This Christmas Eve I found myself reading a biography of Paul of Thebes (c. 226 – c. 341), written by another saint – Jerome, the famous translator of the Bible into the Latin Vulgate. Paul is considered the first Christian hermit. Born in Egypt, he fled to the desert to escape the persecution of Decius, and took up the contemplative life.
As is well known, Jerome was no stranger to scholarly controversy. On the one hand, he humorously mocks those who depict Paul as “living in an underground cave, with hair down to his feet.” Yet he includes some fantastic, if delightful, details in his own account. We are told that St. Anthony, also a great hermit, learned of someone holier than himself. So he decided to visit Paul, though he had no precise knowledge of where he lived. Trusting in God, he trekked through the desert. At one point, Jerome relates, he encountered a centaur (half man, half horse). “At the sight of it, he protected himself by making the live-giving sign [of the cross] on his own forehead,” not sure whether this was a demonic apparition or merely a strange beast. He asked where “the servant of God” lived, and the centaur gave him directions in his crude speech and galloped off.
A short while later, Anthony met with a faun (half man, half goat) who greeted him peacefully with a gift of dates. “I am a mortal creature,” the faun explained, “one of the inhabitants of the desert whom the pagans, deluded by various errors, worship…. I am acting as envoy for my tribe. We ask you to pray for us to the Lord….” Anthony was delighted by the piety of the creature. In an aside Jerome asserts, against the skeptics, that a similar animal was once captured and brought to the emperor Constantius. (I admit I have a soft spot for well-mannered fauns like Mr. Tumnus as depicted in the 2005 film version of C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.)
At last, Anthony was led by a she-wolf into a cave where he found Paul. The two holy men became devoted friends, though the elder hermit was not destined to live much longer. I refer readers to the original text for all the details. At any rate, the pious menagerie of the story is suitably rounded out by two lions who arrive outside Paul’s cave after he had died. “They came straight towards the corpse of the blessed old man and stopped there; wagging their tails in devotion they lay down at his feet, roaring loudly as if to show that in their own way they were lamenting as best they could.” The lions helped dig a grave for Paul and then departed with Anthony’s blessing. This aspect of the tale reminds one of the legends about Jerome taming a lion after having removed a thorn from its paw.
The above quotations are taken from the Penguin edition, Early Christian Lives.