Saint of the Week: St. Hilarion

St. Hilarion’s name is well-known to those who dwell in Cyprus because the ruins of a Lusignan castle adorn the mountain upon which St. Hilarion dwelt in his final anchoretic retreat from the world. It is quite a spectacular place, as you will see from the photos scattered through this post, taken when I visited St. Hilarion’s Castle in 2005 with Rick, Madara, and Renate. I know someone whose favourite castle it is; the tourist brochures claim that it was the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, but I’m fairly certain that was Neuschwanstein in Bavaria.

Ever since my visit to the castle I wondered, ‘Who is this Saint Hilarion? What did he do? Where can I learn of him?’

Well, this past March I was reading Pope Gregory I’s Life of St. Benedict in preparation for his feast (Benedict was saint of the week here and here). And there, in the same volume — Early Christian Lives, translated by Carolinne M. White — was Jerome’s Life of Hilarion. I recently read this piece of hagiography by Jerome, and can now tell you about this hermit who spent the last days of his life in retreat on the island of Cyprus.

The Life of St. Hilarion

St. Hilarion (d. 371) was originally from the Gaza region of Palestine. As part of the regular round of education in those days, his pagan parents sent him to Alexandria to be educated. Whilst in Alexandria, Hilarion became a Christian and was baptised.

Hearing of the fame of St. Antony (saint of the week here), Hilarion went to meet the great ascetic and coloniser of the desert. Upon encountering St. Antony, Hilarion, only fifteen years of age, devoted himself to the ascetic life as well, and lived with Antony for two months to learn the ways of this holy lifestyle. Hilarion left Antony because his desire for solitude was too great to deal with the large crowds who were always coming to visit the saint. This will be a recurring theme throughout his life.

Hilarion settled in the wilderness of Mayuma, on the Palestinian coast near Gaza, later to be a monastic centre that produced the Mia/Monophysite leaders Peter the Iberian and Severus of Antioch as well as the holy man Abba Isaiah of Scetis, revered on both sides of the Chalcedonian debate. In Mayuma Hilarion lived exposed to the elements and the attacks of the devil, akin to those experienced by St. Antony. Yet he endured all of this and maintained his ascetic lifestyle despite the challenges.

He ate sparsely, shaved once a year, never washed his sackcloth shirt which was his sole garment, memorised the Scriptures, prayed and sang Psalms continually, and slept on a mat made of rushes.

People knew of him, due in part, no doubt, to his family who thought he was crazy, and in part to the robbers who tried robbing him when he was 18 (‘Those who have nothing do not fear robbers.’ ‘We could kill you.’ ‘I am prepared for death.’). But they left him alone for 22 years, until he was 38, either for fear of holiness or respect or fear of a madman (who can say?). Eventually, a woman who had as yet borne no children came to Hilarion because her husband was put out with the lack of babies. He ignored her, but she kept persisting until he prayed for her. She conceived and brought forth a child.

Thus began the series of miracles and the lack of rest for St. Hilarion, a man who loved his solitude more than anything else. People came from near and far, not just Gaza but also the nearer parts of Egypt, to encounter Hilarion. He healed men and women, cast out demons, healed animals, saved stones that had fallen into the sea, healed people from afar, had visions, and all the usual things one would expect from a desert father.

As happened with Antony, with the fame came not only the sick, poor, and needy. There also came the monks and fellow-ascetics who came to live with Hilarion and learn from his way of life. Although he found the crowds of people in need annoying, Hilarion was pleased with this development, for he saw in these monks people committed to the path of salvation and eternal life.

Although he preferred his solitude above all, Hilarion would go on a tour of the monks’ cells every year to see them and their progress. Thus, he sacrificed his own preferences to be a pastor and spiritual guide for those who had put trust in him.

When he was 63, Hilarion became aware of the fact that he was now abbot of a large monastery with many cells of ascetics attached to it, and had, in many ways, returned to the world. He wanted to become a hermit again, but the monks would not allow him. Eventually, he escaped under the pretense of going to visit his monastic father, Antony.

When Hilarion and his party arrived in Egypt, they learned that St. Antony had but recently died. They spent some time there as Hilarion revisited the places of the Inner Mountain where he had spent time with St. Antony.

Then Hilarion re-entered the anchoretic life of a hermit near Aphroditon. Soon, the locals called upon him to end a three-year drought. Having brought rain, he saw that he was on the verge of fame again, so he went to Bruchium. From there, he fled, as says Jerome, to the oasis to escape the Emperor Julian’s men. He dwelt there for a year, and then set out for Sicily. He lived in secret on Sicily for a while, but soon someone got wind that he was there. Having performed one miracle, soon he performed many. And then the crowds came.

Hilarion left.

Then he went to Epidaurus in Dalmatia. Having saved the locals from a serpent large enough to swallow a cow, he became famous and people came to spend time with him.

Hilarion left.

This time he moved to Cyprus, settling about two miles from Paphos. As usual, people came to see him. As usual, he got fed up. This time, however, he went north to the Kyrenia Mountains. At first, only the locals who would feed him knew of his presence. Eventually, a few determined people found him. He spent the rest of his time there, with a few disciples who gathered and the occasional visitor come for spiritual instruction or healing. He died there in 371.

What We Can Learn from St. Hilarion

Jerome claims that Hilarion’s solitude was always being disrupted by the machinations of the devil and his minions who feared the prayers of this holy man. I am not sure I agree with Jerome. While I am not one of those people who just cannot comprehend the monastic or eremitic life, anchorites who never see anyone inspire me little. I agree with St. Basil of Caesarea, that if we live alone as hermits, we cannot fulfill our Lord’s commands to serve others and submit to one another. How can a person all alone practice the great virtues of charity and peacemaking?

I think that people kept finding Hilarion because the Lord will not let holiness stay hidden. He wants his people to benefit from the lives of those whom he has set apart. Hilarion spent 22 years alone training and praying and worshipping in the desert. Our Lord Christ spent 33 years as a carpenter’s son in Nazareth.

Eventually, the time for public ministry comes to those who have been prepared. Jesus was ready, for he was perfect Man and perfect God. Hilarion was ready, he just didn’t know it or wish it. But God knew that through Hilarion’s wisdom and example and prayers great good would come to his people. Therefore, he circumvented Hilarion’s desire for solitude at every turn so that the virtues of charity and service could be brought to others by this man whom the Lord had prepared for good deeds.

We will never be free from opportunities to do good works. Even when we do not wish to do them, we ought to, just as Hilarion did. The Lord loves a cheerful giver; but a giver of any sort is better than none at all. Be on the lookout for opportunities for charity and service, for they will come whether you want them or not. Then bless the Lord that you can be the servant of all, even if you’d rather stay in alone with a book.

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