October 21 – Hilarion the Great

Hilarion the Great (d. 371) was born in Gaza but went to Alexandria to study, mostly because they offered the best financial aid package[1]. While in Egypt he learned about Christianity, and converted (the usual order). Once he graduated, he went into the desert and learned hermitting from Anthony the Great (Jan 17), figuring, why go to someone subgreat? Once he graduated, he went back to Gaza to find that his parents had died. (Actually he didn’t go there in order to find they had died, but he went there, and discovered that they had died.) He distributed his inheritance to the poor, and set out into the Gaza (“Gazan”?) wilderness to continue his hermitting.

He ate exactly fifteen figs a day, unless he ate lentils, unless he ate dry bread. He earned his whatever-it-was by weaving and selling baskets, and only ate them after dark (the figs/lentils/bread, I mean, not the baskets). For years he traveled from place to place, never staying anywhere for very long, for fear of brigands. Once brigands finally accosted him, however, he talked them out of their robbing ways, sent them away as honest men, and settled himself down in a (very) low hut built out of “reeds and sedges” (without the sedges it wouldn’t have met code). There he prayed, recited the Bible, and sang spiritual songs.

Hilarion struggled mightily in prayer against evil thoughts, vain thoughts, naughty thoughts, nasty thoughts, and the devil. The latter (and his minions) sent noises and apparitions to frighten him and drive him back to civilization (or such civilization as there was in Gaza in the fourth century). He heard roaring lions, bawling babies, wailing women, and like that. He apparently saw apparitions of wily women, too, which is of course the part of the story that various artists have honed in on, depicting nudity and chaste sanctity on the same canvas being a worthy challenge to an artist’s mettle. Or something.

Somewhere in there he debarrenified a barren woman, and thus became subject to an unending stream of pilgrims seeking healing. He cured children from fatal illnesses, healed the paralyzed, expelled demons, and in general did just the sorts of things you need to do to keep from getting as much prayer done as you might like. He refused payment for his services, saying that the grace of God is not for sale (pace Dietrich Bonhoeffer?). He could tell just by looking at (or smelling(!)) someone what they needed, be their malady of body or of soul. Eventually (of course) a monastery sprang up near his hut, the crumbling remains of which were rediscovered at Tell Umm el-‘Amr (tell ’em what?) in 1999, having been abandoned after an earthquake in the seventh century. In fact he founded many monasteries, and is considered the father of Palestinian monasticism. He circulated among them as something of a peripatetic meta-abbot, establishing them in all godliness and such.

According to the Vita by Jerome (Sep 30) (written while Paula (Jan 26) and Eustochium translated the Vulgate in the other room1), Hilarion then wandered about the eastern empire for some years, staying for a time in the Egyptian desert, fleeing to Libya when Julian the Apostate put out a warrant for his arrest, abiding in Sicily (resisting the pizza there was his greatest act of asceticism), and helping earthquake victims in Dalmatia. Having done all this, he moved to Cyprus, where he lived out the final seven years of his life. A church, and then in the tenth century a fortified castle, sprang up on the site of his cell high on a lonely crag in the Kyrenie Mountains overlooking the pass into Nicosia. Its ruins can still be seen from the Wikipedia page.

After Hilarion’s death, his disciple Hesychius took his remains back to Gaza and buried them near his first reeds-and-sedges cell.

[1] Joke.