26 January 2009

'A Searcher after God'—St Hilary of Poitiers

Well, I’m a little uncertain about the commemoration of St Hilary of Poitiers just now. At least one Russian calendar lists him for today, 13 January, but the Prologue has him down for tomorrow, 14 January, where he scarcely warrants four sentences in the hefty shadow of St Sava, not to mention St Nina of Georgia, who gets the ‘Hymn of Praise’ all to herself. But as I plan to post on St Sava tomorrow, I’d better get this out of the way.

Born at the beginning of the 4th c. in Poitiers, Gaul, on the Clain River in what is now west central France, St Hilary belonged to a pagan family and was well-educated. In the words of Olivier Clément, ‘For a long time he was a searcher after God. He moved from hedonism, to stoicism, he tried out sects and esoteric cults, he discovered Judaism, and in the end was converted to Christ by the reading of St John’s Gospel’ (The Roots of Chrisitan Mysticism: Texts and Commentary, 3rd ed., trans. Theodore Berkeley, OCSO, rev. Jeremy Hummerstone [London: New City, 1995], p. 340). Not long after St Hilary was baptised, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, ‘his wide learning and his zeal for the Faith attracted such attention’ that he was made bishop of Poitiers in about 350. For a time, he was a spiritual father to the great St Martin of Tours, and Sulpicius Severus, in his Life of the latter, describes the bishop of Poitiers as ‘saintly’, and ‘a man of penetrating intellect’, meaning in context ‘spiritual discernment’ (Early Christian Lives, trans. and ed. Carolinne White [London: Penguin, 1998], p. 139).

After the Arian ‘Synod of Beziers’ in 356, St Hilary was exiled to Phrygia in Asia Minor for his opposition to Arianism (he was the ‘Athanasius of the West’), and there he ‘deepened his knowledge of the Greek language and Greek theology’, becoming a ‘connecting link between Greek and Latin theology’ (Clément, p. 340). He was vindicated at the Synod of Paris in 360, and returned to his see in 361. St Hilary continued to play a rôle in the Arian controversies, but eventually retired to his hometown, and fell asleep in the Lord there in 368, with a great reputation ‘for learning and virtue’ (CE).

Before his exile, St Hilary wrote a commentary on St Matthew ‘in the tradition of Tertullian’ (Clément, p. 340), and with little reference to Arian issues. It was while he was in Phrygia that he wrote ‘his great doctrinal work, inaccurately called On the Trinity' (Clément, p. 340). The Treatise on the Mysteries, commentary on the Psalms, and commentary on Job, ‘all in the spirit of Origen, whose symbolism and typology he spread in the Latin world’ (Clément, p. 341), date to his final retirement in Poitiers. According to Clément:

At the heart of Hilary’s thought is the mystery of the Word made flesh, of the form of the slave become that of Beauty. He emphasizes the glory of the transfigured Christ, but maintains, against Origen, the solid reality of created being. The eschatological fullness that we attain to in Christ transforms matter itself, and through the ‘eye of the heart’ the ‘eternal light’ reaches the body also. In this way the principal themes of Eastern spirituality came over by way of Hilary into a West more accustomed to a moral approach to Christianity. (p. 341)

Clément has given a moving description of St Hilary’s conversion to the Christian faith, followed by a lengthy excerpt from his On the Trinity (pp. 17-21). I shall quote a brief portion of this excerpt from the NPNF translation of the Saint’s works by E.W. Watson, L. Pullan, et al. (available here), according to whom, ‘St Hilary of Poitiers is one of the greatest, yet least studied, of the Fathers of the Western Church’, who ‘learnt his theology . . . from Eastern authorities, and was not content to carry on and develop the traditional teaching of the West’, but was a ‘disciple of Origen, who found his natural allies in the Cappadocian school of Basil and the Gregories’ (Introduction). Here, then, is the passage (De Trinitate I.7):

Therefore, although my soul drew joy from the apprehension of this august and unfathomable Mind, because it could worship as its own Father and Creator so limitless an Infinity, yet with a still more eager desire it sought to know the true aspect of its infinite and eternal Lord, that it might be able to believe that that immeasurable Deity was apparelled in splendour befitting the beauty of His wisdom. Then, while the devout soul was baffled and astray through its own feebleness, it caught from the prophet’s voice this scale of comparison for God, admirably expressed, By the greatness of His works and the beauty of the things that He hath made the Creator of worlds is rightly discerned (Wisd. 13:5). The Creator of great things is supreme in greatness, of beautiful things in beauty. Since the work transcends our thoughts, all thought must be transcended by the Maker. Thus heaven and air and earth and seas are fair: fair also the whole universe, as the Greeks agree, who from its beautiful ordering call it κόσμος, that is, order. But if our thought can estimate this beauty of the universe by a natural instinct—an instinct such as we see in certain birds and beasts whose voice, though it fall below the level of our understanding, yet has a sense clear to them though they cannot utter it, and in which, since all speech is the expression of some thought, there lies a meaning patent to themselves—must not the Lord of this universal beauty be recognised as Himself most beautiful amid all the beauty that surrounds Him? For though the splendour of His eternal glory overtax our mind’s best powers, it cannot fail to see that He is beautiful. We must in truth confess that God is most beautiful, and that with a beauty which, though it transcend our comprehension, forces itself upon our perception.


Justin said...

He is beautiful

Thanks for typing out that magnificent passage.

By the way- see the following link. I thought you might find it interesting, maybe even useful. It makes reference to an online citation tool (kind of like footnotes for blogs)...


aaronandbrighid said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it, but in the interests of full disclosure, I didn't actually type it out--I just copied and pasted it from the CCEL website!

I'll take a look at your link later...