03 June 2010

The Grammar of Sanctity—The Title of St Gregory's Vita Patrum

When I first came across the translation by Fr Seraphim (Rose) of the Vita Patrum of St Gregory of Tours, I recall noting the following comment in a little preface with the names of Fr Herman and Fr Damascene appended to it: ‘One book especially dedicated to his native ascetic strugglers whom he even knew personally, he called Vita Patrum, or The Life of the Fathers, as if these many men led one life before God—the ultimate Christian virtue of oneness of soul.’ [1] It struck me—and thus stuck with me—as a point fundamental to Orthodox ecclesiology, which I had seen expressed as well by St Justin (Popovich):

Christians are those through whom the holy Divine-human life of Christ is continued from generation to generation until the end of the world and of time, and they all make up one body, the Body of Christ—the Church: they are sharers of the Body of Christ and members of one another (I Cor. 12:27, 12-14, 10:17; Rom. 12:5; Eph. 3:6). The stream of immortal divine life began to flow and still
flows unceasingly from the Lord Christ, and through him Christians flow into eternal life. [2]

But for some strange reason, I all but forgot about St Gregory’s own statement about his in the Prologue to the Vita Patrum. He writes:

There are those who ask whether we should speak of the life of the saints or of their lives. Agellius and several other philosophers wished to speak of the lives. But the author Pliny, in the third book of his Art of Grammar, expresses himself thus: ‘The ancients spoke of the lives of each of us; but the grammarians do not believe that the word life has a plural.’ Therefore, it is manifestly better to say the Life of the Fathers rather than the Lives of the Fathers, because although there is a diversity of merits and virtues among them, nevertheless one life of the body sustains them all in this world. [3]

I was happily reminded of this wonderful passage by an interesting book I recently picked up at Half Price Books called Sacred Biography: Saints & Their Biographers in the Middle Ages, by Thomas J. Heffernan. Heffernan quotes the final sentence and then makes a series of comments:

Gregory’s conclusion is most important as it reveals his understanding of the relationship between theological truth and language. Notice that his argument moves beyond purely grammatical concerns into the realm of theology. The precedents of Gellius, Pliny, and the grammarians notwithstanding, the essential reason for his choice of the singular when composing a book of more than one life is based on the developing Christian idea that the saints share collectively in the luminous life of the incarnate Christ. In sum, sanctity is derived from the sacred, which is radically singular (see Eph. 5:8-14 and Rom. 12:3-10). [4]

Gregory subordinates grammaticality, and with it language’s ability to represent reality, to the exigencies of religious truth. Language, it appears can be employed in discourse to depict contexts which violate both the normative view of things (e.g., Gregory’s use of the singular rather than the plural) and its own syntactic structures so that it may be a handmaiden to theology. . . . [5]

Gregory of Tours presented his explanation of his choice of title with little rhetorical embellishment, and we can infer that he believed the meaning of his remarks to be obvious. Of course, it is anything but obvious to a modern reader. Such an understanding of the dimensions of the self (what Gregory would have expressed with the reflexive pronoun seipsum) and language’s capacity to reflect such concerns is alien. Gregory’s point here is of seminal importance in the genre of medieval saints’ lives. It reflects an understanding of sanctity, and of language’s responsibility in representing the essence of the holy, that is crucial to sacred biography and the mentality of these writers. In Gregory’s view narrative can reflect both actual circumstances and metaphysical truth. [6]

Heffernan’s is a very promising book. In a brief preface, he tells us his interest in the subject was first aroused by ‘the sheer number of lives of the saints which survived in manuscript. Surely, I thought, such numbers were an indication of importance; I promised myself to look into this.’ [7] But he laments:

Of all the genres that survive from the Middle Ages, only the lives of the saints, arguably the richest in terms of extant records, are still treated by literary historians as documents for source studies (Quellenkritik) and little else. The genre has until recently fallen through the net of scholarly research, avoided by the historians because it lacks ‘documentary’ evidential status and by the literary historians because saints’ lives are rarely works of art. [8]

[1] Herman Podmoshensky & Hieromonk Damascene (Christensen), ‘Preface’, Vita Patrum: The Life of the Fathers, by St Gregory of Tours, tr. Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1988), p. 10.

[2] St Justin (Popovich), ‘Introduction to the Lives of the Saints’, Orthodox Faith & Life in Christ, tr. Fr Asterios Gerostergios, et al. (Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, 1994), p. 42.

[3] St Gregory, p. 163.

[4] Thomas J. Heffernan, Sacred Biography: Saints & Their Biographers in the Middle Ages (NY: Oxford U, 1992), p. 7.

[5] Ibid., p. 8.

[6] Ibid., p. 11.

[7] Ibid., p. vii.

[8] Ibid., p. 17.

1 comment:

TeresaAngelina said...

Thank you for this post! Have never thought of this..."sanctity is derived from the sacred, which is radically singular" - yes, the Life of the Saints!