Saint Paul, the First Hermit

Planted in the House of the Lord
Today, in our Benedictine calendar, we commemorate Saint Paul the First Hermit (+343). The Introit of the Mass, taken from Psalm 91, tells us that Saint Paul flourished like the palm tree and grew up like a Lebanon cedar. He lived as one planted in the house of the Lord, abiding in the courts of the house of our God. The imagery of the psalmist points to the words of Our Lord in the Fourth Gospel: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abide in the vine, so neither can you, unless you abide in me” (John 15:4). Monastic enclosure, that is, separation from the world so as to live “in the house of the Lord and in the courts of the house of our God” (Psalm 91:14) is the concrete expression of a deeper aspiration: the soul’s desire and resolution to abide in the love of Christ.
The Deeds of the Saints
In the Collect we ask that we may grow like Saint Paul the First Hermit in deed. What exactly does this mean? I, for one, am far from capable of following Saint Paul the First Hermit in his ascetical rigours.
The Epistle of the Mass answers the question. The other Paul, the Apostle, says, “Brethren, the things that were gain to me, the same I counted loss for Christ. Further, I count all things to be but loss, for the excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ my Lord; for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as but dung, that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him” (Philippians 3:7-9). Saint Benedict synthesizes this in the Holy Rule by enjoining us “to prefer nothing whatsoever to Christ” (RB 72 and “to put nothing before the love of Christ” (RB 4:21).
I Praise Thee, O Father
The Gospel of the Mass (Matthew 11:25-30) is wonderfully suited to the feast of a monastic saint. It is the prayer of Jesus addressed to the Father, a prayer at once eucharistic and doxological, the model prayer set before all who would confess, that is, praise and glorify, the Father in Christ and through Christ:

I confess to thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them to the little ones. Yea, Father; for so hath it seemed good in thy sight. All things are delivered to me by my Father. And no one knoweth the Son, but the Father: neither doth any one know the Father, but the Son, and he to whom it shall please the Son to reveal him.

The second part of today’s Gospel is, to my mind, the invitation by which Jesus calls souls to the monastic life. It is, in fact, quoted in the magnificent old threefold prayer by which a man is consecrated a monk, following his solemn profession.

Come to me, all you that labour, and are burdened, and I will refresh you. Take up my yoke upon you, and learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart: and you shall find rest to your souls. For my yoke is sweet and my burden light.

Yoked to Christ
Every morning, while putting on my scapular, I pray, “I take Thy yoke upon me, Lord Jesus, for Thou are meek and humble of heart, for Thy yoke is easy and Thy burden light, and I will find rest for my soul.” In writing this I am think of our Oblate candidates who will receive the Benedictine scapular this coming Sunday. The monk in his cloister, and the Oblate living monastically in the world, are yoked to Christ. Nothing is said or done, thought or desired, apart from Him. In moments of weakness, weariness, and fear, He is present, yoked to the soul by love.
The Love of Christ Today
Some would argue that we live in a time and culture radically different from that of Saint Paul the First Hermit and of Saint Benedict, our Patriarch. Civilizations may rise and fall, cultures may wax and wane, but “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). One whom Christ has yoked to Himself will abide in His love, and one who has tasted of His love will, by His unfailing grace deployed in weakness, prefer it to all else.