The Episcopal Church of St. Paul in the Desert was named for Saint Paul the Hermit who was the first of the Desert Fathers.
A lesser Saint, the only recorded information on his life and religious influence is from the original Latin account which was written by Saint Jerome. In more recent years much of this was updated and amplified with the story of the whole movement of the Desert Monks in a book, the Desert FATHERS , written by Helen Waddell and first published in 1936.
Saint Paul was the first of these men who retired to the desert and spent their lives in solitude, prayer and meditation. He was soon followed by a large number of others, the best known of whom is Saint Antony, a devotee of Saint Paul, who led the largest community of these men in the desert. They became known as Anchorites which by dictionary definition is “a hermit or recluse, one who retires to a solitary place, specifically to devote himself to religious duties.”
The significance of this particular church being named for this first desert monk is far deeper than the mere fact that the parish is located in the desert community of Palm Springs. The true meaning lies in the life of Saint Paul and the lives of all the Desert Fathers. For though they contributed little or nothing to the philosophy of religion, they left much by their example of kindness, selflessness and humility. Saint Paul by his personality expressed in these and many similar qualities, influenced all of life about him in the desert, not only man, but also the animals and possibly even the plant life. As the first of the desert monks he certainly was the principal motivation for the whole movement of these men who spent their lives in solitary meditation and prayer.
SAINT PAUL THE HERMIT
228 – 341 A.D.
Feast Day: January 15
Saint Paul, an early Christian, was born in Egypt, in the ancient city of Thebes, of wealthy parents. He had one sister, a few years his senior. As a student he was well-versed in Greek and Latin and was always devout, a strong lover of God and gentle of spirit. He spent much time in prayer and meditation.
When he was at the age of 15, both his parents died, leaving him great wealth. His sister was already married and his brother-in-law coveted Paul’s wealth.
At about 250 A.D. a cruel tempest swept over the Christian Church of Carthage and Thebaid under the persecuting emperors, Decius and Valerius. To escape this Paul fled the city to a remote and secret hiding place, but knowing that his brother-in-law was endeavoring to betray him, he ultimately went to the mountains where he found peace and serenity and could meditate and pray with out molestation.
There he found a large cave which he made his permanent habitation and where he spent the rest of his life. There was an inner court that was shaded by an ancient and large palm tree and also a spring fed stream of clear water. There were many artifacts in this cave going back to the time of Antony and Cleopatra which indicated not only that the cave had been previously inhabited, but also that it had in that earlier time been used for the minting of coins.
Much of Saint Paul’s earlier life on the desert is not recorded since his association with Saint Antony was in his later years. However, it is obvious that he not only lived simply but that he also lived with only the bare necessities. He slept on the ground, drank only water from the spring and his clothing he wove from fronds of the palm tree Each day a raven brought him half a loaf of bread which he acknowledged as a gift from God and throughout his life this was his only food. He had left behind him all his worldly goods and wealth.
By the time Saint Paul reached the age of 113 years, Saint Antony, heading a community of monks in another part of the desert, was 90 years of age. Saint Antony claimed to have a vision at this time of Paul’s nearness and immediately set out to visit him, travelling by foot, a journey of at least three days. Antony did not know where Paul was located but Saint Jerome stated that he met a centaur who showed him the way.
Saint Antony found Saint Paul weak of limb and with shaggy white hair. They embraced and prayed. A raven flew in with a whole loaf of bread. When this occurred Paul said, “God has sent us our dinner.” Each day for the previous 60 years the raven had brought him but half a loaf. They spent the night in prayer and meditation.
In the morning Saint Paul said to Saint Antony, “From old time, my brother, I have known thou dwelt in these parts; from old time God has promised thou would come to me. But since the time has come for sleeping, I have ever desired to be dissolved to be with Christ, the race is run, there remaineth for me a crown of righteousness. Thou has been sent by God to shelter this poor body in the ground, returning earth to earth.”
Weeping and groaning, Saint Antony began pleading with Saint Paul not to leave but to take him with him. Saint Paul said, “Thou must seek, not thine own, but another’s good. If it were good for thee, the burden of the flesh flung down, to follow the Lamb; but it is good for the other brethren that they should have thine example for their grounding.”
Saint Paul asked Saint Antony to return to the monastery and bring back a robe which had been the gift of Athanasius, the Great, an early Bishop, for he wished his body to be wrapped in this for burial. Saint Antony could not speak, but weeping, he saw Christ in Saint Paul and worshipped God in Saint Paul’s heart. He set out on this mission which was a three day walk each way.
On the third day of his return journey with the robe, he had a vision of a host of angels with companies of prophets and apostles and amid these was Saint Paul climbing the steps of heaven. He knew this meant Saint Paul’s death, and weeping, he hastened to reach the cave.
There he found Saint Paul’s lifeless body kneeling in prayer, his arms outstretched and his face lifted to heaven. He wrapped the body in the robe Saint Paul had requested and carried it outside, chanting the hymns and psalms of Christian tradition. He had no means of digging a grave and was really too weak for this physical effort.
Two lions came running across the desert with their manes flying. They knelt by the body of Saint Paul and roared lamentations. Then they went off and with their paws dug a grave. They then came to Saint Antony for his blessing. Saint Antony prayed: “Lord, without whom no leaf lights from the tree; nor a single sparrow falls upon the ground, give unto these even as thou knowest.” The lions left.
For the remainder of his life, on Easter and on Pentecost, Saint Antony always wore the tunic Saint Paul had woven for himself from the fronds of his palm tree.
Saint Paul died on January 10 but his Feast Day was changed to January 15 so as not to interfere with the Octave of the Epiphany.
Saint Antony lived 15 years after Saint Paul’s death, dying in the year 356 A.D. Throughout his own lifetime and for more than 100 years after his death, men were seeking a religious life on the desert because of his influence.
Saint Paul and Saint Antony were the forerunners of a great religious movement of Christian men seeking a holy life on the desert. As was stated earlier, their contribution to the philosophy of religion is negligible, but the richness of the records is in their kindness, their selflessness, their humbleness. Saint Paul said: “Let no one who hath renounced the world think that he has given up some great thing…. The whole earth set over against heaven’s infinite is poor….”
These men who sought the holy life on the desert at that time had little to say of the depth of their religious experience but their every action showed a standard of values that turns the world upside down. It was their humility, their gentleness, their heart breaking courtesy that was the seal of their sanctity to their contemporaries, far beyond the abstinence, or miracle, or sign.
One intellectual concept that is credited to the Desert Fathers is that they gave to Europe the concept of ETERNITY. But here again they did not formulate it as much as embody it. Boethius defined eternity as “that which encoloseth and possesseth the whole fullness of life everlasting, from which naught of the future is absent, and naught of the past has flowed away.”
And—finally credited to the Desert Fathers is what is to be considered the ultimate in a statement on the goal and consummation of prayer: “When all love, all longing, all desire, all seeking, all thoughts or ours, all that we see, all that we say, all that we hope, shall be God.”
It is not by some random process that a parish church is named for a particular saint. Admittedly, there are some saints better known than others, and location influences this choice. However, most parishes have a patron saint whose life directly flavors its character. It might be the life and witness of one saint, or one church doctrine, or a sacrament; all these may set the disposition of a parish for all time.
Having read this booklet on the life of young Paul of Thebes, later to be known as Saint Paul the Hermit, there are obvious correlations between his environment and this desert community of Palm Springs. However, the beautiful palms, crystal springs, and the image of a desert oasis are only superficial. The physical setting common to both is insufficient to present a mission to this parish.
Saint Paul the Hermit possessed certain spiritual qualities that, once meditated upon, certainly cry out to modern man. Saint Paul left a life of gentility in order to defend his faith and pursue a ministry of meditation and waiting upon the Lord. Worldly standards were set aside and the crush of time lost its control so that this man might find a peace with creation and Creator. A man threatened by other men, discovered a true sense of fellowship with all mankind. We, no less than he, live in a wasteland unless God blesses our life and endeavors. As with Saint Paul, our life may either be shallow, or charged with purpose when we offer it up in service to our Lord Jesus.
This parish church of Saint Paul in the Desert is set apart to be an oasis of God’s grace in the midst of modern living. As Saint Paul shared his home and faith with Antony, we of this parish, set in a quiet park, welcome resident and visitor alike. The health giving sacraments, pastoral ministrations, and the fellowship of our common faith are offered to all who enter and rest. Our personal life in the community should point to the truth we have seen revealed in Christ Jesus, It is our hope that this parish will remain a symbol of the eternal glory and love of God All that is fashionable may pass away, but the prayers of the devout, the daily witness of faithful people, and the sincerity of our worship will make firm our foundation.
This desert community calls to the world: “Come to me for health, excitement, and glamor.” Firm in the realization that all these soon pass away, Saint Paul’s shall simply proclaim: “Come, hear Christ’s words, partake of His saving love, and gain God’s everlasting peace.”