Long before monasteries had been formed by pious men to express the will of God, those that combined in holy efforts had started out by individually isolating themselves from the rest of the world and, thereafter, collectively banding together in cloisters. In the late third century, the man who had generally been acknowledged to be the first self-appointed hermit was Saint Anthony, but he in turn came to discover that he really had not been the first and who discovered that the first genuine religious recluse was a man from Thebes named Paul.
It was not until after Anthony's example of isolation in the name of the Lord had been followed by others, with the result that there came into being the first of countless monasteries, that it was made evident that Paul had preceded Anthony by several years in this ascetic way of life. And it was only through a divine intervention that Anthony and the world came to know the truth as to the identity of the originator of asceticism in isolation.
Born in the city of Thebes, Egypt, Paul was orphaned at an early age and was brought up by devout Christians who saw to his complete religious education. He had been left a considerable estate but gradually withdrew from the social set whose Sybaritic preferences he deplored. He could have enjoyed the favor of the Emperor Decius but he chose to follow the dictates of his Christian conscience and forsook his estate for the quiet and solitude of the desert. He was only twenty-two years old when he abandoned his worldly goods and sought out a cave in which he could meditate and pray. Close by the entrance to the cave was a spring from which he drew water as he needed and next to which was a tree which was virtually a tree of life for him. Not only did he clothe himself with garments fashioned from the durable leaves of this tree, but he sustained himself much of the time with its fruit. It is said he was given bread by a raven, much as Elijah subsisted on bread borne to him by a raven sent from God.
Perhaps in spite of his meager diet rather than because of it, Paul lived well beyond 100 years, although there is much to be said for abstinence particularly from foods that do anything but prolong a man's life. Paul had already reached the age of 114 when the ninety-year-old Anthony had a vision in which it was revealed to him that deep in the desert was a predecessor. This revelation prompted Anthony to seek out the unknown holy man, and after telling his fellow monks of the vision, he departed for the desert and eventually made his way to the cave where Paul had lived for nearly seventy years.
As Anthony approached the cave, Paul, who knew of the coming of the visitor, called the delightfully surprised Anthony by name, and they embraced in the glory of God whom each was serving so nobly. After many hours of gentle conversation and meditation, Paul announced that his time was near and asked if he could be buried with the cape of Athanasios of Egypt, now in the possession of Anthony, as his shroud. Amazed as much by the fact that Paul knew of the cape as by the fact that he knew that death was at his door, the visiting monk returned to the monastery and brought the cape back with him to Paul's cave.
Several of the monks had volunteered to accompany Anthony on his return trip but he preferred to go back alone, much as he would have liked to have his entire monastery meet this impressive hermit of the desert. When at last he got back to the cave, he perceived Paul kneeling in the shadow in prayer, and he remained discreetly outside, not wishing to disturb his friend of the cloth. The minutes passed, and Anthony would peer from time to time into the cave, but when he observed the praying figure he paced outside the cave, cape in hand.
As more minutes passed, Anthony grew apprehensive and went right to the kneeling Saint Paul the Hermit, only to discover that he had died much as he lived, in kneeling before God. As he had requested, Paul, the original hermit of God, was buried with the cape of Athanasios draped about him. He died on 15 January 341AD.
From "Orthodox Saints" Vol 1 by Fr George Poulos, Holy Cross Orthodox Press