Hilarion was born in Thabatha, south of Gaza in Syria Palaestina of pagan parents. He successfully studied rhetoric with a grammarian in Alexandria, where he became a Christian. He also came under the influence of the renowned desert ascetic Anthony of Egypt and followed his discipline for two months at the age of fifteen. At the same time, miracles were attributed to him.
As Anthony’s hermitage was busy with visitors seeking cures for diseases or demonic affliction, Hilarion returned home along with some monks. Back at Thabatha, his parents having died in the meantime, he gave his inheritance to his brothers and the poor and left for the wilderness.
Hilarion then began a series of journeys to find a place where he could live away from the world. He went to the area southwest of Majoma, the port of Gaza, that was limited by the sea at one side and marshland on the other. Because the district was notorious for brigandage, and his relatives and friends warned him of the danger he was incurring, it was his practice never to abide long in the same place. With him he took only a shirt of coarse linen, a cloak of skins given to him by St. Anthony, and a coarse blanket. He led a nomadic life, and he fasted rigorously, not partaking of his frugal meal until after sunset. He supported himself by observing the strict ascetical regimen of fasting and chanting the Old Testament psalm prayers, and even weaving baskets like Egyptian hermits.
Hilarion lived a life of hardship and simplicity in the desert, where he also experienced spiritual dryness that included temptations to despair. Beset by carnal thoughts, he fasted even more. He was “so wasted that his bones scarcely held together” (Jerome). According to St. Jerome:
|“||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! (Jerome, Life of St Hilarion, 7)||”|
Hilarion finally built a hut of reeds and sedges at the site of modern-day Deir al-Balah, in which he lived for four years. Afterwards, he constructed a tiny low-ceilinged cell, “a tomb rather than a house”, where he slept on a bed of rushes, and recited the Bible or sang hymns. He never washed his clothes, changed them only when they fell apart, and shaved his hair only once a year. He was once visited by robbers, but they left him alone when they learned that he did not fear death (and had nothing worth stealing, anyway).
After he had lived in the wilderness for 22 years, he became quite famous in Syria Palaestina. Visitors started to come, begging for his help. The parade of petitioners and would-be disciples drove Hilarion to retire to more remote locations. But they followed him everywhere. First he visited Anthony’s retreat in Egypt. Then he withdrew to Sicily, later to Dalmatia.
After establishing the first Palestinian monastery in 329, Hilarion, still seeking solitude, eventually settling in Cyprus, where he died in 371 at about age 80. He is credited with prophesying the religious persecution decreed by Emperor Julian the Apostate (361–363). After his death, his body was recovered by the monks of his original foundation in Gaza. A cult of veneration spread to Europe, especially about Venice and Pisa, Italy, and in parts of France.