He went into the desert escaping persecution, but ended up loving it there.
In the centuries following the death and resurrection of Jesus, Christians sought new ways to live according to the Gospel message. One man in Egypt pioneered a radical way of living that was emulated by countless Christians after his death.
His name was Paul and he was born around 227 in Thebes, Egypt. It was a tumultuous time in the Roman Empire and Paul later witnessed the fierce persecution of Christians by Emperor Decius. He was frightened by what he saw, especially knowing that he was heir to a considerable inheritance and an obvious target.
Saint Jerome wrote a life of Saint Paul and explains what happens next.
The young man … fled to the mountain wilds to wait for the end of the persecution. He began with easy stages, and repeated halts, to advance into the desert. At length he found a rocky mountain, at the foot of which, closed by a stone, was a cave of no great size. He removed the stone (so eager are men to learn what is hidden), made eager search, and saw within a large hall, open to the sky, but shaded by the wide-spread branches of an ancient palm … The place, Egyptian writers relate, was a secret mint at the time of Antony’s union with Cleopatra.
At first Paul went about his daily duties waiting patiently until the persecution of Christians ended. However, he soon discovered that he enjoyed the solitary life and devoted himself to prayer and communion with God.
Near the end of St. Paul’s life a man named Anthony was inspired by the Gospel to give up his possessions and serve God alone. He heard about Paul the Hermit and went to visit him in the seclusion of the mountains. Some accounts state that Anthony was directly inspired by God to search out for Paul and shown the way to Paul’s hermitage. Anthony was inspired by his way of life and it further convinced him that God was also calling him to become a hermit in the wilderness.
Through St. Anthony, a new generation of Christian hermits was established and hundreds of men and women left the city to offer their lives in humble seclusion in the desert. While much of Eastern Monasticism is owed to St. Anthony, it all started with St. Paul, whose hidden life revealed to Anthony a unique path of perfection, pointing the way to Eternal Life.