Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sulpicius Severus, Life of St. Martin 18

Well, time for another installment of the St. Martin story. Here we find Martin dealing with rumours of war, demoniacs and lepers.


Meanwhile, a rumour about a barbarian disturbance and attack suddenly disturbed the city, Martin ordered a certain demon-possessed man to be shown to him. He ordered the man to confess whether he was truly the messenger (of this news). (2) Then, the man confessed there were ten demons in him, who spread this rumour among the people so that Martin, at least, would flee from the town and that nothing was less in the minds of the barbarians than an attack. In this way, when this unclean spirit confessed in the middle of the church, the city was freed from the present fear and disturbance.

(3) In Paris, while he was entering the gate of that city with a great crowd accompanying him, Martin, to the horror of all, kissed and blessed a leper who had a miserable face and immediately cleansed him from all evil. (4) On the next day, the leper came to the church with shining skin and gave thanks for the health he had received. Nor must we pass by the story that fibres drawn from his clothing and coverings often brought strength to the ill. (5) Bound on the fingers or laid on the neck, they often put the illness to flight from the sick.


This is a bit of a grab bag of miracle stories, but with some interesting elements.

In the first, we find a demoniac whose demons were not interested in a direct confrontation with Martin (we've had plenty stories which suggest that Martin (as helped by Jesus) was more than a match for them). It is interesting that they use a false rumour of a barbarian incursion to try to drive Martin off. It is interesting, first, because it suggests a degree of anxiety about barbarian incursions. We can't really be sure about the date for this incident, but presumably we're talking about the 370s-380s. Gaul, in this period, was relatively peaceful, but there were occasional difficulties. Presumably, this rumour played on these fears.

An interesting element to this is that the source of the rumour is discovered by Martin to have spiritual motivations. Was this Martin's way of discrediting the rumour? Perhaps. Was there a genuine spiritual encounter here? I'm not sure we'll know that. Still, it makes some tantalizing questions, as well as emphasizing Martin's prophetic powers.

In the second incident, we find a rather more straight-foward cleansing of a leper. Since Jesus' own ministry, this kind of cleansing is something a mainstay in the Church's arsenal of miracles. The example of Jesus in his many leper healings is clearly paramount here and the return of the leper to thank God in Martin's prescence is meant to evoke that.

It is interesting also that Martin's very clothing has miraculous powers. This, of course, recalls Jesus and the woman who touched the hem of Jesus' clothing and was cured of chronic bleeding (Matthew, 9,20-22; Mark 5,25; Luke, 8, 43-48). Of course, strictly speaking, it isn't Jesus' clothing that has the power, so much as Jesus' power radiating out from the clothing. A closer paralel might be comment in acts in which handkerchiefs and aprons touched by St. Paul was cured the sick in Ephesus (Acts, 19,12). Here Sulpicius is doing one better because it is no longer necessary to have the whole garment, just the tiniest fragment.



Jim said...

I think that one of the better descriptions I have heard of sanctity, or saintliness is the art of being Christ-like. In what you have posted of Severus's life of St. Martin, I see Severus seeking to paint St. Martin as Christ-like in sense of doing things very similar to the things Jesus was reported to have done.

I am not suggesting dishonesty here, but rather a reporting paradigm.



Phil Snider said...

Sorry, for the delay getting back.

Yes, definitely, I think this is what Severus is doing. In fact, I think this is what most hagiographers are doing, if we just connect the dots. For that matter, there are times where I think the writer of Acts is doing the same thing with the apostles.

This fits with our understanding of how ancient Greeks and Romans thought of art. This tendency to have St. Martin imitate the actions of Jesus in Severus reflects the principle of mimesis in literature. That is, writing is imitation of an exemplar in an original way. In this sense, the events in St. Martin's life are (re-)presented as Gospel parallels. This doesn't mean that the events of St. Martin's life didn't happen, but, rather, that they are recast with an understanding of the Gospel. I know this drives historians crazy, but it fits with how ancient writers write and didn't necessarily remove the possiblity that real incidents are happening.

Furthermore, there is some cause to believe that some ancient figures purposely imitated their examplars in real life. I think this is true of Jesus, who seems to re-enact certain elements of Scripture to make his point. His procession into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday is an excellent example, as is his cleansing of the Temple. And, of course, the entire Passion narrative are filled with alllusions, some of which Jesus seems to have deliberately made (his quoting of Psalm 22 on the cross is a delibrate allusion to the rest of the Psalm as well).

This makes the historical approach to these writings tricky, but, I think, it makes sense in the culture from which they derive.