This past Sunday, the memorial of the birth of St. John the Baptist, Pope Benedict XVI devoted his words at the midday Angelus to catechesis on the life of that saint.
Later that day, I had a post based upon Abbot John Chapman's mention that Dionysius Exiguus and St. Benedict of Nursia believed that St. John the Baptist had been the founder of monasticism, and his disciples had been the first monks. The Benedictine Abbot Chapman then stated in a footnote that Dionysius had ignored the "Carmelite view" that St. John the Baptist had been a friar and the first General of the Carmelite order. He does not identify his source for the latter view, one of the stories of Mt. Carmel that is not supported by historical research and not accepted by historians (Carmelite or otherwise).
Yesterday, I added a quotation from the Conferences of John Cassian, an earlier source than St. Benedict and Dionysius Exiguus, in which Cassian relates that the fourth century hermits St. Paul and St. Anthony (i.e., Paul the Hermit and Anthony of Egypt) imitated Sts. Elijah and John the Baptist. The fourth century saints were the first anchorites, according to John Cassian. Cassian spoke of Elijah and John the Baptist as greatly influential in the thinking of the desert hermits, but not as their founder. Cassian's writings were an important source of the thinking of St. Teresa of Avila and other great Carmelite saints about the early hermits.
In that quotation, Cassian mentioned that John the Baptist had spent all his life in the desert, withdrawing into the desert like Elijah and Elisha, and he offered Scripture quotations about spiritual warfare and the lives of others who lived solitary lives in the wilderness.
Tonight, here is one more source, St. Jerome's fourth century writing on the life of St. Paul the Hermit. St. Jerome is another important influence in the thinking of St. Teresa of Avila, discussed in this earlier post.
St. Jerome mentioned the thinking of people of his own day who attributed to Elijah and John the Baptist the origin of the hermit life. They are "going back too far," wrote St. Jerome. Instead, he credited St. Paul the Hermit or St. Anthony of Egypt as being the true originator of the hermit life. St. Jerome both affirms that the belief already existed in the fourth century that the hermit life could be traced back to Elijah and John the Baptist, and also that the stories crediting them as founders were then already considered legends.
The Life of the same St. Anthony, written by St. Athanasius, was mentioned by Pope Benedict last week during his weekly audience discussion of the life of St. Athanasius.
Here is the first paragraph of St. Jerome's life of St. Paul the Hermit:
"It has been a subject of wide-spread and frequent discussion what monk was the first to give a signal example of the hermit life. For some going back too far have found a beginning in those holy men Elias and John, of whom the former seems to have been more than a monk and the latter to have begun to prophesy before his birth.
"Others, and their opinion is that commonly received, maintain that Antony was the originator of this mode of life, which view is partly true. Partly I say, for the fact is not so much that he preceded the rest as that they all derived from him the necessary stimulus. But it is asserted even at the present day by Amathas and Macarius, two of Antony's disciples, the former of whom laid his master in the grave, that a certain Paul of Thebes was the leader in the movement, though not the first to bear the name, and this opinion has my approval also.
"Some as they think fit circulate stories such as this--that he was a man living in an underground cave with flowing hair down to his feet, and invent many incredible tales which it would be useless to detail. Nor does the opinion of men who lie without any sense of shame seem worthy of refutation. So then inasmuch as both Greek and Roman writers have handed down careful accounts of Antony, I have determined to write a short history of Paul's early and latter days, more because the thing has been passed over than from confidence in my own ability. What his middle life was like, and what snares of Satan he experienced, no man, it is thought, has yet discovered."