Chapter XXV (continued), Life of St Hilarion, Book 1a
On the fifth day he arrived at Pelusium and visited the Brothers in a neighbouring desert place called Lychnos. Three days later he arrived at the fortress of Thebatum where he saw Dracontius, the bishop and confessor who was in exile there. He was incredibly delighted at meeting such a great man. After another three days he arrived at Babylon, where he met bishop Philo, who was also a confessor. They had both been exiled to these places by the Emperor Constantius, who favoured the Arian heresy. Two days after leaving there he got to the town of Aphroditos, where he met up with the deacon Baisanes. Here he obtained camels, the only possible means of transport through the waterless desert, for he now told his brothers that he intended to observe the anniversary of Antony's death by keeping a night's vigil in the place where he died. After three further days in the vast and horrible wilderness he arrived at Antony's high mountain where he found two monks, Isaac and Pelusianus, Antony's interpreter.
Now that we have got to this point in our story, and the occasion presents itself, it seems right to describe briefly the place where the great man lived. It is a rocky mountain about a mile high, with a spring of water at the base of it. Some of the water soaks away into the sand, but the rest of it falls away to form a small stream. On either bank there are a great number of palm trees, lending charm to the place as well as usefulness. Antony's disciples took the old man with them here and there to show him everything.
"This is where he would sing his psalms", they said, "here he would pray, here work, here he would rest when tired. These vines he planted himself, as well as these little trees. He made this garden bed with his own hands. Much sweat went into the making of this pond, which irrigates his little garden. And here is the hoe which he used for many years to cultivate the ground with."
Hilarion lay down on Antony's bed, and embraced the covers as if they were still warm. This was in a little cell, square-shaped, just big enough for a man to stretch out in and lie down. There were two other cells of the same size at the top of the mountain, which could only be reached by climbing up like a snail with a great deal of effort. Antony used to escape here to get away from visitors and the common life of his disciples. These cells had been cut out of the living rock, though extra porchways had been added on. The disciples then led him to the orchard.
"See these fruit-bearing trees in the midst of the others?" said Isaac. "About three years ago a herd of wild donkeys caused great damage to them. Antony ordered the leader of them to stand still, belaboured him with his stick and asked it how it dared to eat that which it had not sowed. After that they often came to drink from the stream but never touched the trees or the fruit."
Hilarion asked them if they could show him Antony's burial place. They came a little closer to him and said it was not possible either to show him or not to show him, for in accordance with Antony's instructions, the grave was kept secret to prevent a local very rich man called Pergamius from coming to take the body to his villa and making a martyr's shrine for it.
He returned to Aphroditos, and, keeping only two of the brothers with him, remained nearby in the desert for a while, using such abstinence and silence as if he were only just beginning to serve Christ. The surrounding country had been suffering from a drought for the previous three years, and the people said that even the elements were mourning the death of Antony. Hilarion's fame was well known to the farmers round about, and both men and women, their lips bloodless and their bodies wasted with hunger, urgently begged the servant of Christ, as the successor of the blessed Antony, to pray for rain.
Seeing their plight, Hilarion was filled with compassion, and raising his eyes to heaven and stretching out both his hands he immediately prayed for what they had asked. The rains fell on the dry and thirsty land, suddenly bringing forth a multitude of serpents and poisonous beasts, which bit a great number of people. If they had not run immediately to Hilarion for help they would have died, for he anointed the wounds of the shepherds and farmers with blessed oil and restored them to health.
He was showered with praise as a result, so he fled to Alexandria, intending to go on from there to the desert of Oasis [About 40 miles west of Alexandria]. But since he had never stayed in a city in all the time since he had become a monk, he went on to certain brothers whom he knew in Bruchium, not far from Alexandria, who received him with great joy. It was not long before night began to fall, when they suddenly saw Hilarion's disciples saddling the donkey and preparing for departure. They fell at Hilarion's feet, begging him not to go. They lay down across their doorway, saying that they would rather die than be held guilty of such a grievous lack of hospitality.
"I was just thinking that I had better move on," said Hilarion, "lest I cause you a great deal of trouble. Future events will show you that I was right to leave so suddenly."
He knew that next day people would come from Gaza with the Prefect's lictors and search the monastery looking for him.
"Isn't it true what we have heard about him?" they said, when the found no trace of him. "He is a magician, and can tell the future!"
For after Hilarion had left Palestine Julian had succeeded as Emperor, and the people of Gaza had destroyed his monastery and begged the new Emperor that Hilarion and Hesychius be put to death. It was decreed that both should be sought for throughout the whole world. But he had already left Bruchium and set out for Oasis through the trackless desert. He stayed there for about a year, but even there his fame had preceded him. There seemed to be nowhere in the East where he could hide, and he considered the possibility of sailing to some desert island. Even though there was nowhere to hide on land, he thought that perhaps the sea might be able to conceal him.
But just then Hadrianus his disciple came from Palestine, saying that Julian had been killed, [363 AD. The new Emperor was Jovian]. that a Christian Emperor now reigned, and that he ought to return to what was left of his monastery. But Hilarion would hear none of it, and instead went westward on a camel to the seaside town of Paretonium in Libya, where Hadrianus, in an ill-fated desire to return to Palestine, betrayed Hilarion grievously. For he thought to acquire for himself some of the glory which had earlier belonged to his master, and packed up all the goods which the brothers had put in his care and set off without Hilarion's knowledge. This is a convenient place for me to relate something which might strike terror into the hearts of those who do not respect their masters, for it was not long after this that Hadrianus was stricken with jaundice.
He still had with him Zananus, and together they took ship for Sicily, knowing he could pay for the passage by selling a copy of the Gospels, which he had copied out himself as a young man. In the middle of the Adriatic the captain's son was possessed by a demon and began to shout loudly:
"Hilarion, servant of God, why can't we even be safe from you in the middle of the sea? Give me a bit of breathing space till we get to land, lest you cast me out and I fall into the abyss."
"If my God allows you to stay," said Hilarion, "well, stay! But if he casts you out, why should you blame me, penniless sinner that I am?"
He said this to discourage the sailors, as well as the merchants who were aboard, from handing him over when they got to land. The boy was purged of the demon not long after that, and his father and the others who were there gave their word that that they would not mention his name to anyone at a later date.
When they docked at Cape Pachynum in Sicily he offered the Gospel to the captain as payment for his passage, but he would not accept it, especially as he could see that apart from that book and the clothes they stood up in they possessed absolutely nothing. But the old man was quite happy to put his faith in being poor, rejoicing all the more in possessing nothing of this world, and that he should be thought a beggar by those he came into contact with. On the other hand he feared lest the merchants from the East might make his name known, so he fled from the coast twenty miles away to a lonely spot where he collected bundles of wood each day and loaded up his disciple with them. By selling these in a nearby village he was able to provide for his needs and also offer a little bread to anyone who might come to him.
But, indeed, as it is written in Scripture, 'a city set on a hill cannot be hidden' (Matthew 5.14). A certain Scutarius, tormented by a demon, cried out in the basilica of the blessed Peter in Rome,
"A few days ago Hilarion, the servant of Christ, arrived in Sicily and no one recognised him. He thought he was safe, but I am going there to reveal where he is."
Accompanied by a youthful retinue, he straightaway went to the harbour and took ship for Pachymum, where, driven by the demon, he prostrated himself outside Hilarion's dwelling. Hilarion immediately cured him.
This beginning of signs in Sicily prompted a great multitude of sick people to seek him out, as well as many of the ordinary faithful. Among the first who came to him was one suffering from dropsy, who was cured on that same day. He offered to reward the Saint with a large gift, only to hear him repeat the saying of the Saviour: 'Freely have you received, freely give' (Matthew 10.8).
While this had been going on in Sicily, his disciple Hesychius had been searching everywhere trying to find him. He searched the coasts and he went into the deserts, buoyed up by the conviction that wherever Hilarion went he could not possibly go unnoticed. After three years' wandering he heard from a Jew in Messina, 'a city selling the people cheap trash', [Horace, Letters 1.vii] that a Christian prophet had appeared in Sicily, doing so many signs and miracles that he was thought to be one of the Saints of old time. But he was unable to get any answers to his questions about how he was dressed, how old he was, what language he spoke or his means of travel. His informant could tell him only that a great number of people had mentioned his fame to him. Hesychius went to Adria and took a quick passage to Pachynum, where in all the little villages along the coast he heard about the old man's fame. Everyone he spoke to knew where he was and what he was doing, and were never so full of admiration for him as for his not accepting from anybody in any of those places so much as a crust of bread by way of a reward for his many signs and miracles.
To cut a long story short, the holy Hesychius fell on his knees before the Master, watering his feet with his tears. The old man lifted him up and they spoke together for two or three days, until Zananus told Hesychius that the old man could no longer live in these parts, but wanted to go to some of the more barbarian places where his name and reputation were unknown. So they went to Epidaurus, a town in Dalmatia, but after having lived in a quiet little spot near the town for a few days, he found he could no longer remain hidden away. For a beast of enormous size was laying the district waste. The local people called these beasts 'cattlers' [boas] because they were able to swallow up cattle [boves] in one gulp. It could devour not only plough oxen and store cattle but also farmers and shepherds, who were irresistibly dragged towards it by the fascination of its power. Hilarion caused a pyre to be built, prayed to Christ, summoned the beast and made it ascend to the top of the pile of wood. And then, as all the people looked on, he set fire to the pyre and cremated the enormous beast. He began to wonder what he should do next, and where he should turn to, and prepared to flee once more, wanting desperately to be able to wander the earth alone, regretting that people were already spreading the news about how he had performed a miracle without even saying anything at all.
In the tempestuous earthquake which followed the death of Julian, the sea burst its bounds as if God were threatening the whole world with another flood, or reducing everything to a state of primeval chaos. Ships were smashed and carried up on to the hillsides where they were left stranded. The people of Epidaurus were terrified that the size and violent movement of the waves with their mountainous whirlpools would suck away the beaches, and they were frightened that the foundations of the town would be washed away, which they had already seen happen once before. They ran to the old man, and made him go to the seashore, in the very forefront of the battle. He made the sign of the cross three times in the sand and stretched out his hands. Incredible to relate, a high and swelling wall of water stopped still in front of him, and gradually subsided back into itself. To this day, the people of Epidaurus, and the whole region round about, talk about this event. Mothers tell their children about it, and so the memory of it is transmitted to posterity. What was said to the Apostles is absolutely true: 'If you have faith you shall say to this mountain, be cast into the sea, and it shall be done' (Matthew 17.20). This can be fulfilled quite literally, if anyone has faith such as that which the Lord commanded that the Apostles should have. There is not a great deal of difference, after all, between a mountain being removed into the sea, and, on the other hand, mountainous waves suddenly being arrested and gently subsiding in front of the rock-like presence of one old man. The whole region wondered, and this remarkable sign was noised abroad as far as Salon.
When the old man realised this, he fled by night, and after two days boarded a merchant ship going to Cyprus. When they were half way between the islands of Malea and Cythera, pirates left the shore in two fast warships, sweeping the waves with their oars, striking fear into the occupants of the merchant ship. They wept, they ran about panic-stricken, they prepared what weapons they had, and cried out to Hilarion that pirates were coming, as if he did not know already. He had already seen them in the distance, smiled, and said to his disciples, "'O ye of little faith, what are you frightened of?' (Matthew 8.26). Are these greater than the armies of Pharaoh? Yet by the will of God they were all drowned" (Exodus 14.27). As he was speaking the hostile ships with foaming prows were only a stone's throw away. But he stood in the bows of the ship, and thrust his hand out towards them.
"Thus far and no farther!" he shouted.
Miracle of faith! The ships stopped, and quite contrary to the movement of the oars, began to go backwards. The pirates were stunned. They had no desire to go back to shore, but in spite of everything they could do, toiling away trying to make the ships go forward, they went back more quickly than they had come.
I pass over the rest of the voyage, lest my narrative get too big for one volume. Suffice it to say that they sailed safely past the Cyclades, from whence they heard the voices of unclean spirits arising from the towns and villages, spreading down even as far as the coast, and arrived at last at the port of Paphus in Cyprus, a town celebrated in the songs of the poets. Here they saw the ruins of what once used to be, destroyed by the frequency of the earthquakes, and took up a humble existence about two miles from the city, rejoicing greatly at being able to remain in silence for a few days. But not twenty full days later, anyone throughout the whole island who was possessed by unclean spirits began to shout: "Hilarion the servant of Christ is here!" and felt compelled to seek him out. The people of Salamina, Cyrium, Lapetha and other towns all had the same cry, some of them shouting that they themselves were Hilarion, the servant of God, without knowing where he really was! Nevertheless, before a month had passed there were already about two hundred people, both men and women, gathered about him. He gazed at them, grieving that he was not being allowed to stay in silence, but nevertheless did violence to his own inclinations by belabouring them with urgent prayer, such that some of them were cured immediately, some within two or three days, and all of them by the end of a week.
He stayed there for two years, constantly wondering where he could fly to next. He sent Hesychius to Palestine to send greetings to the brothers and inspect the ashes of his monastery, telling him to return in Spring. When Hesychius returned, Hilarion then thought of going to Bucolia in Egypt, for the reason that there were no Christians there, only a wild and barbarous people, but Hesychius persuaded him it would be better simply to go to a more secret spot without leaving the island. He searched about in many directions, and at last took Hilarion to a place about twelve miles inland among steep and deserted mountains which it was hardly possible to climb up on hands and knees.
Once there he could take comfort in being in a remote and daunting environment, surrounded by trees, and yet with a stream flowing down from the upper slopes, an area which had obviously once been cultivated and had fruit bearing trees in abundance - from which however he never picked any fruit! There were the ruins of an ancient temple nearby, from which numberless voices of demons emanated night and day, so much so that you might have thought an army was approaching (so he said, and his disciples bore this out). Being able to battle against the enemy at such close quarters pleased him, and he stayed there five years, with Hesychius keeping a constant eye on him. In this last phase of his life he was able to refocus himself, for only very rarely was anyone willing and able to seek him out because of the severe difficulties involved in getting there. Besides which the ordinary people were convinced that the place was haunted by ghosts.
One day he went out into the garden and found a man totally paralysed lying just outside. He asked Hesychius who he was and how he had got there.
"He is the bailiff of this estate," he replied, "which includes the garden we are in."
Hilarion wept and stretched out his hand.
"In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ," he said, stand up and walk!"
Amazing speed! The words had hardly come out of his mouth before the man's limbs regained their strength and enabled him to stand up.
After this became widely known, many people in need refused to let a difficult and trackless journey deter them, and they found that there was nothing about the place which would enable him to escape from them. He began to drop hints that he would not be able to stay there much longer, not because of any thoughtless, childish pique, but because he shunned popularity, which he hated. He never desired anything other than to live humbly and in silence.
In the eightieth year of Hilarion's age, while Hesychius was away, he wrote with his own hand a letter by way of making a will, leaving Hesychius everything he possessed, that is, a book of the Gospels, a sackcloth tunic, a cowl and a cloak. He became very ill, and many religious men came from Paphus to see him, many of whom heard him say that he was about to depart to the Lord, liberated from the chains of the flesh. A certain holy woman called Constantia, whose niece Hilarion had saved from death by anointing her with oil, urged them all not to delay for a minute after his death before covering him with earth in the garden, clothed in his hairshirt, his cowl and his sackcloth. While there was still a little warmth left in his body, and before his living human senses had departed from him, he opened his eyes and spoke:
"Go, what have you to fear?" he said. "Go, my soul, why do you hesitate? Nearly seventy years you have served Christ, how can you be frightened of death?"
With these words he gave up his spirit. He was buried at once in the earth, before the news of his death was announced in the city. When the holy Hesychius heard in Palestine, he hurried back to Cyprus, making out that he wanted to live in that same garden, in order to ease the plight of a faithful farmer who in great peril of his life had been guarding it, and had concealed the body there for nearly ten months. He took it back to Maiuma, in the presence of a great crowd of monks and townspeople, where he laid him to rest in his old monastery, clothed in his old ragged tunic and cowl and sackcloth. His body was as incorrupt as if he were still alive, and gave off a sweet smell as if he had been anointed with perfumes.
As this little book draws to a close I must not keep silent about the devotion of that holy woman Constantia. When she was told the news that the body of Hilarion was in Palestine, the breath left her body, showing her love for the servant of God even in death. For she had been accustomed to spending nights in vigil as if present at his tomb, talking to him as if he were present and begging for his prayers. Even today, there is still a great rivalry between the Palestinians and the Cyprians, the former boasting of his body, but the latter quite certain that it was they who possessed his spirit. And yet it is in both places that great signs are to be seen daily, but especially in that little garden in Cyprus, a place which perhaps he had loved above all.
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