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Eyes Upon God: The Story of St. Paphnutius

This is the inspiring tale of St. Paphnutius of Thebes, a Desert Father monk who stood his ground against Roman Emperors and Arians


Paphnutius of Egypt (Menologion of Basil II), Public Domain
Paphnutius of Egypt (Menologion of Basil II), Public Domain

Unlike a martyr, a confessor is someone who suffers all things for Christ yet does not suffer a physical death.

A confessor suffers what is near to a real and tangible spiritual death for Christ, a complete surrender to Him, yet they are not granted the solace of His immediate presence but the prolonged separation from the source of their courage and the aim of their efforts.

For the confessor who desired death above all,  “I shall willingly die for God, unless ye hinder me,” as St. Ignatius of Antioch remarked (1), life itself must seem to be a impediment to these living saints, that is unless they embrace all of life as suffering.

The Master: Saint Anthony the Great

There was in Thebes, in the land of Egypt where empires go to die, a man who was likely in his mid to late twenties. His name was Paphnutius.

Now there was an older hermit, also in Thebes, named Anthony. Paphnutius and other young men his age were once lucky to spot the hermit as he passed through town, or so they thought. A man dressed in blackish garb, capped with a loose hood, said that he was not the great Anthony. At first, what the curious Paphnutius believed to be humility was the truth. This was not the rumoured St. Anthony the Great.

After that moment, another man dressed the same, though younger, but somehow more palid and stern looking, asked Paphnutius and his friends where to find the items they were sent to purchase. “You will not find them here,” Paphnutius said. “Follow me.”

After a circuit at the marketplace, the strangers loaded up the items on their camel. Paphnutius, by this time, must have been struck by their sereneness. He must have asked a question about its origin, and must have received an answer, though unfortunately for us, both his question and the answer were lost to time.

Nonetheless, we know that Paphnutius and many other eager young men who sought spiritual contentment left their former lives and left for the desert.

These were the first of men who would be called monks. Taking impulse from the verse “to give up all things and follow me,”  monks left all behind to grow closer to the Lord.

These men sought to suffer for Christ, who suffered for them, by carrying their own cross. Self imposedly, they made their cross harder to carry. What is known as ascetisim began to develop.

In the early years, there quickly began to widen a gap between what is acceptable and what was extreme. Nevertheless, Paphnutius grew spiritually in an environment such as this, where nearly all men were saints or trying to become one.

While there is no record of Paphnutius' early life, it is known that he – like many other men of his day – became a disciple of the monk Saint Anthony of the Desert, whose direction of a community of fellow hermits marked the beginning of traditional Christian monasticism.

The Bishop and the Emperor

Having spent several years pursuing spiritual illumination in the austerity of the desert under Anthony's direction, Paphnutius was eventually chosen to become a bishop for the Upper Thebaid region.

This placed him in direct conflict with Maximinus Daia (2), the Roman imperial ruler of Egypt and Syria from 305 to 313 A.D., who persecuted the Church in the far regions and attempted to undermine it by strengthening the institutions of paganism.

Under Emperor Maximinus Daia's rule, Paphnutius had his left leg partly mutilated and his right eye put out, in an unsuccessful effort to make him renounce his Catholic faith.

Not yielding before torture, he was condemned to manual labor in the mines.

Imperial policy toward Christians shifted between 311 and 313, in the midst of a power struggle between the various co-emperors of the time. The Emperor Constantine began to embrace the faith in 312, and he proclaimed its legality the following year, during which Maximinus Daia also died.

When peace was restored to the early Catholic Church, St. Paphnutius returned to his flock as their much beloved bishop, where he nurtured their souls. Yet, this peace was short lived. The Arian heresy was entering into Egypt.

St. Paphnutius and the Arians

St. Paphnutius arrived at the great Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. By then, he was greatly esteemed himself, after a life of being a zealous defender of the faith and having the title of confessor.

Constantine the Great, during the Council, would often talk with St. Pahpnutius in private, never letting him leave his company without kissing honorably the saint's empty eye socket: an abyss which was yet a beacon full of the powerful Christian faith.

Many years later, Saint Paphnutius was also in contact with the young and likewise zealous Saint Athanasius, once travelling with him to the Council of Tyre in 355.

The old and wise Saint Paphnutius died after a long life dedicated to Christ. His feast day is on the 11th of September.

Saint Paphnutius, pray for us,



1. The Epistle of St. Ignatius of Antioch to the Roman Church (108 A.D. )

2. Daia (Daza) was emperor from 310 to 313 A.D. He became embroiled in the civil wars of the Tetrarchy between rival claimants for control of the empire, in which he was defeated by Licinius

If you enjoyed this story, do purchase our edition of The Life of St. Anthony, a riveting biography of the father of monasticism

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