St. Paul the Simple
Memorial: March 7
The two primary saints on today’s calendar are the North African martyrs Perpetua and Felicity. However because I treat their story in my second book, Saint Who? 39 Holy Unknowns (Cincinnati: Servant Books). Therefore let’s look at another saint whose feast is today.
What would you do if your spouse just would not stop cheating? No matter what you did to fix and save the marriage, he or she just could not stay out of someone else’s arms.
That is exactly the situation with today’s saint, Paul the Simple, who caught her in the act. He didn’t sue or take revenge. Rather he saw this as a sign that God wanted him to follow another path in life.
A contemporary of St. Paul of Thebes (aka, the First Hermit, his story is also in the aforementioned Saint Who?) and a disciple of St. Anthony of the Desert, Paul is called “the Simple” not because he was dimwitted but because he had a simple, gentle soul.
He started off as a farmer by trade. At age 60, he learned his gorgeous wife had serially cuckolded him (some sources say it was just one time). Devastated he went to St. Anthony, asking to join his community of hermits. St. Anthony told him he didn’t think Paul could adapt to such a rigorous lifestyle at such an old age. (Remember, the average lifespan was much shorter than it is today.) Go back and be a good, pious farmer, he told him.
No, Paul insisted, I can learn to be a hermit! Anthony wasn’t convinced. He told Paul that he really wanted to be a monk, he should do so in a regular monastery. He bid him goodbye and closed the door on him.
Four days later, Paul was still outside Anthony the Abbot’s door.
“Go away from here, old man. Why do you annoy me? You cannot stay here.”
Paul said to him: “It is impossible for me to die elsewhere than here.”
By now the applicant was weak with hunger and thirst and exposure. Anthony admitted him because he feared the old man would die.
After the farmer had recovered, the abbot had him weave a rope from palm fronds, undo it, and then make it again.
At dinner that night, Paul had three crusts of bread placed before him, Anthony just one. When each had consumed the first crust, Anthony encouraged Paul to finish the others.
“If you have another one, I will,” said Paul, “but not if you won’t.”
“I’ve had quite sufficient for one who is a monk,” Anthony replied.
Retorted Paul, “Then one is enough for me, for I want to be a monk.”
More tests followed: fasting, penances, constant chanting of Psalms, vigils, and more. Once he had the would-be hermit break a jar filled with honey. Then he told him to take a spoon and gather the honey, taking care not to pick up any grains of desert sand.
Many people would have grown discouraged, become disappointed, or even gotten angry. Paul remained meek, however, and persevered through it all. Finally Anthony agreed to admit him to his company. After living with Anthony a few months, the abbot gave him a cave cell several miles from Anthony’s.
Through this ascetical life, he grew in holiness in a tremendous fashion, and he gained the power to exorcise demons.
Once a youth was brought to Anthony for exorcism. It is said the demoniac was “exceedingly terrifying, possessed by a spirit of high rank, who cursed even heaven itself.”
“I cannot help the boy, for I have not received power over the Prince of the demons,” said Anthony. “Paul the Simple, however, does have this gift.”
This is remarkable because Anthony was one of the holiest men who ever lived. And yet his holiness did not match that of Paul’s.
Anthony led the boy and his family to Paul’s cell.
“‘Father Paul, cast out this demon from the man that he may go away cured to his home.’ Said Paul to him: ‘What are you doing?’ Antony said to him: ‘I have no leisure, I have something else to do.’ And Antony left him and went again to his own cell. So the old man got up, and having prayed an effective prayer, addressed the demoniac: ‘Father Antony has said, ‘Go out from the man.’’ But the demon cried out, saying with blasphemies: ‘I am not going out, you disgusting, pompous old man.’ So Paul took his sheep-skin coat and struck the man on the back with it saying: ‘Father Antony has said, ‘Go out.’ ‘ Again the demon cursed with some violence both Antony and him. Finally he said to him: ‘You are going out; or else I’ll go and tell Christ. By Jesus, if you don’t go out I am going this very minute to tell Christ, and He will do you harm.’ Again the demon cursed yet more, saying: ‘I am not going out.’ So Paul got angry with the demon and went outside his dwelling at high noon. But the heat of the Egyptians is akin to the furnace of Babylonia. And standing on a rock on the mountain he prayed and said: ‘O Jesus Christ, Who wast crucified under Pontius Pilate, Thou seest that I will not descend from the rock, I will not eat nor drink till I die, unless Thou drive out the spirit from the man and free the man.’ But before the words were out of his mouth the demon cried out, saying: ‘Oh violence! I am being driven away. The simplicity of Paul drives me away, and where am I to go?’ And immediately the spirit went out and was turned into a great dragon seventy cubits long and was swept away to the Red Sea, that the saying might be fulfilled: ‘The righteous will declare the faith that is shown.’ This is the marvelous tale of Paul who was surnamed Simple by all the brotherhood.”
After Paul’s death around 339 AD, fellow hermit St. John Climacus, who succeeded Anthony as abbot wrote “Paul the Simple was a clear example for us, for he was the rule and type of blessed simplicity.”
Paul’s heart was crushed by the love of his life. And yet rather than dwelling on the negative, he took that suffering and tragedy and turned it into something beautiful through, with, and in Jesus Christ. We may not have his tragedy and suffering, but we will surely have these things at some point in some way or fashion. They are part and parcel of life in this “Valley of Tears.”
When they come our way, then, let us resolve to follow St. Paul the Simple’s example and follow where the Holy Spirit leads, even if it’s in a totally different direction.
God bless you.