Sunday, January 15, 2012

January 15 - Paul of Thebes, Hermit, Monastic, "the First Monk"

The persecution in Thebes had been intense for quite some time but with the way Decius and Valerianus were ruling the Roman Empire it was only getting worse day by day. Paul wasn't sure what to do as he and his fellow Christians began meeting in secret and contemplating their next course of action in those turbulent times. Paul and his friends found themselves in the middle of a precarious situation: their lives and their homes tied them to Thebes but Thebes was becoming an increasingly dangerous place to live for Christians. Paul found a way out of the situation, though, by abandoning all that tied him to Thebes and becoming a hermit.

He traveled to the mountains of the Theban desert and came across a cave that looked especially inviting. As a twenty-two year old man with a few possessions, this was a significant change of lifestyle but it represented a strange kind of freedom that few knew or understood. Near his cave was a palm tree and a hidden mountain spring. Surely the words of Jesus rang in his head nearly every day as he went to gather fruit and water--"Listen carefully, don't worry about what you will eat, or what you will drink, or about what you will wear. Isn't there more to life than food and clothing?Notice the birds of the air; they don't do plant or harvest or put away supplies for security and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren't you more valuable than birds? And what's worrying ever done for you--has it added one single solitary second to your life?" Time went on and Paul's life became more and more isolated and devoted toprayer and worship. His city clothes gave way to time and wear and eventually Paul was clothed in garments made from the leaves of the nearby tree. His life had become simple and divorced from need upon what the Empire could offer--Paul was an island in the midst of the Roman Empire that needed and accepted no ruler but God.

One day, however, a raven flew down to greet the mostly silent Paul and it carried a small loaf of bread in itsmouth. Paul gave the small bird his thanks and rejoiced at the bread provided for him by God's will. He broke it joyfully and consumed it. The next day he saw the raven approaching again with bread and was joyous again. This process continued for the remainder of Paul's life. After subsisting upon what he could gather for twenty-one years he became further liberated from the needs of this world and found his needs met without his own work. His needs were met because he was more valuable than the birds of the air and because Jesus had taught his disciples not to fear--knowing that fear enslaves many to the empires of the world. Paul had nothing to lose and so he had everything to gain and nothing to fear.

Paul was very, very old when Anthony came one fateful day to visit with Paul and seek his advice, Paul welcomed him gladly into his small cave. Anthony was going into the desert to become a hermit and Paul--being the first recorded Christian hermit--was the person to talk to before setting out upon the path of material renunciation that leads to true freedom. Years later, Anthony--that much venerated monk and hermit--would refer to Paul as "the first monk." That day and that night, the two men talked and broke bread together. As Anthony was leaving he had the presence of mind to turn and thank Paul for his time and he saw a vibrant old man staring back and welcoming him to return whenever he would like. When Anthony did return a little while later, Paul had died in his cave in a peaceful and comfortable position. Anthony took it upon himself to bury the old man and commit his body back to the dust as a man finally freed from sin and corruption.

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