Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century/Hilarion (1), hermit of Palestine
Hilarion (1), a hermit of Palestine (d. 371). Jerome wrote his Life in 390, quoting Epiphanius, Hilarion's disciple. Jerome certainly considered his Lives of the Hermits as historical (Vit. Malchi, i.); but the marvels of the Life of Hilarion have induced some to believe it to be a mere romance (Israel in Hilgenfeld's Zeitschrift for 1880, p. 128, but see Zöckler's Jerome, 179). No attempt is made in this art. to separate fact from fiction. The Life of Hilarion in any case shews the ideal on which monasticism was nourished in the 4th cent.
Hilarion was born at Thabatha, 5 miles S. of Gaza, c. 300, of heathen parents, who sent him for education to Alexandria. There he shewed great talents and proficiency in rhetoric, which then comprehended nearly the whole of a liberal education. He was of a disposition which made him beloved by all. He became a Christian, and, turning from the frivolous pleasures of the circus and theatre, spent all his leisure in the assemblies of the church. Hearing of the monastic retreat of Anthony, he became his disciple for a time, but found that the multitude who resorted to Anthony made life with him a city life rather than one of retirement. Though but fifteen years old, he determined to become a hermit. He returned to Palestine and found his parents dead, gave away his goods to his brothers and the poor, and went to live in a desert place 7 miles from the Christian city of Majoma near Gaza. The boy hermit was clad in a sackcloth shirt, which he never changed till it was worn out, a cloak of skins which Anthony had given him, and a blanket such as peasants wore. His daily sustenance was 15 carices (a sort of figs). He cultivated a little plot of ground and made baskets of rushes, so as not to be idle. His disordered fancy summoned up a thousand temptations of Satan, but he overcame them all by calling on the name of Christ. He dwelt 12 years in a little cabin made by himself of woven reeds and rushes; after that in a but only 5 feet high, still shewn when Jerome was in Palestine, and more like a sepulchre than a house.
The fame of his sanctity spread rapidly and he was reputed to be a worker of miracles and an exorcist. Men of all ranks (whose names and abodes are circumstantially recorded) suffering from hysteric affections, then attributed to demons, were healed. An officer of Majoma, whose duty it was to rear horses for the Circensian games and who had been always beaten through a spell laid upon his chariot by the votaries of Marnas, the idol of Gaza, won the race when the saint had poured water upon his chariot wheels. Hilarion had many disciples, whom he formed into societies and went on circuits to visit them; and many stories were told of his shrewdness and penetration in rebuking their weaknesses.
But the crowds who flocked about him made him feel no longer a hermit; and in his 63rd year, the year of the death of Anthony (which was miraculously made known to him), he resolved to set out on his wanderings. Men crowded round him to the number of 10,000, beseeching him not to depart. Business ceased throughout Palestine, the minds of men being wholly occupied with hopes and fears about his departure; but he left them, and with a few monks, who seem soon to have left him, he went his way, never to return. He first turned towards Babylon, then to Egypt. He fled to the Oasis, and afterwards sailed for Sicily. There he lay hid for a time; but his disciple Hesychius at last discovered him. He again set forth in search of solitude; but wherever he went his miracles betrayed him. He at length arrived in Cyprus, the home of his friend Epiphanius. There he found a solitary and inaccessible place, still called by his name, where he lived the last three years of his life, often in the company of Hesychius and Epiphanius. His body was buried in the grounds of a lady named Constantia, but Hesychius disinterred it, and carried it to Majoma in Palestine. Constantia died of grief, but the translation caused joy throughout Palestine, where its anniversary was observed as a festival. Vita S. Hilarionis, in Jerome's Works vol. ii. 13–40, ed. Vall.; Soz. iii. 14, vi. 32; Vit. Patrum, lib. v. c. 4, § 15, p. 568, in Migne's Patr. Gk. vol. lxxiii. His name occurs in the Byzantine Calendar, Oct. 21, as "our Father Hilarion the Great."