Let’s talk about temptation, because it’s Saint Hilarion’s feast day. A fourth-century anchorite who followed the ascetic precedent of Anthony the Great, Hilarion lived for most of his life in a desert in Syria Palaestina, where … not much happened, presumably. He refused to take food before sunset and, perhaps as a result, faced a slew of hallucinations temptations. These he avoided, being saintly. When at last he rejoined civilization after many decades in the wilderness, he didn’t much care for society—so many people!—so he retreated into austerity again, in Dalmatia and then in Cyprus, where he died.
I’m simplifying things a bit.
The man wrought some miracles, for instance, but those are not my concern.
Much of what we know about Hilarion—the name is from the Greek hilaros, meaning cheerful, not super funny, though neither seems to describe the Hilarion in question—comes from a chronicle written by Saint Jerome in 390 A.D., a strange, captivating, and fittingly arid read, particularly in regards to Hilarion’s temptations:
Satan therefore tickled his senses and, as is his wont, lighted in his maturing body the fires of lust … 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! Sometimes as he prayed a howling wolf sprang past or a snarling fox, and when he sang a gladiatorial show was before him, and a man newly slain would seem to fall at his feet and ask him for burial.
And there’s the unnerving specificity with which Jerome describes Hilarion’s diet:
From his twentieth to his twenty-seventh year, for three years his food was half a pint of lentils moistened with cold water, and for the next three dry bread with salt and water. From his twenty-seventh year onward to the thirtieth, he supported himself on wild herbs and the raw roots of certain shrubs. From his thirty-first to his thirty-fifth year, he had for food six ounces of barley bread, and vegetables slightly cooked without oil. But finding his eyes growing dim and his whole body shriveled with a scabby eruption and dry mange, he added oil to his former food.
I love the anticlimax of that remedy: faced with “a scabby eruption,” Hilarion simply lubes up his food. End of subject. From soup to nuts, Jerome’s account is fixated on Hilarion’s nutrition, as if a detailed summary of what he ingested could best convey the tortures of fasting.
Hilarion’s temptations inspired two very striking—and very different—French nineteenth-century paintings, both of which testify to his suffering more acutely than Jerome’s storytelling. The first, by Dominique-Louis-Féréol Papety, sees an almost catatonic Hilarion visited by a topless seductress with an elegant array of fruits, wine, and hors d’oeuvres, a surreal counterpoint to the forbidding landscape. What a brilliant thought on Papety’s part to have Hilarion’s arms outstretched—in protest as much as in longing, it seems—his face sick with fear and confusion.
The second is by Octave Tassaert, and it’s more conventionally harrowing: Hilarion stoops with a jury-rigged cross in his hand, bearing down in determined, moonlit prayer. In the air behind him are dozens of buxom temptresses in various stages of materiality, fumbling over one another to make an erotic impression; one of them offers a truly formidable chalice of red.
Even if you, like me, were raised Catholic and now practice an active disdain for its pageantry, the paintings are chilling metaphors for enticements of all kinds. As another account of Hilarion’s life says, “his mind was haunted and his imagination filled with impure images, or with the vanities of the theatre and circus”—and those are vanities we can all relate to, even those among us who aren’t the circus-going type.