05 February 2009

'A Model of Faith & Virtue'—St Paulinus of Nola

I was pleased to see that the only Saint that leapt out at me today was St Paulinus of Nola (c. 354-431). I have very little material on him, thus making it less tempting to write a long post, for which I lack the time today anyway. Besides, my main interest is in his poetry, the reproduction here of which is far less time-consuming than composing my usual hagiographical material.

As for the man, I think perhaps the most exemplary of his virtues was his readiness to give up his wealth for Christ. Phil Snider has called attention to a passage in Suplicius Severus’s Life of Martin of Tours where the author reports St Martin as having commended the example of St Paulinus. As Phil has not included the name of the man being referred to in his translation, I shall quote Alexander Roberts’s translation (one can also find it in Early Christian Lives [London: Penguin, 1998], p. 157):

His conversation with me was all directed to such points as the following: that the allurements of this world and secular burdens were to be abandoned in order that we might be free and unencumbered in following the Lord Jesus; and he pressed upon me as an admirable example in present circumstances the conduct of that distinguished man Paulinus, of whom I have made mention above [btw, I couldn't find this reference he mentions; help is apppreciated!]. Martin declared of him that, by parting with his great possessions and following Christ, as he did, he showed himself almost the only one who in these times had fully obeyed the precepts of the Gospel. He insisted strongly that that was the man who should be made the object of our imitation, adding that the present age was fortunate in possessing such a model of faith and virtue. For Paulinus, being rich and having many possessions, by selling them all and giving them to the poor according to the expressed will of the Lord, had, he said, made possible by actual proof what appeared impossible of accomplishment.

St Paulinus’s poetry may well be what he is most remembered for today, however. I first encountered him in Helen Waddell’s outstanding introduction—which I’ve already had occasion to mention—to her collection of Desert Fathers material, The Desert Fathers, trans. and ed. Helen Waddell (Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan, 1957). There, on p. 35, she quotes the following from St Paulinus (see also Helen Waddell, trans., Mediæval Latin Lyrics [London: Constable, 1951], p. 35):

Not that they beggared be in mind, or brutes,
That they have chosen a dwelling-place afar
In lonely places: but their eyes are turned
To the high stars, the very deep of Truth.
Freedom they seek, an emptiness apart
From worthless hopes: din of the market place
And all the noisy crowding up of things,
And whatsoever wars on the Divine,
At Christ’s command and for His love, thy hate.
By faith and hope they follow after God,
And know their quest shall not be desperate,
If but the Present conquer not their souls
With hollow things: that which they see they spurn,
That they may come at what they do not see,
Their senses kindled like a torch that may
Blaze through the secrets of eternity.
The transient’s open, everlastingness
Denied our sight: yet still by hope we follow
The vision that our eyes have seen, despising
The shows and forms of things, the loveliness
Soliciting for ill our mortal eyes.
The present’s nothing: but eternity
Abides for those on whom all truth, all good,
Hath shone in one entire and perfect light.

As bishop of Nola, Italy, which office he faithfully fulfilled for about 22 years, St Paulinus actively promoted the veneration of St Felix, a local martyr. I shall close with Waddell’s translation of his moving poem ‘For St Felix’s Day’, from Latin Poetry in Verse Translation: From the Beginnings to the Renaissance, ed. L.R. Lind (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), p. 319:

Spring wakens the birds’ voices, but for me
My Saint’s day is my spring, and in its light
For all his happy folk the winter flowers.
Keen frost without, midwinter, and the year
Rigid with cold and all the country white,
But gone the harder winter of the soul.

Even as the gentle swallow knows the days
That are his friends, the white bird with black wings,
And the kind turtle-doves, and no bird sings,
But silently slips through the ragged copses,
Till the day comes that the thorn trees are loud
With the greenfinches, then what shining wings
And what gay voices, so I know the day
Year after year that is St Felix’ Feast,
And know the springtime of my year is come,
And sing him a new song.


Esteban Vázquez said...

As an interesting, name-related tidbit, one might note that it is St Paulinus' wife St Therasia whose name stands behind the later Spanish name "Teresa" (variously spelled in other languages).

aaronandbrighid said...

Thank you, my friend. I had no idea! It makes sense I suppose, as his wife was Spanish.

Terence Weldon said...

St Paulinus' poetry is also included in the Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse - as is that of another early saint and bishop, Venantius Fortunatus.

aaronandbrighid said...

Good grief.