St. Hilarion

(c. 291-c. 371)

Hilarion, an early Christian monk, was born to pagan parents at Tabatha, near Gaza, in southern Palestine. Sent for schooling to Alexandria, Egypt, he became acquainted with the current reputation of St. Anthony of Egypt, the pioneering monastic founder. Having sought Christian baptism, he spent some time with Anthony learning the ways of desert monkhood. After that novitiate, he returned to Palestine and set up as hermit in the wilderness near Majuma, south of Gaza.

At Majuma, Hilarion put into practice the stringent regime of the Egyptian monks: prayer, labor, and works of penance. His food was 15 figs a day, no more, until after many years he realized that a little bread, vegetables and oil were a physical necessity. Cleanliness, too, he considered an inept luxury; hence he wore his tunics until they fell apart, and never washed his hair shirt, saying, “it is idle to look for cleanliness in a hair shirt.” Commenting on such extreme forms of mortification, the scholarly Benedictine Abbot Alban Butler drolly observed that “the respect we owe to our neighbor makes (them) unseasonable in the world.”

Basically, however, Hilarion was developing into a charismatic monastic leader, a wonderworker, and an effective missionary to the pagans of the district. Many sought him as tutor in the monastic life, and for them he set up several neighboring monasteries. But the desert began to get crowded, and he missed the peace and quiet of its early days. In 356 it was revealed to him that his old master, St. Anthony of Egypt, had died. He decided to go back to Egypt not only to visit Anthony’s grave, but to seek there the quietude that he had lost in the Holy Land. After a sentimental pilgrimage to St. Anthony’s old haunts, he established himself near the Nile in the province of Arcadia.

Unfortunately, his reputation had preceded him to Arcadia, and crowds once more sought him out, begging him to end, by his prayers, a three-year drought, and to heal the wounds inflicted by an army of serpents and noxious insects. He was able to help them, but soon fled to an oasis west of the Nile to escape their clamor. Popularity pursuing him even there, a year later he escaped again, this time to Sicily, and selected a site for a hermitage in a lonely inland district. Yet when his disciple St. Hesychius sought him out sometime later, he found that everybody in that area knew and admired the fugitive monk. Hesychius therefore took his master to Dalmatia in the Balkans. Finding it impossible, even there, to conceal his gifts as a wonderworker, he decamped to Cyprus. While his identity was soon discovered at Paphos, too, he at last found a safe hideout in an inaccessible place twelve miles from shore. There he died in peace some years later at the age of 80.

St. Hilarion was buried in Cyprus, but St. Hesychius later moved his remains to Majuma, the locale of his first hermitage in Palestine. Hilarion would no longer be disturbed by the crowds of his living devotees. The old ascetic had entered into the eternal peace and quiet of heaven.

--Father Robert F McNamara