January 15 – Paul of Thebes; Macarius the Great

Icon of Paul of Thebes, date and provenance unknownPaul of Thebes (d. ca. 341) is commonly referred to as the first Christian hermit[1]. After a fight with his brother (or brother-in-law) about his inheritance, he stormed off into the desert to become a monk, and remained so until the end of his days. The number crunchers tell us he hermitted from the age of about 16 until just a tick over a hundredweight (do years come in hundredweights? anyway, 113). We have a very detailed description of his abode: a cave in the mountains of a desert near a clear spring and a palm tree. Wait, come back, stop looking in Google Earth, do that later. It’ll still be there.

The palm tree was his only source of clothing and food until he turned 43. Then a raven began bringing him a half loaf of bread every day. But we aren’t told why (at least not in my source). Did the palm tree stop producing fruit? Maybe the palm tree died, in which case did the raven bring him clothes too? These mysteries were not the mysteries that interested my sources, alas.

Well, that about wraps it up—wait, let’s look at some of the wonderful stories told about this holy man.

Actually we don’t have a lot of stories (which is kind of interesting in itself, when you think about it), but we do know that when Anthony the Great (Jan 17), another early desert hermit, visited him, the raven brought a whole loaf, having apparently been told by a little bird that Paul was having company. I say “the raven,” but since Corvid Catering fed him for 70 years, it may have been a series of ravens who just looked a lot alike[2]. Paul was presumably more of an ascetic than an ornithologist.

Anthony came back a second time with a cloak, a present from Athanasius (Jan 18), only to find Paul dead and unburied. Thankfully just then two cool cats from Leonine Desert Mortuary Services, LLC, arrived, and after Anthony wrapped the body in the cloak, the lions dug the saint’s grave. The same firm helped Zosima bury Mary of Egypt (Apr 1) nearly 200 years later, which just goes to show that a company with a really good business model can stay in operation a long time, even in the desert.

Icon of Macarius the Great, Russian, before 19th centuryMacarius the Great (ca. 300–391) (aka Makarios), one of the most famous and well-loved of the Desert Fathers*, started his monastic career with a false paternity suit, a public beating and shaming, and alimony, all of which he endured with the patience of a—well, of a saint. Eventually his name was cleared, and when the town folk headed out to his cell to apologize and praise him for his saint-like patience, he saw them coming and lit out for the desert. His biographer says that he wanted to avoid being fussed over, due to his great humility. Once in the desert he met two monks who lived together alone on an island, and for some time after he was known to mention them to others in a, “Ha! You call me a monk? Now those guys were monks!” sort of way. He was very humble. Years later he was exiled to an island with another monk. We can only guess what he used as his example after that. We can be sure it was humble. (The sources were really insistent on the humility thing.)

Macarius went on to become a well-loved abbot, and was a great source of wisdom and “words”*. The monastery he founded (now manned by Copts) has been in continuous operation from his day down to ours, although the hideous modern tower (see Wikipedia if you must) was built closer to our end of that stretch than his.

Like St. Nino’s cross (Jan 14), after his death his body undertook a life (so to speak) of travel, being exhumed, moved, and reburied a number of times, each time to great fanfare, numerous miracles, and a really good excuse.


[1] The theory that the first hermit was named Herman has long since been abandoned by respectable historians (and most of the rest).
[2] This assumes that preternaturally agéd ravens à la The Hobbit are merely fictional. This assumption may, of course, be unwarranted.