Sunday, December 09, 2007

Sulpicius Severus, Life of St. Martin, 16

Here is the new installment of the St. Martin story by Sulpicius Severus.


Truly, he had the gift of curing people so that almost no sick person came to him who did not immediately receive back his health. This is apparent in the following example: (2) A certain girl from Treveris (Treves) suffered from a serious paralysis so that, for a long time, she did not make use of her body at all. Half-dead in all parts of her body, she trembled with scarcely a tenuous breath. (3) Her relatives were standing near in only the expectation of her funeral, when suddenly it was announced that Martin had come to that city. When the father of the girl found this out, he rushed about to breathlessly beg for (the life of) his child. (4) By chance, Martin was in the entrance of the church. There, with the people and many of the other bishops looking on, the old man, howled and embraced Martin's knees, saying "My daughter is dying from a miserable illness and because that death is very cruel, she lives only by her spirit, now her body is almost dead. I ask that you come to her and bless her: For I am confident that her health must be recovered through you. (5)Martin, dumbfounded by that speech, was struck dumb and retreated, saying that this was not something of which he was worthy, that the old man erred in his judgement, that he (Martin) was not worthy to be the sign through whom the Lord would show his power.

Weeping, the father vehemently pressed Martin and begged that he visit his dying daughter. (6) He, forced to go by the surrounding bishops, descended into the house of the girl. A huge crowd awaited him before the doors to see what the slave of God would do. (7) First, he took up those familiar arms of his in this type of situation, he stretched out and prayed alone. Then, gazing on the sick girl, he asked for olive oil to be given him. When he blessed her, he poured the force of the holy liquid on the girl's face and immediately her voice returned. (8) Then, gradually, each of her limbs began to live through the contact with him (it?). Finally, she got up with firm steps as the people bore witness.


This is the opening of a new section about St. Martin's cures and miracles as opposed to his successful and somewhat miraculous campaign against rural paganism in his region. In this section, the parallels we should be seeking are the biblical ones, especially of Jesus' own healings and miracles. This is in keeping with the stress with any saint's imitation of Christ in that, by their imitation of Christ, these saints share some of the power of Christ for healings and miracles.

I think the pattern we're using here for this miracle is the daughter of Jairus story found in both Mark, 7, 21-43 and Luke 8, 41-56, of course without the encounter with the woman with the issue of blood which is woven into this story by the Gospel writers. The parallels are striking:
1. Both Martin and Jesus come to town and are immediately accosted by a desperate father asking for a cure for his dying daughter
2. Both girls are very near death and past the ability of doctors to save
3. Both Martin and Jesus pray in the room with the girl who is miraculous raised to full health.

Of course, there are significant differences, but these differences are, I think, instructive. First, Martin hesitates to go because he doesn't believe he has the power to effect the cure. He only goes because he is pressed by the various bishops with whom he was meeting in the city. This hesitation, of course, is to show Martin's humility and recognition of the limits of his own power. This humility is the mark of a saint and it is very important that Martin not too closely emulate Jesus. At least, if he emulated Jesus' clear confidence in healing, we would think St. Martin arrogant enough to equate himself with Jesus, with God. Furthermore, we know from the Desert Fathers that humility is the very thing that demons and devils cannot endure, so St. Martin's humility is the mark of his sanctity.

Second, the girl in the St. Martin healing isn't dead just yet. While raisings from the dead are a tradition in hagiographical writings, they are usually the culmination of one's healing career, not the beginning of it. If Sulpicius should have introduced such a healing at this point, all the other cures would seem rather an anti-climax. So, as far as composition goes, we have a rather less spectacular healing to start with.

Third, Sulpicius is rather more sensationalistic here than the Gospel Writers. This is in keeping with the rhetoric of the age, but it does put the lie into Sulpicius' claim to be a not particularly polished writer. Perhaps the pathos in this and other scenes might strike one as a little garish and gruesome at times, but that was the style of the age.

Fourth, Sulpicius clearly portrays in this episode the ancient practice of using annointing with oil in healing. Indeed, while Jesus prayed and brought Jairus' daughter to life, Martin prays only as a preparation for the annointing of the sick. Sulpicius describes this procedure as being St. Martin's accustomed arms to battle illness. The military metaphor is, of course, striking for this former soldier-saint, but also indicates the importance of this practice of annointing the sick. Note especially that the healing seems to follow the flow of the oil over the body of the girl.

A last translation note for the Latinists in my readership. The following clause gave me pause when translating:

tunc paulatim singula contactu eius membra vivescere,

I translated this passage as
Then, gradually, each of her limbs began to live through the contact with him

This would suggest that the healing is following St. Martin's touch. I wonder, however, if the contactu eius should be understood as referring to the oil. Grammatically, I think, both would work, but which works better, I wonder.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Was it Elijah who stretched his body out over somebody to bring them back to life? I'm vaguely sure an apostle did this, too.

(Yes, I'm too lazy to run a search today.)

Anyway, as much bodily contact as possible hits my memory as a fairly common Judeo-Christian healing posture, although just laying hands on the head is definitely less involved and thus more common!