March 7 — Paul the Simple; Perpetua & Felicity

Paul the Simple (d. ca. 339), a farmer in Egypt, at 60 years of age discovered his wife was unfaithful. (He heard it through the cotton vine.) Distraught, he looked up “monks” in the Yellow Papyrus. The first name was Anthony the Great (Jan 17), so he went and stood outside his door, saying, “I want to become a monk.” Anthony, who had heard that before, told him to scram. Paul stood there for three days before the oil lamp went on above Anthony’s head and he realized Paul wasn’t going away. He brought him inside his cell, and set him to weaving a rope from palm leaves. When that was done, he made him tear it all apart and start over, which Paul did without complaining. At mealtime, Anthony prayed and prayed and prayed and then prayed some more, and Paul prayed right along with him. Then Anthony took a crust, as was his custom, and offered one to Paul. When they had eaten these, he offered another to Paul, and the latter said, “If you take another, I will eat another.” Anthony replied, “I only eat one because I am a monk.” Paul returned, “Then I will only eat one, because I am going to be a monk.” Through these and other tests, Anthony determined that Paul was sincere, so he built him a cell and made him part of the local community (which was like a monastery, but without the building, the communal living, or the abbot). Later, when a demon-possessed youth was brought to Anthony, he had to say, “I do not have this power. You must take the boy to Abba Paul.”

It is said Paul went to a monastery just in time for a service. He stood at the door and watched the monks file in, but with his inner eye saw that one of them was covered in sin and spiritual filth and all that. Paul sat down and wept, and refused to go in to the service. When they all came out again, he looked them over, but they all were clean and pure. He told them what he had seen, and the man admitted that he was a terrible sinner, and had just entered the community with the hope of amending his life. At the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be whiter than snow,” his soul turned to God and he was cleansed. On hearing this, they rejoiced, and then (presumably) went to lunch in the refectory.

Perpetua and Felicity (d. 203) were so popular at one time that Augustine (Aug 28) had to warn his disciples not to treat their story as scripture. Perpetua was a pampered rich woman, and Felicity was her slave. In a dream Perpetua saw her brother (who had died at age seven) in rags, complete with the gaping wound he had died of, thirsty but unable to drink from a too-high fountain. When she awoke she began praying fervently and daily for him. Later she had a dream in which he was nicely clothed, his wound had healed to an endearing little scar, and he was drinking from a golden cup. She awoke and knew that her prayers had saved him. Thus she appears to be the first person to pray somebody out of Hell (or Purgatory—you get out of this story what your theology puts into it).

The rest is as you might expect—Perpetua, Felicity & Co. were tortured in divers ways but kept not dying, until at last they were beheaded. The headsman missed Perpetua’s neck the first time, so she helped him find his mark the second time (how that works, I can’t imagine, nor am I willing to try). She is, of all things, the patroness of cattle.