Paul the Simple

Paul The Simple

Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers! If you are just joining us on this journey through the Desert Fathers, please refer back to my initial letter The Desert Fathers; An Introduction explaining the goal and purpose of this series.


Who was Paul The Simple?

Paul the Simple was a simple man. History tell us that he joined himself to Abba Anthony at the age of sixty after learning of his wife’s affair. Anthony, seeing that Paul was advanced in age, initially turned him away as a disciple. But Paul’s insistence and refusal to leave the dwelling of Anthony (he stood at his door for four days without eating or drinking) eventually won the hermit over.

It was said of Paul as Anthony was testing him, “He would have preferred being eaten by scorpions to living with an adulterous woman.”  Humans could betray him, but God would never leave nor forsake this simple man. After he had spent a year living monastically he was counted worthy of grace over demons and diseases.

Anthony recognized this grace in the life of his disciple and would frequently send those that he was unable to help to Paul. Once there was a man possessed by a demon that Anthony led to Paul in order that Paul would cast this demon out. After berating the demon (who refused to leave), Paul climbed onto a rock and said, “Jesus, I’m not coming down from this rock to eat or drink until I die unless you drive this demon out of this man! (my paraphrase).” Before he was even done speaking the demon shrieked and was gone.

It was also said of him that he could read the state of another’s soul:

"Paul the Simple once went to the monastery to visit and to benefit the brothers. After greeting them, he went with them to the Church for the devotional service. He stood at the door and looked into the face of each person entering, in order thus to see the state of soul with which each entered into the Church, since he had received from God this gift also: namely, to see the condition of a person’s soul with the ease and facility that we look on the faces of our fellow men."

As he watched the monks enter the Church, he saw one man come in assaulted by demons with a “dark face and gloominess about him”. Paul left the church weeping for the man. When the service ended, he noticed the same man come out shining with his guardian angel following close by and the demons far off. Paul rejoiced that the man found freedom. The man recounted how he was touched by grace in the service and repented at the words of Isaiah,

Wash and be made clean; put away evil deeds from your heart and learn to do good before me; and then, I, though your sins be as scarlet, will make your conscience white like the snow; and if you be willing and hear me, you shall eat the good things of the earth’.
— Isaiah 1:16-20

Paul the Simple, in his discernment, was moved by compassion and interceded on behalf of the man. I am afraid that far too many of us have had the same experience as Paul and stood in judgement. We ought to take the example of John the Beloved when he learned of Judas’ intention seriously,

“Then, leaning back on Jesus’ breast, he said to Him, “Lord, who is it?”  

The place of revelation for John was resting on the breast of Jesus, listening to the heartbeat of God. This is echoed by Paul the Simple. When confronted with the darkness of another he wept on behalf of the man.

What can we learn from Paul the Simple?

Authentic faith does not need to be complex, it can be simple and profound.

Paul may have been simple, but his faith in Christ was deep. His practice was not complicated, but his love for the Lord was noteworthy.

Another time, as Paul was listening to a conversation, he asked Anthony in ignorance, “Were the prophets before Jesus, or was Jesus before the prophets?” Abba Anthony was mortified at his disciples lack of understanding and rebuked him, telling him to hold his tongue and to go away. Paul, desiring to obey his spiritual father, did so at once and refused to speak afterwards. When the matter was brought to Anthony’s attention (that Paul continued in silence for some time after the incident), Anthony said,

“How this monk puts us all to shame! He immediately obeys man's simplest order, while we often fail to listen to the word which comes to us from Heaven.”

The life that was taught to Paul by Anthony was simple. Paul was to crucify his will in order to destroy pride, fast to subdue the flesh, and pray to purify his heart and enflame it with heavenly affection. This Paul did with vigour for the entirety of his monastic life.  The work of the spiritual man, according to Paul the Simple, was not found in all knowledge and wisdom, but to be full of faith, humility, and the affection of heaven.

This man was known as simple because in simplicity he loved Christ.