Ruthwell Cross

On the third column of the Ruthwell Cross (sculpted after 710) in Scotland one sees, second to the bottom, two monks holding one loaf of bread. This scene is from this tale which follows, which St Jerome (347-420) wrote in Latin, tongue in cheek, about St Anthony the First Hermit, in which he pretends there was an even earlier First Hermit, a St Paul, who never existed except in this delightful fiction, this 'Legend', peopled with imaginary Hippocentaurs and Fauns, minted as false coin as in the time of the pagan Antony, the lover of Cleopatra, which was read to monks and nuns in refectories while they dined in silence, across Europe. St Jerome himself tried to be a hermit, then gave it up and instead translated the Bible into the Vulgate Latin with the help of a rich Roman mother and daughter, Saints Paula and Eustochium. C.S. Lewis would borrow from it for his Tumnus in the Chronicles of Narnia. St Antony, in Christian art, is shown with his crutch, and often with a pig at his feet. Jerome can either be shown as a learned Cardinal in scarlet surrounded by books, or naked. In Jerome's prayer at the end of this tale, he would indeed be naked, the Emperor in Hans Christian Andersen's imaginary clothes, there having been no St Paul who dressed in palm leaves. This is a story to be read with laughter, to chuckles and guffaws and smiles. Helen Waddell translates it beautifully.


here is a good deal of uncertainty abroad as to which monk it was who first came to live in the desert. Some, questing back to a remoter age, would trace the begin­nings from the Blessed Elias and from John: yet of these Elias seems to us to have been rather a prophet than a monk: and John to have begun to prophesy before ever he was born. Some on the other hand (and these have the crowd with them) insist that Antony was the founder of this way of living, which in one sense is true: not so much that he was before all others, as that it was by him their passion was wakened. Yet Amathas, who buried the body of his master, and Macarius, both of them Antony's disciples, now affirm that a certain Paul of Thebes was the first to enter on the road. This is my own judg­ment, not so much from the facts as from conviction Some tattle this and that, as the fancy takes them, a man in an underground cavern with hair to his heels; and the like fantastic inventions which it were idle to track down. A lie that is impudent needs no refuting.

So then, since there is a full tradition as regards Antony, both in the Greek and Roman tongue, I have determined to write a little of Paul's beginning and his end; rather because the story has been passed over, than confident of any talent of mine. But what was his manner of life in middle age, or what wiles of Satan he resisted, has been discovered to none of mankind.


uring the reign of Decius and Valerian, the perse­cutors, about the time when Cornelius at Rome, Cyprian at Carthage, spilt their glorious blood, a fierce tempest made havoc of many churches in Egypt and the Thebaid. It was the Christian's prayer in those days that he might, for Christ's sake, die by the sword. But their crafty enemy sought out torments wherein death came slowly: desiring rather to slaughter the soul than the body. And as Cyprian wrote, who was himself to suffer: They long for death, and dying is denied them. . . .

Now at this very time, while such deeds as these were being done, the death of both parents left Paul heir to great wealth in the Lower Thebaid: his sister was already married. He was then about fifteen years of age, excel­lently versed alike in Greek and Egyptian letters, of a gentle spirit, and a strong lover of God. When the storm of persecution began its thunder, he betook himself to a farm in the country, for the sake of its remoteness and secrecy. But
"What wilt thou not drive mortal hearts to do,
O thou dread thirst for gold?"

His sister's husband began to meditate the betrayal of the lad whom it was his duty to conceal. Neither the tears of his wife, nor the bond of blood, nor God looking down upon it all from on high, could call him back from the crime, spurred on by a cruelty that seemed to ape religion. The boy, far-sighted as he was, had the wit to discern it, and took flight to the mountains, there to wait while the persecution ran its course. What had been his necessity became his free choice. Little by little he made his way, sometimes turning back and again returning, till at length he came upon a rocky mountain, and at its foot, at no great distance, a huge cave, its mouth closed by a stone. There is a thirst in men to pry into the un­known: he moved the stone, and eagerly exploring came within on a spacious courtyard open to the sky, roofed by the wide-spreading branches of an ancient palm, and with a spring of clear shining water: a stream ran hasting from it and was soon drunk again, through a narrow opening, by the same earth that had given its waters birth. There were, moreover, not a few dwelling-places in that hollow mountain, where one might see chisels and anvils and hammers for the minting of coin. Egyptian records declare that the place was a mint for coining false money, at the time that Antony was joined to Cleopatra.

So then, in this beloved habitation, offered to him as it were by God himself, he lived his life through in prayer and solitude: the palm-tree provided him with food and clothing. And lest this should seem impossible to any, I call Jesus to witness and His holy angels, that I myself, in that part of the desert which marches with Syria and the Saracens, have seen monks, one of whom lived a recluse for thirty years, on barley bread and muddy water: another in an ancient well (which in the heathen speech of Syria is called a quba) kept himself in life on five dry figs a day. These things will seem incredible to those who believe not that all things are possible to him that believeth.

But to return to that place from which I have wan­dered; for a hundred and thirteen years the Blessed Paul lived the life of heaven upon earth, while in another part of the desert Antony abode, an old man of ninety years. And as Antony himself would tell, there came suddenly into his mind the thought that no better monk than he had his dwelling in the desert. But as he lay quiet that night it was revealed to him that there was deep in the desert another better by far than he, and that he must make haste to visit him. And straightway as day was breaking the venerable old man set out, support­ing his feeble limbs on his staff, to go he knew not whither. And now came burning noon, the scorching sun over­head, yet would he not flinch from the journey begun, saying, "I believe in my God that He will shew me His servant as He said." Hardly had he spoken when he espied a man that was part horse, whom the imagination of the poets has called the Hippocentaur. At sight of him, the saint did arm his forehead with the holy sigh. "Ho there," said he, "in what part of the country hath this servant of God his abode?" The creature gnashed out some kind of barbarous speech, and rather grinding his words than speaking them, sought with his bristling jaws to utter as gentle discourse as might be: holding out his right hand he pointed out the way, and so made swiftly off across the open plains and vanished from the saint's wondering eyes. And indeed whether the devil had assumed this shape to terrify him, or whether (as might well be) the desert that breeds monstrous beasts begat this creature also, we have no certain knowledge.

So then Antony, in great amaze and turning over in his mind the thing that he had seen, continued on his way. Nor was it long till in a rocky valley he saw a dwarfish figure of no great size, its nostrils joined together, and its forehead bristling with horns: the lower part of its body ended in goat's feet. Unshaken by the sight, Antony, like a good soldier, caught up the shield of faith and the buckler of hope. The creature thus described, however, made to offer him dates as tokens of peace: and perceiving this, Antony hastened his step, and asking him who he might be, had this reply: "Mortal am I, and one of the dwellers in the desert, whom the heathen worship, astray in diverse error, calling us Fauns, and Satyrs, and Incubi. I come on an embassy from my tribe. We pray thee that thou wouldst entreat for us our common God who did come, we know, for the world's salvation, and His sound hath gone forth over all the earth." Hearing him speak thus, the old wayfarer let his tears run down, tears that sprang from the mighty joy that was in his heart. For he rejoiced for Christ's glory and the fall of Satan: marvel­ling that he could understand his discourse, and striking the ground with his staff, "Woe to thee, Alexandria," he cried, "who dost worship monsters in room of God. Woe to thee, harlot city, in whom the demons of all the earth have flowed together. What hast thou now to say? The beasts speak Christ and thou dost worship monsters in room of God." He had not yet left speaking, when the frisky creature made off as if on wings. And this, lest any Hesitation should stir in the incredulous, is maintained by universal witness during the reign of Constantius. For a man of this type was brought alive to Alexandria, and was made a great show for the people: and his lifeless corpse was thereafter preserved with salt, lest it should disintegrate  in the heat of summer, and brought to Antioch, to be seen by the Emperor.

But to return to my purpose: Antony continued to travel through the region he had entered upon, now gazing at the tracks of wild beasts, and now at the vastness of the broad desert: what he should do, whither he should turn, he knew not. The second day had ebbed to its close: one still remained, if he were not to think that Christ had left him. All night long he spent the darkness in prayer, and in the doubtful light of dawn he saw a she-wolf, panting in a frenzy of thirst, steal into the foot of the mountain. He followed her with his eyes, and coming up to the cave into which she had disappeared, began to peer within; but his curiosity availed him nothing, the dark­ness repelled his sight. Yet perfect love, as the Scripture saith, casteth out fear: holding his breath and stepping cautiously the wary explorer went in.

Advancing little by little, and often standing still, his ear caught a sound. Afar off, in the dread blindness of the dark he saw a light; hurrying too eagerly, he struck his foot against a stone, and raised a din. At the sound the Blessed Paul shut the door which had been open, and bolted it. Then did Antony fall upon the ground outside the door, and there he prayed for admittance until the sixth hour and beyond it. "Who I am," said he, "and whence, and why I have come, thou knowest. I know that I am not worthy to behold thee: nevertheless, unless I see thee, I go not hence. Thou who receivest beasts, why dost thou turn away men? I have sought, and I have found: I knock, that it may be opened to me. But if I prevail not, here shall I die before thy door. Assuredly thou wilt bury my corpse."

And so he stood, pleading, and fixed there, To him the hero answered, in few words:

"No man pleads thus, who comes to threaten: no man comes to injure, who comes in tears: and dost thou marvel that I receive thee not, if it is a dying man that comes?" And so jesting, Paul set open the door. And the two embraced each other and greeted one another by their names, and together returned thanks to God. And after the holy kiss, Paul sat down beside Antony, and began to speak. "Behold him whom thou hast sought with so much labour, a shaggy white head and limbs worn out with age. Behold, thou lookest on a man that is soon to be dust. Yet because love endureth all things, tell me, I pray thee, how fares the human race: if new roofs be risen in the ancient cities, whose empire is it that now sways the world; and if any still survive, snared in the error of the demons."

And as they talked they perceived that a crow had settled on a branch of the tree, and softly flying down, deposited a whole loaf before their wondering eyes. And when he had withdrawn, "Behold," said Paul, "God hath sent us our dinner, God the merciful, God the com­passionate. It is now sixty years since I have had each day a half loaf of bread: but at thy coming, Christ hath doubled His soldiers' rations." And when they had given thanks to God, they sat down beside the margin of the crystal spring. But now sprang up a contention between them as to who should break the bread, that brought the day wellnigh to evening, Paul insisting on the right of the guest, Antony countering by right of seniority. At length they agreed that each should take hold of the loaf and pull toward himself, and let each take what remained in his hands.

Ruthwell Cross, detail of St Antony and St Paul

Then they drank a little water, holding their mouths to the spring: and offering to God the sacrifice of praise, they passed the night in vigil.

But as day returned to the earth,  the Blessed Paul spoke to Antony. "From old time, my brother, I have known that thou wert a dweller in these parts: from old time God had promised that thou, my fellow-servant, wouldst come to me. But since the time has come for sleeping, and (for I have ever desired to be dissolved and to be with Christ) the race is run, there remaineth for me a crown of righteousness; thou hast been sent by God to shelter this poor body in the ground, returning earth to earth."

At this Antony, weeping and groaning, began pleading with him not to leave him but take him with him as a fellow-traveller on that journey.

"Thou must not," said the other, "seek thine own, but another's good. 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. Wherefore, I pray thee, unless it be too great a trouble, go and bring the cloak which Athanasius the Bishop gave thee, to wrap around my body." This indeed the Blessed Paul asked, not because he much cared whether his dead body should rot covered or naked, for indeed he had been clothed for so long time in woven palm-leaves: but he would have Antony far from him, that he might spare him the pain of his dying.

Then Antony, amazed that Paul should have known of Athanasius and the cloak, dared make no answer: it seemed to him that he saw Christ in Paul, and he wor­shipped God in Paul's heart: silently weeping, he kissed his eyes and his hands, and set out on the return journey to the monastery, the same which in aftertime was cap­tured by the Saracens. His steps indeed could not keep pace with his spirit: yet though length of days had broken a body worn out with fasting, his mind triumphed over his years. Exhausted and panting, he reached his dwelling, the journey ended. Two disciples who of long time had ministered to him, ran to meet him, saying, "Where hast thou so long tarried, Master?"

"Woe is me," he made answer, "that do falsely bear the name of monk. I have seen Elias, I have seen John in the desert, yea, I have seen Paul in paradise." And so, with tight-pressed lips and his hand beating his breast, he carried the cloak from his cell. To his disciples eager to know more of what was toward, he answered, "There is a time to speak, and there is a time to be silent." And leaving the house, and not even taking some small pro­vision for the journey, he again took the road by which he had come: athirst for him, longing for the sight of him, eyes and mind intent. For he feared as indeed befell, that in his absence, Paul might have rendered back to Christ the spirit that he owed Him.

And now the second day dawned upon him, and for three hours he had been on the way, when he saw amid a host of angels and amid the companies of prophets and apostles, Paul climbing the steeps of heaven, and shining white as snow. And straightway falling on his face he threw sand upon his head and wept saying, "Paul, why didst thou send me away? Why dost thou go with no leavetaking? So tardy to be known, art thou so swift to go?"

In aftertime the Blessed Antony would tell how speedily he covered the rest of the road, as it might be a bird flying. Nor was it without cause. Entering the cave, he saw on its bent knees, the head erect and the hands stretched out to heaven, the lifeless body: yet first, think­ing he yet lived, he knelt and prayed beside him. Yet no accustomed sigh of prayer came to him: he kissed him, weeping, and then knew that the dead body of the holy man still knelt and prayed to God, to whom all things live.

So then he wrapped the body round and carried it outside, chanting the hymns and psalms of Christian tradition. But sadness came on Antony, because he had no spade to dig the ground. His mind was shaken, turning this way and that. For if I should go back to the mon­astery, he said, it is a three days' journey: if I stay here, there is no more that I can do. Let me die, therefore, as is meet: and falling beside thy soldier, Christ, let me draw my last breath.

But even as he pondered, behold two lions came coursing, their manes flying, from the inner desert, and made towards him. At sight of them, he was at first in dread: then, turning his mind to God, he waited undis­mayed, as though he looked on doves. They came straight to the body of the holy dead, and halted by it wagging their tails, then couched themselves at his feet, roaring mightily; and Antony well knew they were lamenting him, as best they could. Then, going a little way off, they began to scratch up the ground with their paws, vying with one another in throwing up the sand, till they had dug a grave roomy enough for a man: and thereupon, as though to ask the reward of their work, they came up to Antony, with drooping ears and down-bent heads, licking his hands and his feet. He saw that they were begging for his blessing; and pouring out his soul in praise to Christ for that even the dumb beasts feel that there is God, "Lord," he said, "without whom no leaf lights from the tree, nor a single sparrow falls upon the ground, give unto these even as Thou knowest."

Then, motioning with his hand, he signed to them to depart. And when they had gone away, he bowed his aged shoulders under the weight of the holy body: and laying it in the grave, he gathered the earth above it, and made the wonted mound. Another day broke: and then, lest the pious heir should receive none of the goods of the intestate, he claimed for himself the tunic which the saint had woven out of palm-leaves as one weaves baskets. And so returning to the monastery, he told the whole story to his disciples in order as it befell: and on the solemn feasts of Easter and Pentecost, he wore the tunic of Paul.

               St Antony              St Paul

   pray you, whoever ye be who read this, that ye be mindful of Jerome the sinner: who, if the Lord gave him his choice, would rather have the tunic of Paul with his merits, than the purple of Kings with their thrones.


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