The protagonist, Paphnutius, the young abbot of Antinoe, is not treated very favorably. In his holy fervor, he inevitably ends up following the whims of his ego instead of the good advice he receives from the people he encounters throughout the tale. The story begins when Paphnutius decides he should leave his anchorite community in the Thebaid desert and go to Alexandria and convert Thaïs, a famous actress and courtesan.
Paphnutius goes to the holy hermit Palemon for advice twice in the book. Palemon lives nearby Paphnutius’s dwelling and spends all his time tending to a small garden. Animals do not fear him and the demons of the desert do not bother him. At the beginning of the story, Paphnutius asks Palemon’s advice concerning his plan to travel to Alexandria and “save” Thaïs. Palemon quotes St. Anthony warns that it is very dangerous for monks to return to the world and nothing good would come of it.
In the encounter between Paphnutius and Timocles, Paphuntius’s true motives come to light. We first meet Timocles sitting cross-legged in deep meditation, much like a Hindu yogi. Paphnutius at first mistakes him for a fellow anchorite, but quickly finds that he has never heard of Jesus Christ. Timocles belongs to a sect of Skeptics and believes that we cannot know anything for certain, since all things are relative. Paphnutius cannot understand why Timocles lives such a hard life if not for the promise of heavenly rewards. He screams that Timocles is a fool because “you loose without hope of any gain; you give without hope of any return…” and goes on to compare him to monkey imitating an artist. He misses entirely that Timocles is content, unlike himself. Paphnutius still desires the world and only denies them to himself for the hope of even greater rewards in heaven, whereas Timocles does not crave anything in this world or the next.
His childhood friend, Nicias, is one of the most interesting characters. Although Paphnutius despises him, it is to Nicias that he goes to borrow money and clothes to gain entry to Thaïs. Nicias saves his life when an angry crowd gathers to kill Paphnutius, but Paphnutius is still hateful towards him afterwards. I believe that Paphnutius is deeply jealous Nicias; despite his sanctimonious attitude Paphnutius is still deeply attached to the things of this world. Nicias, although living a very different life, is at least honest with himself, unlike Paphnutius who continually deludes himself. He does not realize that Nicias loves him as a brother and does not hesitate to help him in any way. Would Paphnutius do the same for Nicias?
The second visit to Palemon comes after Paphnutius returns from depositing Thaïs in the nunnery and is tormented by dreams of demons. Palemon gives him the sound advice that instead of further isolation, he needs to ease back into his old way of living and his troubles have arisen from transitioning too quickly from the decadent Alexandria to the desert. Palemon advises him to visit nearby Christian communities and monasteries before settling back into his own ascetic lifestyle. Paphnutius ignores his advice once again and fallows his own urge to seek out even more extreme penance to drive away the lustful thoughts.
Paphnutius continually attributes his misery to God having abandoned him instead of to his own actions. The real tragedy of the story is that Paphnutius encounters so many saints, including Thaïs herself, but fails to recognize them as such. At the end of the day, Paphnutius is trying to be someone he just is not.
Thaïs is roughly based on the life of St. Thaïs of Egypt:
“The saint is represented burning her treasures and ornaments, or praying in a cell and displaying a scroll with the words: ‘Thou who didst create me have mercy on me.’ According to the legend Thaïs was a public sinner in Egypt who was converted by St. Paphnutius, brought to a convent and enclosed in a cell. After three years of penance she was released and placed among the nuns, but lived only fourteen days more. The name of the hermit is given also as Bessarion and Serapion the Sidonite. Delahaye says (Anal. boll., XXIV, 400), ‘If the legend is historical the hermit must have been Paphnutius.’”
Overall, France stayed pretty true to the story, at least where Thaïs herself is concerned. Her story is fairly similar to other female desert saints, such as St. Mary of Egypt whom I initially suspected as being the inspiration for the novel before researching it.
St. Thaïs is also a saint of the Eastern Orthodox Church; although they usually know her as St. Thaïs the Harlot. For the most part, the story is pretty much the same. However, one rendition2 I encountered has St. John the Dwarf as her savior and has it that she died the first night after leaving the city. An angel explains to St John, “Abba John, her one hour of repentance was equal to many years, because she repented with all her soul, and a compunctionate heart.” One day or fourteen days, either way, the lesson is the same.
St Paphnutius is also based on a real personage. He is said to have had his right eye gouged out and was sent to the mines by the Romans under Emperor Maximinus II. His feast day is September eleventh. The emperor Constantine even met with Paphnutius privately and was said to revere him. Constantine would kiss the place of the lost eye every time they departed.3
Surprisingly, he was one of the most outspoken attendees of the First Council of Nicea to oppose total clerical celibacy. Although a lifelong celibate himself, he believed in the old way of allowing priests to be married so long as they were already married prior to their ordination. A stark contrast to the Paphnutius of the novel.
|Illustration by Raphael Freida|
1. Mershman, F. (1912). St. Thaïs. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved September 29, 2012 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14553d.htm
2. Retrieved September 30, 2012 from Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America: http://www.antiochian.org/node/18608
3. Butler, Alban (1894). Lives of the Saints. Benziger Bros. ed.
Retrieved Septempber 30, 2012 from Sacred-Texts: http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/lots/lots287.htm