dost thou vex me? Thou mayst not abide here.” Paolo said to him, “Thou canst not compel me to go elsewhere; here will I die.” Now, Antonio perceiving that he had brought nothing with him, neither bread nor water, and had now fasted for four days, marvelled much at his constancy, and fearing lest he might die, suffered him to come in. Then Antonio said, “Thou mayst have thy desire, if thou wilt do all that I bid thee.” Paolo answered, “I will obey all thy commands.” Thereupon Antonio, wishing to prove him, proceeded to set him such hard tasks as only a man in the strength of youth might accomplish. But first he said, “Stay now in this place until I return, and I will announce to thee my will.” Going out, he watched Paolo through the window, who remained motionless there for the space of seven whole days, being tormented well-nigh to death by the great heat. At the end of the seven days Antonio entered the cell and bade him come forth; then, soaking some palm-stalks in water, he gave them to the old man, saying, “Take these, and weave a rope, as thou seest me do.” And they sat down together to weave, and Paolo worked until the ninth hour, and wove with very great labour fifteen yards of rope. When Antonio saw his work, he made as if he were not pleased, and said, “Badly hast thou woven; undo it, and weave it afresh.” And now it was the seventh day that Paolo had fasted, and the hottest season of the year. Antonio did this, thinking that he would not be able to endure and would return to the world, but Paolo took the palm-stalks and undid what he had done, and wove it again, this time with greater toil, because the stalks were wrinkled from the previous weaving.
At length Antonio, seeing that he did not demur, nor turn away his face, and was neither cast down in spirit nor enraged, began to have compassion on him. The sun being now low in the heavens, he said, “Old man, wilt thou eat a morsel of bread?” Paolo answered, “If it seemeth right to thee, O Father.” Then Antonio bade him prepare the table, touched by his humility. Paolo obeyed, and Antonio brought bread, and put on the table four small loaves, weighing six ounces each. He then chanted a psalm, which, when he had done, he sang over again twelve times, and afterward repeated a prayer twelve times, that he might once more prove Paolo. But the old man was in no wise discouraged, but prayed with as much readiness and alacrity as Antonio himself. This being finished, Antonio said, “Seat thyself at the table, and look at the food, but do not eat till evening.” When even was now come, and Paolo had not yet eaten, Antonio said, “Arise now, and lie down to sleep,” and the old man, quitting the table, did as he was commanded. In the middle of the night, Antonio woke him up to pray, and he continued at his orisons till the ninth hour of the day. The table having again been set, towards sunset, when they had sung and prayed as on the evening before, they sat down and ate. Antonio, having consumed one little loaf, left the other before him untasted; whilst the old man, eating slowly, was still occupied with the first one which he had taken. When he had done, Antonio said, “Old man, eat yet another loaf.” Paolo said, “If thou eatest, then will I, but if thou eatest not, neither will I.” Antonio said, “One is enough for me, for I am a hermit.” And Paolo, “It is enough for me, who wish to be a hermit.” Rising up from the table, they again said twelve prayers and sang twelve psalms, and afterward slept, and waking in the middle of the night, sang hymns till day.
Some brethren coming to visit Antonio, Paolo asked what he should do. The saint said, “Serve the brethren, and speak no word till they be gone on their way.” Three days having passed, and Paolo not having opened his lips, the brethren asked him, saying, “For what cause dost thou keep silence?” And he not answering, Antonio bade him, saying, “Tell the brethren wherefore thou art silent,” whereupon he spoke and told them. Another day, a jar of honey being given to him, Antonio said, “Break the jar, and spill out the honey.” And he did so. Then Antonio said, “Take up the honey in a shell, lest it soil the floor.” Again Antonio ordered him to draw water all the day long. Then the saint, seeing how ready he was to obey, said to him, “Brother, if thou art able to continue to do as thou hast done, thou shalt remain with me.” Paolo said, “I know not if thou canst show me yet harder things, but that which I have seen thee do, will I do readily, and will labour not less than before, God being my help.”
Then Antonio said, “Lo! now art thou a hermit,” and he gave him a little cell at three or four stones’ throw from his own dwelling, and there Paolo lived, perfecting himself in all religious exercises. And this Paolo was afterward known by the name of Paolo the Simpleton, to distinguish him from that other holy Paolo, who was all this while living in his grotto, unknown to any man.
Now, many years passed away, and Antonio having reached the great age of ninety, began to be somewhat uplifted in spirit, judging that there was none other hermit so old and so perfect as himself. One night, when all was quiet, it was revealed to him in a vision that there was another of far greater goodness, who had lived in complete solitude for the space of a hundred years, and Antonio was bidden to take a long journey and seek out this hermit. When day broke, the venerable man, supporting his infirm limbs on a staff, set out without delay, and being gone some little way, stopped short, not knowing what direction to take. It was now high noon, and he was cruelly tormented by the burning sun: yet he would not turn back, but said, “I believe in the Lord, who will show me His servant, as He has promised.” Scarcely had he spoken, when he spied coming towards him a creature, half man, half horse, such a one as the poets used to call Centaurs. Antonio, fearing evil, armed himself by making the sign of the cross upon his forehead. Then he cried out boldly, “Hark, thou unhappy one. Tell me in what region dwells the servant of God.” The wild man, in I know not what strange broken manner of speech, and with hideous gnawings and clashing of teeth, sought with his horrid hairy mouth to utter friendly words, and extending his right hand, pointed out the road, then taking swift flight into the surrounding wilderness, vanished from Antonio’s eyes.
The venerable man, much amazed, and pondering in his mind this thing which he had seen, went on his way. Soon after, as he was passing through a rocky valley, he saw sitting on a stone a mannikin, with an enormous hooked nose and a forehead furnished with sharp horns, and a body which ended in goat’s feet. Terrified by this spectacle, Antonio summoned up all his trust in the Lord, and proceeded cautiously past the strange being, who put out its hand and offered him some fruits of the palm, as if in pledge of peace. Then Antonio stepped nearer and interrogated it as to what manner of thing it was, and the creature made response, “I am a mortal, one of those dwellers in the wilderness whom the people, deluded by many errors, worship, calling us Satyrs and Fauns. I am come to thee, from my fellows, to beseech thee that thou wouldst pray for us to the God of all, whom we know to have come down from heaven for the salvation of the world, for His sound is gone forth into all lands.”
At this, abundant tears flowed down the cheeks of the aged traveller, because of the exceeding gladness of his heart, hearing Christ thus glorified and Satan put to shame. He answered the creature as well as he might with words of sweet comfort, and, grasping his staff, continued on his journey.
After a time he came to a great river, full of crocodiles and venomous reptiles, and seeing a little empty boat lying close to the bank, he went down and entered therein, and put up the sail. But there was not a breath of wind to drive the boat, and the saint was much perplexed, when suddenly he perceived a great round face just above the surface of the water. Antonio regarding it in astonishment, it began ‘to speak, saying: “I am known to the heathen by the name of Zephyr, and am come to blow thee across the river.” Thereupon it puffed out its cheeks, and up sprang a gentle breeze, which filled the sail and wafted the boat softly to the other side, while the crocodiles lay idly on the water, watching the saint with their jaws closed. Antonio having stepped on shore, the Zephyr cried, “Pray for me and my brethren to the Lord,” and straightway vanished. The saint, thanking God heartily for this marvel by which he had been delivered out of his straits, moved on once more. At length he reached the edge of a desert region, more wild and desolate than any he had yet passed through, and, seeing many traces of the feet of wild beasts in the sand, and around him, as far as eye could penetrate, the great stretches of the wilderness, he knew not what to do, nor which way to turn his steps. Meanwhile the day faded, and he was all alone, yet he knew that the Lord would not abandon him. He knelt down and prayed all night long amidst the surrounding darkness. In the first dim light of dawn he spied a wolf, panting with thirst, creep by and disappear at the foot of a rocky hill near by. Following its track, he found the place where it had entered, and saw that it was a cavern, and he began to peer in betwixt the stones which closed the entrance, but his sight was hindered by the dark shadow within. Thereupon, the extremity of his need casting out fear, with hesitating step and beating heart he moved aside some of the stones, and entered cautiously. He had gone but a little way, stopping many times and listening if he could hear any sound, when he perceived through the dreadful gloom a little light far off, and going eagerly towards it, struck his foot upon a stone, and made a noise. The holy Paolo, for this was indeed his dwelling, had opened to let in the wolf, that it might drink at the fountain, but now, hearing the noise, he shut the door again, and fastened it with a heavy bar. Then Antonio, at last reaching the door, sank down on the ground and besought the hermit in vain, even unto the sixth hour, to let him in, saying, “Who I am, and wherefore I come, I will tell thee fully. I know I am unworthy to look upon thee; nevertheless, until thou show thyself to me I will not go away. Thou receivest wild beasts, wherefore shouldest thou repel men? I sought thee long, and have found thee; open, I pray. If thou wilt not hear me, I will lay me down and die at thy gate, and then wilt thou be compelled to bury my body.”
At length Paolo answered from within, “What manner of man is this, who entreating, menaces and rages while he weeps? Art thou vexed to the point of death, because I will not open to thee?” Thus, smiling and with kindly words, he threw wide the door, and they joined in an embrace, and each saluting the other by his proper name, they knelt down and gave thanks to God together. Then, after a holy kiss, Paolo sat down with Antonio, and began thus: “Woe is me! He whom thou soughtest with so much pain is consuming away in uncared-for old age. Alas! thou seest a man flourish, and within an hour he is dust. Verily I beseech thee of thy loving kindness to tell me in what manner the race of men lives now, whether new roofs rise in the old cities, and whether any of those still exist who have cast off the errors of darkness.” Antonio told him as well as he might, and while they were still holding discourse, a raven alighted and sat on a bough of the palm tree, and presently, flying gently down, it laid a loaf of bread before them. When it had flown away, “Behold,” said Paolo, “God has sent us wherewithal to dine, for He is indeed loving and merciful. It is now sixty years that I have thus by means of the raven received every day half a loaf; now because of thy coming, the Lord has doubled the supply for His servants.” Then, giving thanks, they sat themselves down upon the margin of the glassy fountain, and a contention rose betwixt them which should break the bread, for Paolo desired to give the honour to his guest, but Antonio, in his humility, would not accept it. At length they agreed each to take an end of the loaf and pull towards himself; which, being done, the bread broke, and an exact half remained in the hand of each one. After they had eaten, they bent down and drank a little water from the fountain, and, having offered up the sacrifice of thanksgiving, they passed the night in prayer and vigil.
When day returned, Paolo said to Antonio, “I knew that thou didst dwell in the wilderness, brother, for the Lord had promised to send thee to me. For the hour comes in which I must fall asleep and be with Christ. Then shalt thou bury my body, returning dust to dust.” Antonio, hearing this, wept and groaned piteously, and besought Paolo to suffer him to stay with him now, and, if it might be, accompany him through the Valley of the Shadow of Death; but Paolo answered, “Not so, brother; thou mayst not ask that which thou wouldst for thyself, but what is expedient for others. Thine example is needed upon earth, therefore must thou yet a little while bear the burden of the flesh, following the Lamb. And now, I say, depart quickly to thy dwelling, and that mantle which the holy bishop Athanasius gave thee bring back with thee to wrap my body.” He asked this, not because he cared greatly that his dead body should be clothed, for too long had he worn only the leaves of the palm, but that his brother might be spared the sorrow of seeing him die.
Antonio, marvelling that Paolo should know of this mantle, since he had lived all his life in the cave, was filled with a great awe, so that he dared not gainsay the holy man, but kissing his hands and feet, departed straightway. On the long and painful journey Antonio’s courage did not fail, though his body was weak with fasting and broken by the weight of years. Gasping and exhausted, he reached his hermitage and took down the mantle, and without tasting food, set off and returned by the same way, thirsting to see Paolo once again, for he feared lest, whilst he was absent, the saint should have yielded up his spirit to the Lord.
When the second day had grown light, and Antonio was gone some three hours on his way, he saw Paolo in a vision, between bands of angels, and choirs of apostles and prophets, shining with a whiteness as of snow, ascend into the heavens. And immediately falling on his face, Antonio threw sand upon his head, and lamented bitterly, crying, “Wherefore dost thou leave me, O Paolo? Wherefore dost thou depart so early and without farewell?” Then he rose and ran with so much speed the remainder of the way that it was as if a bird flew. Entering the cave, he saw the saint on bended knees, his head lifted, his hands stretched upwards, as if praying; but Antonio, going closer, and hearing no sound of breathing, began to weep, understanding that the soul had fled, and it was only the body of the holy man which prayed thus to God, in whom all live.
Then Antonio wrapped the body in the mantle and carried it forth, chanting hymns according to the rites of the Church. And he was much troubled, because he had no spade wherewith to dig a grave, and he said to himself, “To return to the hermitage and fetch a spade would be too long, yet if I remain here I am no better off. Nevertheless, I will stay beside Paolo, and, if needs be, lying close to Thy warrior, O Lord, I will give up my life.” As he was thus thinking, lo I two lions came running up out of the wilderness, their manes flying out on the wind, on seeing whom Antonio was at first terrified; but crying to the Lord, he was comforted, and they became like doves in his eyes. The lions, going towards the body of the aged man, crouched down and fawned upon it, waving their tails, and then laying themselves down at the feet, they roared with a dreadful noise, plainly lamenting in their own manner. Afterwards going a little way off, they began to scrape the ground with their paws, throwing up the sand eagerly, till they had dug a hole large enough to contain a man, and then, with heads down, and making a motion with their ears, as if asking thanks, they came to Antonio and licked his hands and feet. And he, pouring himself forth in praise of Christ, whom even dumb animals glorify, cried, “Lord, without whose knowledge not a leaf is loosed from the tree, nor sparrow falls to the ground. Thou knowest what these have done.” Then he bent his aged shoulders beneath the burden of the body of the saint, and laid it in the grave which the lions had dug, and heaped up the earth upon it in a mound, after the usual custom. On the next day he took the tunic which Paolo had woven for himself of the palm leaves, and returned to the hermitage. And he assembled his disciples, and unfolding the tunic before them, he told them all things concerning the holy Paolo, with deep humility, beating himself upon the breast and bewailing his own sinfulness. He bade them be lowly of heart, not puffed up with their own righteousness, but patiently and in all meekness to endure affliction, after the example of that blessed man. And from thenceforth, on the solemn feastdays of Easter and Pentecost, he arrayed himself in the garment of Paolo, counting it more honourable than the most gorgeous vestment. When, not long after, the aged Antonio was himself suffered to depart to the Lord, his disciples took the tunic and laid it in a fair wrought coffer within a beautiful church, where it was preserved for many ages with the utmost veneration, in memory of those two holy hermits.