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St Hilarion (oil painting, 30cm x 30cm, 360€).

The life of Hilarion was written by St. Jerome in 390 at Bethlehem. Its object was to further the ascetic life to which he was devoted. It contains, amidst much that is legendary, some statements which attach it to genuine history.

Hilarion was born in Thabatha, south of Gaza, of pagan parents. He successfully studied rhetoric with a Grammarian in Alexandria. It seems that he was converted to Christianity there. After that, he shunned the pleasures of his day - theatre, circus and arena - and spent his time attending church. According to St. Jerome, he was a thin and delicate youth of fragile health. After hearing of St Anthony, whose name (according to St. Jerome), "was in the mouth of all the races of Egypt", Hilarion, at the age of fifteen, went to live with him in the desert for two months. It was busy there, with visitors seeking cures for diseases or demonic affliction, so Hilarion returned home along with some monks. At Thabatha he found his parents had died. He gave his inheritance to his brothers and the poor and left for the wilderness.

Hilarion went to the area southwest of Majoma, limited by the sea at one side and marshland on the other. Because the district was notorious for brigandage and his relatives and friends warned him of the danger he was incurring, it was his practice never to stay long in the same place. With him he took only a shirt of coarse linen, a cloak of skins given to him by St. Anthony and a coarse blanket. He led a nomadic life and he fasted rigorously, not partaking of his frugal meal until after sunset. He supported himself by weaving baskets Beset by carnal thoughts, he fasted even more. He was "so wasted that his bones scarcely held together" (Jerome). According to St. Jerome: So many were his temptations and so various the snares of demons night and day, that if I wished to relate them, a volume would not suffice. How often when he lay down did naked women appear to him, how often sumptuous feasts when he was hungry! (Jerome, Life of St Hilarion, 7)

He finally built a hut of reeds and sedges at the site of modern-day Deir al-Balah in which he lived for four years. Afterwards, he constructed a tiny low-ceilinged cell, "a tomb rather than a house", where he slept on a bed of rushes, and recited the Bible or sang hymns. He never washed his clothes, changed them only when they fell apart, and shaved his hair only once a year. He was once visited by robbers, but they left him alone when they learned that he did not fear death and of course had nothing to steal.

Saint Jerome describes his diet as a half a pint of lentils moistened with cold water, and after three years he switched to dry bread with salt and water. Eventually, perceiving his sight to grow dim and his body to be subject to an itching with an unnatural roughness, he added a little oil to this diet.

After he had lived in the wilderness for 22 years, he became famous in Syria. Visitors started to come, begging for his help. The parade of petitioners and would-be disciples drove Hilarion to retire to more remote locations. In time, a monastery grew around his cell, which was so beset by visitors, especially females, that Hilarion fled. But they followed him everywhere. First he visited Anthony's retreat in Egypt. Then he withdrew to Sicily, later to Dalmatia, and finally to Cyprus. He died there in 371.

His first miracle was when he cured a woman who had been barren for 15 years. He cured three children of a fatal illness, healed a paralysed charioteer, and expelled demons.

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