(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today we commemorate St. Hilarion, whose account is found in Volume 4 of the series.)
Saint Hilarion the Great
Of the multitude of men of God whom the Church has seen fit to make saints of the Faith, few have been given the title “Great,” since the addition of that title to men who have proven themselves would seem superfluous and one could never have the distinction of being a saint without being great in the first place. Nevertheless, there have been instances where the application needs to be made in reference to a saint who had in his lifetime an extra portion of the goodness that makes greatness. Such a man was Hilarion, a saint known to only a few, but one whom no one could deny the coveted title of “Great” once his remarkable life story unfolds.
Born in 293 near Alexandria, Hilarion was of a Greek lineage whose landed aristocracy offered the comforts and culture of a pagan society so steeped in the traditions of idolatry that he appeared the least likely to become a traitor to his class for the sake of a carpenter from Nazareth. It was when he was sent to Alexandria for higher education that the perceptive student fell in with Christian companions who seemed far better company than his own group. Hilarion was not only baptized into the Christian faith but embraced Christianity with a pledge to devote himself to the service of Jesus Christ.
It is quite possible that his parents never became aware of Hilarion’s conversion and assumed he had gone further afield to broaden his education, whereas in reality he went deep into the desert to seek out the now famous hermit St. Anthony, whom he had respected from afar and under whom he earnestly desired to attain a greater spiritual attainment. He was received warmly by St. Anthony, who was joined by fellow monks in the tutelage of this most eager Christian, and he remained for several years among the ascetics to become second only to Anthony in proximity to God.
He returned to see his parents again only to find that they had died in the intervening years and had bequeathed him a sizable portion of their estate. He regretted he had not returned in time to bring to them the light of Christianity, but with a prayer on his lips for their departed souls, he disposed of his entire wealth, selling the entire estate and then donating the receipts to various charities. Keeping nothing for himself, he returned to the desert clad in the meager sack clothing given to him by St. Anthony and settled in a desolate area seven miles removed from Majuma in a barren sector of Egypt.
Subsisting on the meager fare he could forage from the bleak desert, living in a crude hut that barely afforded room for his small frame, he spent fifteen years in meditation, prayer and occasional fasting, although by most standards his was a fasting of fifteen years’ duration, during which time his sustenance came mainly from his true spirit. Like others who had taken up extreme asceticism, he was sought out by pilgrims, but unlike others of his kind, the pilgrims grew in numbers to the point where his isolation melted in crowds, who had the benefit not only of his wisdom but of the power of healing that had come to him from the Lord through his sustained years of deprivation and devotion.
St. Anthony had passed away meanwhile, and Hilarion slipped away one evening to kneel in prayer at the burial site of St. Anthony, now a shrine known only to a few old monks fearful, that should the gravesite of St. Anthony be made known, his sacred remains would be snatched away by overzealous pilgrims. Hilarion was asked to remain to serve as chief abbot of a nearby monastery, but although he was sixty-five years old and accustomed to isolation, he declined the offer in favor of traveling to places he had longed to see after years of solitude.
He went to Capri where he preached by day and slept in a cave by night, preferring the hard ground to the many offers of comfortable rest. After a time, he departed for the land of Greece where St. Paul had trod, and he was ushered to Epidaurus by St. Hesychios, who had heard of his coming and who witnessed some of the miraculous power of the desert monk whose fame grew greater with the passing of the years. At the invitation of St. Epiphanios, bishop of Salamis, he went to Cyprus where he continued to preach and cure until he died on October 21, 373. Bishop Epiphanios and St. Jerome collaborated on a biography of Hilarion whose remains were ultimately returned to his beloved desert of Majuma by St. Hesychios.