Sunday, October 28, 2007

Sulpicius Severus, Life of St. Martin 14

Here is this month's installment of St. Martin's life.


He showed not less virtue in the same work at almost the same time. For when he set fire to a very old and famous altar to a certain man, fireballs were carried by the wind to a nearby, nay, attached house. (2) When Martin turned around, he climbedrapidly, placing himself opposite the advancing flames. Then, in an astonishing way, you would have truly perceived the fire twist back against the force of the wind so that, indeed, the elements was seen contending among themselves. Thus, by the virtue of Martin, the fire burned where it was ordered. (3) However, in that village, whose name was Leprosum, when he wanted to overturn a temple very rich in the superstition of its religious practices, a multitude of pagans resisted him so that he was driven back not without injury. (4) Thus, he withdrew to a nearby place. For three days, clad in a goat's hair garment and ashes, fasting and praying there, he prayed to God that, because human hands were not able to overturn that temple, divine virtue would demolish it. (5) Then, two angels, armed with spears and shields in the garb of heavenly military service, suddenly presented themselves, saying they were sent by the Lord so that they might put to flight the rustic crowd and bring protection to Martin so that no one would hinder him while the temple was destroyed. Therefore, Martin returned and he faithfully completed the work which he began. (6)Returning to the temple, with the crowd of pagans watching and growing quiet, he destroyed the profane building to its foundations and reduced all the altars and statues into dust. (7) When they saw this, the rustics, after they understood they had been struck senseless and terrified by divine approval so they would not fight the bishop again, nearly all believed Jesus was Lord, shouting openly and confessing that the God of Martin must be worshiped and the idols, which were not not able to appear for themselves or for others, must be neglected.


Here we have another incident of Martin's de-paganization campaign in the rural areas around Tours, complete with miraculous, nature-defying interventions. I have to admit that the Latin was getting a little weird, especially in the description of the first fire. I suspect that Sulpicius was trying to compress this incident and the Latin syntax suffered. At any rate, the description is obscure and I'm really not sure what to do about it except show it in all its obscurity. Presumably, what happens is that the fire didn't spread to the adjacent building, despite the fact that the wind should have caused it to. Presumably, this is a similar kind of natural miracle effected by St. Martin's prayer and, here, Martin's desire to prevent innocents from getting hurt.

The second story is more striking. There are two interesting elements to this story. First, the fact of Martin's repulse in his first attempt against the temple at Leprosum. This is interesting evidence for the resistence to the Christianization of the countryside under Martin. What is even more remarkable is that Martin doesn't seem to be trying to achieve his aim of eliminating rural paganism with imperial military support. When he is repulsed, he doesn't run back to the capital of his province and call in the troops to avenge his defeat. Rather, he turns to prayer and gains heavenly support. This raises questions about how supportive of Martin's efforts were local political and military authorities. This is possibly an unanswerable question, since we don't know to what degree Martin even wanted the help, but it is one that should be asked.

Second, the account of the two heavenly soldiers seems not only appropriate to a soldier-saint, but also, I think, recalls the 12 legions of angels which Jesus says in Matthew he could have called in, if he was that kind of Messiah (Matthew, 26,53). The details are, of course, Roman (hastati and scuta are the quintessential weapons of the legions), It is striking that the angel-soldiers don't strike, they merely intimidate the crowds into allowing the destruction of their temple. This strikes me as interesting from a Christian pacifist rule, partly because see soldiers here and partly because they don't use their weapons. What, I wonder, is the nature of that heavenly army alluded to here?

And I wonder what John Howard Yoder would think.


1 comment:

Alice C. Linsley said...

What does the name "Silpicius" mean? Isn't it related to the word for snake or serpent?