“Monks were unknown in Syria before St. Hilarion,” says his historian St. Jerome. “He instituted the monastic life in that country, and was the master of those who embraced it. The Lord Jesus had his Anthony in Egypt and his Hilarion in Palestine, the former advanced in years, the latter still young.” (Jerome, Life of S. Hilarion 2) Now our Lord very soon raised this young man to such glory that Anthony would say to the sick, who came to him from Syria attracted by the fame of his miracles: “Why take the trouble to come so far when you have near you my son Hilarion?” (Jerome, Life of S. Hilarion 3) And yet Hilarion had spent only two months with Anthony, after which the patriarch had said to him (according to the Greek translation): “Persevere to the end, my son, and thy labor will win thee the delights of heaven.” Then, giving a hairshirt and a garment of skin to this boy of fifteen whom he was never to see again, he sent him back to sanctify the solitudes of his own country, while he himself retired farther into the desert. (Jerome, Life of S. Hilarion 1, Greek version)
The enemy of mankind, foreseeing a formidable adversary in this new solitary, waged a terrible war against him. Even the flesh, in spite of the young ascetic’s fasts, was Satan’s first accomplice. But without any pity for a body so frail and delicate, as his historian says, that any effort would have seemed sufficient to destroy it, Hilarion cried out indignantly: “Ass, I will see that thou kick no more; I will reduce thee by hunger, I will crush thee with burdens, I will make thee work in all weathers; thou shalt be so pinched with hunger that thou wilt think no more of pleasure.” (Jerome, Life of S. Hilarion)
Vanquished in this quarter, the enemy found other allies, through whom he thought to drive Hilarion, by fear, back to the dwellings of men. But to the robbers who fell upon his poor wicker hut, the Saint said smiling, “He who is naked has no fear of thieves.” And they, touched by his great virtue could not conceal their admiration, and promised to amend their lives. (Jerome, Life of S. Hilarion)
Then Satan determined to come in person, as he had done to Anthony; but with no better success. No trouble could disturb the serenity attained by that simple, holy soul. One day the demon entered into a camel and made it mad, so that it rushed upon the Saint with horrible cries. But he only answered: “I am not afraid of thee; thou art always the same, whether thou come as a fox or a camel.” And the huge beast fell down tamed at his feet. (Jerome, Life of S. Hilarion 2)
There was a harder trial yet to come from the most cunning artifice of the serpent. When Hilarion sought to hide himself from the immense concourse of people who besieged his poor cell, the enemy maliciously published his fame far and wide, and brought to him overwhelming crowds from every land. In vain he quitted Syria and travelled the length and breadth of Egypt; in vain, pursued from desert to desert, he crossed the sea, and hoped to conceal himself in Sicily, in Dalmatia, in Cyprus. From the ship, which was making its way among the Cyclades, he heard, in each island, the infernal spirits calling one another from the towns and villages and running to the shores as he passed by. At Paphos, where he landed, the same concourse of demons brought to him multitudes of men; until at length God took pity on his servant, and discovered to him a place inaccessible to his fellow men, where he had no company but legions of devils, who surrounded him day and night. Far from fearing, says his biographer, he took pleasure in the neighborhood of his old antagonists whom he knew so well; and he lived there in great peace the last five years before his death. (Jerome, Life of S. Hilarion 3, 4, 5)
The Church thus abridges St. Jerome’s history of Hilarion.
Hilarion was born of infidel parents at Abatha in Palestine; and was sent to study at Alexandria, where he became famous for his talents and the purity of his morals. He embraced the Christian religion, and made wonderful progress in faith and charity. He was constantly in the church, devoted himself to prayer and fasting, and was full of contempt for the enticements of pleasure and earthly desires. The fame of St. Anthony had then spread all over Egypt. Hilarion, desirous of seeing him, betook himself to the wilderness, and stayed two months with him learning his manner of life. He then returned home; but on the death of his parents he bestowed his goods upon the poor, and though only in his fifteenth year, returned to the desert. He built himself a little cell scarcely large enough to hold him, and there he slept on the ground. He never changed nor washed the sackcloth he wore, saying it was superfluous to look for cleanliness in a hairshirt.
He devoted himself to the reading and study of the Holy Scripture. His food consisted of a few figs and the juice of herbs, which he never took before sunset. His mortification and humility were wonderful; and by means of these and other virtues he overcame many terrible temptations of the evil one, and cast innumerable devils out of the possessed in many parts of the world. He had built many monasteries, and was renowned for miracles, when he fell ill in the eightieth year of his age. In his last agony he exclaimed: Go forth, my soul, why dost thou fear? Go forth, why dost thou hesitate? Thou hast served Christ for nearly seventy years, and dost thou fear death? And with these words he expired.
To be a Hilarion, and yet to fear death! If in the green wood they do these things, what shall be done in the dry? (Luke 23:31) O glorious Saint, penetrate us with the apprehension of God’s judgments. Teach us that Christian fear does not banish love, but on the contrary, clears the way and leads to it, and then accompanies it through life as an attentive and faithful guardian. This holy fear was thy security at thy last hour; may it protect us also along the path of life, and at death introduce us immediately into heaven!
St. Hilarion was one of the first Confessors, if not the very first, to be honored in the East with a public cultus like the Martyrs. In the West, the white-robed army led by Ursula adds to the glory of the holy monk who has the first honors of this day.
On the 21st day of October 451, Cologne was made equal to the most illustrious cities by a spiritual glory. Criticism, and there is no lack of it, may dispute the circumstances which brought together the legion of virgins; but the fact itself that eleven thousand chosen souls were martyred by the Huns in recompense for their fidelity is now acknowledged by true science. From the earth where so many noble victims lay concealed, they have more than once been brought to light by multitudes, bearing about them evidence of the veneration of those who had buried them; for instance, by a happy inspiration, the arrow that had set free the blessed soul, would be left, as a token of victory, fixed in the breast or forehead of the martyr.
St. Angela of Merici confided to the patronage of this glorious phalanx her spiritual daughters, and the numberless children whom they will continue till the end of time to educate in the fear of the Lord. The grave Sorbonne dedicated its church to the holy virgins as well as to the Mother of God; and here, as in the Universities of Coimbra and Vienna, an annual panegyric was pronounced in praise of them. Portugal, enriched with some of their precious relics, carried their cultus into the Indies. And pious confraternities have been formed among the faithful for obtaining their assistance at the hour of death. Let us address to them these verses from a beautiful Office composed in their honor by the blessed Herman, their most devout client.
O ye glorious virgins, fulfill now my desire, and when the hour of my death arrives, hasten to my assistance: be present at that terrible moment, and defend me from the assault of the demons.
Let not one of you be then absent; come with the Virgin Mother at your head. If any remnant of sin still cling to me and soil me with its stain, remove it by your prayer. Let the foe be aware of your presence, and bewail his own confusion.
Let us conclude with the Church’s own prayer.
Grant us, we beseech thee, O Lord our God, to venerate with continual devotion the triumphs of thy holy virgins and martyrs, Ursula and her companions; that what we cannot celebrate with worthy minds, we may at least attend with humble service. Through our Lord, etc.
This text is taken from The Liturgical Year, authored by Dom Prosper Gueranger (1841-1875)