On November 3, the Julian calendar churches honor the memory of St. Hilarion the Great (291–371). The saint was one of the founding fathers of Orthodox Christian monasticism.
We owe the life of Hilarion to St. Jerome (347–430). Inspired by the example of Athanasius of Alexandria (295–373), who wrote the life of Anthony the Great (251–356), Jerome became the author of the lives of three great ascetics of antiquity: Paul of Thebes (227–341), Malchus of Syria (+ c.390) and Hilarion himself.
In addition to the desire to surpass Athanasius in compiling lives and finding the first principles, Jerome, apparently, wanted to point out that monasticism, by the will of the Holy Spirit, after the end of pagan persecution, spontaneously arose in various Christian countries, and not just in Egypt. In addition, remembering his ill-wishers in Rome, who essentially expelled him from the Eternal City and thereby stopped his church ministry, Jerome, with words about the saints, testified that life in Christ in the East, where he himself moved, is genuine and blessed.
According to Jerome and other sources, Hilarion the Great laid the foundation of several monastic communities, but his most important merit was the creation of monastic life in Gaza. In ancient times, this area was an outpost of Roman paganism and ancient culture on the way from Egypt to Palestine. Its inhabitants desperately resisted Christianization. From the monastic school founded by Hilarion subsequently came ascetics, familiar to us from their works and from ancient patericons. These are Abba Dorotheos, Saints Barsanuphius and John, Dositheos of Gaza, and Abba Seridus.
It is to Hilarion that the principle of monastic life, called “lavra” historically, goes back: monks settled in special dwellings on the sides, a kind of common avenue. The word “lavra” itself is literally translated as “street”. This principle of life for the monks represented a compromise, or, better, a search for a balance, between community life and individual asceticism, and subsequently spread to all of Palestine. In addition to ascetics of this type of monastery, hermits also lived in the Holy Land, and there were also pilgrimage-type monasteries. It is interesting that many centuries later, during the era of Enlightened Absolutism in the Russian Empire, the name “Lavra”, bestowed by the monarch, became the title of especially significant monasteries.
The life of Hilarion is very rich in details and extremely edifying. It is extremely rich in ancient biblical and New Testament semantics. It also reminds me of a manual on asceticism. Like other great ascetics, Hilarion limited himself extremely, struggled with demons, which, as was the case with his teacher Anthony, appeared to him in a sensual image. However, when elementary human passions and impulses in their sinful form were, as it were, suspended, Saint Hilarion was given by God the grace of performing miracles.
Crowds of people began to flock to him in search of guidance and healing. It was at this moment, when the saint was already almost seventy, that he began his journey of pilgrimage. Like the Lord Jesus, “having no place to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20), Hilarion fled to Egypt. There he visited the tomb of his teacher Anthony, after which he went to Sicily, to the Balkans, to Dalmatia, and ended his days in Cyprus, as an “exile of great miracles.”