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The Lions' Grave
Lives of the Wild Saints #1
St Paul of Thebes
Egypt. Third - Fourth Centuries
So eager are men to learn what is hidden.
He knows that Anthony is coming. He has known for years. For decades, he has been waiting. Now, from some impossible, easy distance, he can hear footsteps across the sands.
It is Anthony, at last.
Anthony the pioneer. Anthony who gave away everything he owned, all of his family’s wealth, Anthony who fled to the empty quarter to escape the corruption of the world and follow Christ. Anthony who lived in the crumbling tombs and the red sand forts until crowds broke down his door and dragged him out, crying for him to save them from the abyss.
Now Anthony has been tempted.
The great saint is ninety-one, and he has lived in the blasted Thebaid since he was a young man. He is surrounded by young monks, all of whom attest to his spiritual perfection, and even one as severe as Anthony is not quite immune to praise. Perhaps he was drifting into sleep, or perhaps he was in prayer when the thought approached and caught him off his guard:
There is no monk in this desert as perfect as me.
As soon as the thought alighted, Anthony knew its source. And yet the thought remained. It gnawed at him. It left and returned. He rejected it, and then he wondered: Is it true?
Is it true?
It was an angel who answered his question. Anthony could not be left to follow this thought down. Not after all his struggles. He could not be allowed to fall. The angel appeared one night while Anthony slept. Everything was light, then. The fibres of the atmosphere hummed with some agonising power. Anthony understood that everything he had seen, even in his deepest prayers, had been but a drop of rain in the storm of what the Father had made.
The angel unfurled its six pairs of wings.
Anthony, it said. Its voice was the balance of the air, and when it spoke it could not be heard. There is a man who lives in the inner wilderness, alone and in silence. Nobody has seen him. By his prayers, the Father brings rain and dew to fall on the Earth. Through his prayers rises the flood of the Nile in its due season.
Emerald fire pulsed from the angel’s dozen pairs of eyes.
There is one greater than you, Anthony, it said. The world is not worthy of his footsteps. You must go to him.
Now Anthony is coming.
He set out the next day, across the blasted desert, to find the one he had been told about. Could it be that he had always known about him? Or did he only tell himself that now? Something was occurring, anyway. There was some purpose, after his nine decades, to what was about to happen.
Anthony took only a staff. The sands baked. At noonday he was still walking. The desert, as all monks know, is home to strange beasts which cannot be explained by any human science. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish these beasts from the demons who also roam the empty quarters, leading the monks astray in the guise of beautiful young women or visitors from the towns. Now, lost in the dunes, parched and wavering, it was a hippocentaur that pointed Anthony in the direction he sought, and a she-wolf who led him, finally, to the cave of the one he had been instructed to find.
When Anthony saw the she-wolf approach, she was gasping with thirst. Anthony thought to follow her; she would know where water was to be found. Soon enough, he saw her enter a cave. Drawing closer, he could see that the cave had a man-made entrance. A door. As he looked, a human hand held it open, and the wolf disappeared within.
A human hand! This must be the man he had been sent to find. Anthony hastened to follow.
So eager are men to learn what is hidden.
Anthony reached for the door, and it was slammed shut in his face.
He sat down calmly in the cave mouth. Nothing moved. There was no sound from within. After a while, he spoke through the barred door.
You know who I am, he said. You know why I have come. I know I am not worthy to look upon you. But unless I see you, I will not go away. You will welcome beasts. Why not a man?
And Anthony waited.
And then the door opened.
There stood a man more aged even than Anthony. He was bent and thin, but hardened as iron over a fire. His beard reached to the ground. He wore nothing but a rough tunic woven from what looked like the leaves of the date palms that grew in the desert.
Anthony! he said. I have been waiting for you for many years.
For once, Anthony was speechless.
I have been watching you search for me, the old man went on. I am sorry I did not grant you entrance. But are you surprised at my not welcoming you, when you have come here to die?
And Paul of Thebes smiled.
The two men embraced, sat down and began talking. Paul’s dwelling was a high cave, its roof open to the sky but its interior shaded by the plate-like leaves of a great date palm. A spring of clear water gushed up from one corner. God had provided everything Paul needed. And so, for ninety-one years, he had not moved from this place.
Paul began to tell Anthony his story. How he had fled to the desert aged sixteen during the persecutions of the martyrs, when his brother-in-law had threatened to betray his faith to the emperor. How, like Anthony, he had left behind his family wealth for a life of poverty and spiritual toil. How he had found this cave, and begun, quite alone, to walk on the narrow path of renunciation that led towards the lightness and joy of God’s light.
Suddenly, Anthony looked up. A shadow had fallen across the date palm that shaded the cave from the harshest of the desert sun. Peering upwards, Anthony saw that a raven had landed in the tree. Sometimes these birds would alight near the habitations of the desert monks in search of food, but this bird was different: it had brought its own. As Anthony shielded his gaze from the sun, the raven alighted before Paul, deposited a loaf of bread at his feet, lowered its head, and then departed.
Ah, said Paul. A full loaf today! Usually God instructs his servants to deliver me half. This must be because of your visit. Christ has doubled his soldier’s rations!
The bird could not be seen now, but Anthony seemed to sense it. He seemed to sense much more than he could see here. Not only this raven, but the mountain itself seemed to have opinions about the man who lived within. Everything seemed alive. Everything seemed to point towards the aged man who sat quietly at the centre of it all. It was as if he had bent this small part of the creation back into shape with his unceasing prayer.
Unceasing prayer was how they passed the night, after the bread was eaten and fresh water was drunk from the stream. Anthony could not remember being so joyful. But the joy was short-lived. When the light began to stream through the gap in the cave roof, Paul spoke in a new tone.
I knew long since, brother, he said, that you were dwelling in the desert. There is much that I see about you and all of your fellow monks. God promised you to me long ago as a companion and fellow servant. But it has been over ninety years since I arrived here. My time of falling asleep now draws nigh.
Anthony felt the creation - or this small part of it that had been so transformed by Paul’s presence - suddenly seem to contract again. A terrible dryness came into the air. He began to speak.
Be of good cheer! barked Paul, before he could get a word out. Do we not all long to be dissolved and to be with Christ? Well, then, it is my time, and I am joyful about it. My course in these sands is run.
Then why did God bring me to you, cried Anthony, only to take you from me so soon?
Ravens cannot lay my body in the Earth, brother, he said. That is the task you have been assigned.
Anthony often enjoyed, later in life, explaining to his students how well God had used the first hermit to crack open his pride like a ripe egg. In just two days he had been transformed from the greatest saint in the desert to a mere gravedigger. Worse: he would turn out to be a failure even at this task.
Paul died in prayer: kneeling, head lifted, hands outstretched. This was how Anthony always said he found him. One hundred and thirteen years old he was, according to his own telling. But Anthony was not much younger, and the task of gravedigging in the desert sun was beyond him. Desperate not to fail his last task, he scrabbled with his weak hands at the hot sand, but any dip he made would fill up again before he could deepen it.
Despair was approaching with the noonday sun. And then, there was the raven again, up in the date palm. It said something. The mountain seemed to answer. Paul’s corner of creation shimmered and shifted. Anthony shielded his eyes from the sun and looked over at what approached.
Lions. Two of them. Running straight at him.
Anthony was horrified. He attempted to stand, but could not brace himself on the sand. The raven called again. Then Anthony knew. He lowered himself again and watched the lions approach as if they were doves.
At last they stood before him. Circling the body of the saint, they began roaring, keening, pawing the ground. They were mourning. Then they approached Anthony, where he sat on the sands.
Welcome, brothers, said Anthony. Do your work.
The lions dug a grave for Paul in the time it would have taken Anthony to stand up straight again. When they had finished they lowered their heads, approached Anthony and began to lick his hands.
Bless you, brothers, said Anthony. Depart now.
The last of the work, he knew, was his. With all his strength, he lifted the saint’s body into the lions’ grave, blessed it, and covered it with sand. He rested a while, praying and thinking. Then he turned for home, taking with him just one item with which to honour the life of Paul of Thebes, the first Christian hermit: his ancient tunic of woven palm.
‘I may be permitted at the end of this little treatise to ask those who do not know the extent of their possessions, who adorn their homes with marble, who string house to house and field to field, what did this old man in his nakedness ever lack? Your drinking vessels are of precious stones; he satisfied his thirst with the hollow of his hand. Your tunics are of wrought gold; he had not the raiment of the meanest of your slaves. But on the other hand, poor though he was, Paradise is open to him; you with all your gold will be received into Gehenna. He though naked kept the robe of Christ; you, clad in your silks have lost the vesture of Christ. Paul lies covered with worthless dust, but will rise again to glory; over you are raised costly tombs, but both you and your wealth are doomed to the burning.’
- St Jerome, ‘The Life of St Paul of Thebes, the first hermit.’
This is the first post in my ongoing series ‘Lives of the Wild Saints.’ You can follow the series as it develops here. This post is free to all. To read the rest of the series, you will need to sign up as a paid subscriber.
Each story will be illustrated by woodcarver Ewan Craig. Read about how he created this image, and the thinking behind it, on his new Substack Stone, Clay and Wood.
The primary source for the life of Paul of Thebes, on which this account is based, is ‘The Life of St Paul of Thebes, the first hermit’, by St Jerome of Stridon. It was written in the year 374 or 375, approximately thirty years after Paul’s death, during Jerome’s stay in the Syrian desert, and was based on accounts of those who had lived in the desert hermit communities. You can read an online version here.