29 November 2009

'The Great Church Poet of the Desert of Gaul'—St Eucherius of Lyon

Today, 16 November on the Church’s calendar, we celebrated the memory of St Eucherius, Bishop of Lyon (449). Fr Seraphim (Rose) refers to him as a ‘disciple of St Honoratus [of Lérins]’ (‘Introduction to Orthodox Gaul’, Vita Patrum: The Life of the Fathers, by St Gregory of Tours, trans. Hieromonk Seraphim [Rose] & Paul Bartlett [Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1988], p. 110), and St John Cassian dedicates Book II of his Conferences to the two Saints (The Conferences, by St John Cassian, trans. Boniface Ramsey, OP [NY: Newman, 1997], p. 399):

1. . . . Yet you, O holy brothers Honoratus and Eucherius, are so on fire with the praise of those sublime men from whom we received the first institutes of the anchorite life that in fact one of you, who presides over a large cenobium of brothers, desires his community, which is taught by daily gazing upon your holy way of life, to be instructed as well in the precepts of these fathers. The other wished to come to Egypt in order to be edified by the bodily presence of those same men, thus quitting this province that is as it were sluggish with the numbness of a Gallic frost in order, like the most chaste turtledove, to fly over those lands upon which the sun of righteousness looks so closely and which are overflowing with the ripe fruit of virtue. 2. The virtue of love could not help but wring this out of me, so that in considering the desire of the one and the effort of the other I would not escape the difficult danger of writing, as long as to the first there might be added authority among his sons and from the second there might be removed the obligation of a dangerous voyage.

It seems that St Eucherius was the second of these, and never made it to Egypt. Instead, he came to the point where he could say of the world’s deserts, ‘. . . I honor my own Lérins above all’ (‘In Praise of the Desert: A Letter to Bishop Hilary of Lérins’, trans. Charles Cummings, OCSO, rev. Jeffrey Burton Russell, The Lives of the Jura Fathers, trans. Tim Vivian, Kim Vivian, & Jeffrey Burton Russell [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1999], p. 197). As Fr Seraphim has noted, ‘St Eucherius, clearly, took the words of St Cassian to heart. Not only did he not go to Egypt, but he also became the great church poet of the desert of Gaul’ (p. 110). Here is the brief account of his life in Wace’s Dictionary of Christian Biography & Literature (here):

Born in a high social position, he married Galla, a lady of his own station. Their two sons, Salonius and Veranius, received an ecclesiastical education in the monastery of Lerinum under St. Honoratus and Salvanius; and both, appear, from the title of the commentary on Kings, falsely ascribed to Eucherius, to have become bishops during the lifetime of their father.

The civic duties of Eucherius (whatever they were) appear to have been discharged conscientiously and vigorously. Sidonius Apollinaris is loud in the praise of his friend as a layman, and compares him (Ep. viii.) to the Bruti and Torquati of old. But the world, then in a very turbulent and unsettled condition, palled upon Eucherius, and while still in the vigour of life he sought a retreat from its cares and temptations on the island of Lerinum, the smaller of the two isles now known as the Lérins, off Antibes; and subsequently on the larger one of Lero, now called Sainte Marguerite. Here he pursued an ascetic life of study and worship, devoting himself also to the education of his children. During this period he composed the two undoubtedly genuine works which we possess.

Intercourse, both personal and by correspondence, with eminent ecclesiastics tended to make widely known his deserved reputation for sanctity and for a varied and considerable learning, and c. 434 the church of Lyons unanimously, unsought, elected him bishop. He brought to the discharge of this office the influence and experience acquired in lay government, as well as the spiritual training and erudition won in his retirement. He was bishop some 16 years, the remainder of his life, and Claudianus Mamertus speaks of him as ‘magnorum sui saeculi pontificum longe maximus’. He was succeeded by his son Veranius, while Geneva became the see of his other son Salonius.

Fr Seraphim quotes (on pp. 111-3) a lengthy passage from St Eucherius’s ‘In Praise of the Desert’—the chief example of his work as ‘the great church poet of the desert of Gaul’. Here I shall offer a small portion of it, taken from Cummings’s translation (which I cited above):

37. How pleasant is the solitude of a remote place to those who thirst for God! How attractive for those who seek Christ are those solitary lands stretching in every direction under protecting nature. All things are silent there, and the joyful mind is spurred on by silence in its search for God, finding nourishment in ineffable ecstasies. No sound is heard in the desert save the voice of God. Only that sound that is sweeter than silence, the holy activity of a moderate and holy way of life, breaks into the state of quiet peace, while only the sound of the desert outpost interrupts the silence. Then with sweetly resounding hymns the eager choirs ring in heaven itself, and the choir reaches heaven as much with voices as with prayers. (St Eucherius, p. 211)

Another profound work of St Eucherius is his De contemptu mundi (Wace gives the full title as ‘Epistola Paraenetica ad Valerianum cognatum. "De contemptu mundi et saecularis philosophiae."’) which Gennadius describes as ‘written in a style which shows sound learning and reasoning’ (here). According to the editor at the St Pachomius Library, ‘The work of the brilliant Cavalier poet and mystical visionary Henry Vaughan the Silurist, [St Eucherius’s] ‘The World Contemned’ was the first part of a spiritual anthology called Flores Solitudinis, which Vaughan had hoped would trigger a monastic revival in the Church of England’ (here). Here is a wonderful passage from this work:

But seeing we are fallen into a discourse of the frailty of temporal things, let us not forget the frail condition of this short life. What is it, I beseech you, what is it? Men see nothing more frequently then death, and mind nothing more seldom. Mankind is by a swift mortality quickly driven into the West, or setting point of life, and all posterity by the unalterable law of succeeding ages and generations follow after. Our fathers went hence before us; we shall go next, and our children must after. As streams of water falling from on high, the one still following the other, do in successive circles break and terminate at the banks; so the appointed times and successions of men are cut off at the boundary of death. This consideration should take up our thoughts both night and day; this memorial of our frail condition should keep us still awake. Let us always think the time of our departure to be at hand; for the day of death, the further we put it off, comes the faster, and is by so much the nearer to us. Let us suspect it to be near, because we know not how far! Let us, as the Scripture saith, ‘Make plain our ways before us’ (Isaiah 28:25).

If we make this the business of our thoughts, and meditate still upon it, we shall not be frighted with the fear of death. Blessed and happy are all you who have already reconciled yourselves unto Christ! No great fear of death can disturb them, who desire to be dissolved that they may be with Christ; who in the silence of their own bosoms, quietly, and long since prepared for it, expect the last day of their pilgrimage here. They care not much how soon they end this temporal life, that pass from it into life eternal.

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