Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Sulpicius Severus, Life of St. Martin 23

This is rather a delayed post. I had the translation done last week, but I had decided to delay the commentary until I had more time. That turned out to be a longer period than I thought. So, here is the next installment of the Life of St. Martin.


When a certain person named Clarus, a very noble youth, soon to be priest, but now blessed with a happy death, came to Martin with all the rest, he became distinguished to the utmost height of his faith and all the virtues. (2) When he set up a tent not far the bishop's monastery and many brothers were staying at his house, a youth named Anatolius came to him, while pretending humility and innocence in his monastic profession, lived for some time in community with the rest. (3) Then, as time went on, he used to say that he was used to speaking to angels. When nobody believed him, he compelled many to believe him through signs. Later, he went to the point that he proclaimed that angels rushed between him and God and that he was wishing to be considered one of the prophets. (4) Nevertheless, Clarus could in no way be compelled to believe in him. Anatolius threatened him with the anger of God and present calamities because Clarus did not believe in one of the saints. (5) Later, it is reported he broke out with this speech "Behold, the Lord will give me shining-white clothing this night. Being clad in this clothing, I will be taken up in your midst. That will be a sign to you that the power of God is in me, who shall be given the clothing of God. (6) Then, the expectation of all in this declaration was great. In almost the middle of the night, the whole monastery in that place seemed to be disturbed by the clamour of people leaping on the ground. You would perceive that the cell in which that same youth was staying shone with many lights and the clamour of those rushing about in it and a certain murmuring of many voices was heard. (7) Then, when it became silent, the youth came out and called to one of the brethren, Sabatius by name, and showed him his tunic which he was wearing. Sabatius, astonished, called the rest together. Clarus even ran to there. All of them carefully examined the clothing with light applied to it. It was extremely soft, with outstanding whiteness, shining with purple and, nevertheless, it was not possible to be known what type of material it was. When it was handled by curious eyes or fingers, it seemed to be nothing else but clothing. Meanwhile Clarus told all the brothers to apply themselves in prayer so that the Lord would show more clearly what the clothing was. (9) Thus, the rest of the night was spent in hymns and psalms. When the day grew light, Clarus wished to take the youth, held by his right hand, to Martin, knowing well that Martin could not be deceived by diabolic arts. (10) Then, the wretch began to resist and shout. He said that he was told not to show himself to Martin. When they compelled him to go unwillingly, the clothing disappeared in the hands of those dragging him. Therefore, who would doubt that such was the power of Martin that the devil was not able to pretend any longer or hide his own deception when it must be brought to the eyes of Martin.


This passage has several interesting features to it. First, for two-thirds of the story, this isn't really about St. Martin. Really, for that first two-thirds, the focus is on the conflict between Clarus, the young, but spiritual disciple of St. Martin and Anatolius, a rival Christian teacher. Clarus doesn't have any position at the time of the story to base his authority other than his loyalty to God and his spiritual discernment which prevents him from being convinced or compelled to abandon his faith in Christ in favour of Anatolius' wish to take on the spiritual leadership in the community loosely associated with St. Martin. Really, it isn't until the very end, when Clarus thinks to solve the problem of the white clothing-- a problem which he himself could not solve, even if he had the right impulse to pray about it. It is ultimately Satan's reluctance to get into a contest with St. Martin which causes the hoax to be revealed and Anatolius to be revealed as demonically inspired.

To be sure, this incident is intended to highlight St. Martin's spiritual power which was so great that even Satan got the idea not to go up against him openly. Rather it is through stealth and a pretend monk that Satan tries to corrupt the community of St. Martin. Clarus' efforts to prevent are only successful when he gets ready to call out the big guns: St. Martin himself. This is, of course, a feature of hagiographies stories and a feature of Jesus' own experience with Satan. Here Satan tempts and displays power, but he withdraws hastily when He encounters a holy man because he knows he's outmatched.

Second, this story also demands some effort to unpack what was going on with Anatolius. One way we can look at him is to dismiss him as a deluded lunatic. That is, his claims to speak to angels and, eventually, to be a messenger from God would probably land him up in a psych ward today, not necessarily a monastery. Mind you, deluded lunatics don't necessarily produce unusually white mystery cloth as a rule, so that little detail would seem to argue against this interpretation. This is, of course, why Clarus and the other monks were so freaked out by Anatolius. He was able to manifest signs and material items to back up his story which is something that a complete fraud or a madman has a problem coming up with. Severus explains these signs as being the result of collaboration with Satan. Given that Satan has power, if inferior to God's, he could help manifest signs and get a hold of odd fabrics to confuse the monks of St. Martin's monastery.

Another way to look at Anatolius is to see him as some kind of misunderstood proto-charismatic. That is, his claims to hear angels and to spiritual authority based on these manifestations might be seen, at least in Anatolius' eyes, as charisms--gifts of the Holy Spirit. One of the results of these gifts is that Anatolius might come to that these experiences give him spiritual authority over others. That would explain his threats to Clarus. Anatolius is believing his own press and bases his authority on it.

Furthermore, if we accept Anatolius as a proto-charismatic, we have to admit that there was precedent. Montanism, for instance, stressed prophecy and gifts of the Spirit in such a way that the new dispensation of Montanus overrode the old one of the New Testament writers. Was Anatolius a proto-Montanus? Perhaps. The problem is, of course, that we can't really know how much he was a lunatic and how much a sane, if pushy charismatic.

This is a bit of a moot point, of course. Clearly, Severus regarded Anatolius as a dupe of Satan, whose professions of innocence and humility were merely a cover for a snare sprung on St. Martin's monks, designed to seduce them away from God. We moderns are squeamish about the idea of a Satan, who intervenes in human life to twist it away from God. We come by that squeamishness honestly because the figure of Satan in popular culture has become so ridiculous that it is difficult to take him seriously as a real force in the world. We have a tendency to relegate him to horror flicks or low comedy in such a way that his opposition isn't so much against God, but against us. And since he is against us, we all know who will win. That's right us. In many ways, I wonder if the secularization of the image of Satan isn't also a domesticization of him into something which we can handle, if we need to.

Yet, in Severus, Satan is a cunning opponent who threatens to win out against most mortals. Only a superlatively holy man could possibly be close enough to God to drive away Satan. Our archetype for this holy man is, of course, Jesus, so it is hardly surprising that it is Christ who gives us our example of Satan's ultimate weakness when measured against God. While the unveiling of Anatolius is a triumph of St. Martin, it is, more importantly, a triumph of God over evil. That, of course, explains what the story is doing in this Life of St. Martin.



Jim said...

"In many ways, I wonder if the secularization of the image of Satan isn't also a domesticization of him into something which we can handle, if we need to."

I am planning a dinne tonight with a friend who keeps asking me about an observation I offered a ways back. Noting that a solid majority of Americans say they believe in God but only a minority of us act in any remotely religious way or claim that we base our actions on such a belief I said, "The issue is not that we deny God, it is that we deny evil." And so I continue to think.

I find your translation and comments quite fascinating. Thank you for them.


Phil Snider said...

Thanks for the comment, Jim. I'm glad you're enjoying the series. I think there are only four or so more installments before I finish.
I'll have to think on what to translate next. Perhaps a sermon or two of St. John Chrysosthom or something.

I hope your dinner went well with your friend. I think you're right about the denial of evil. Otherwise, how could we possibly have horror movies, for instance, whose purpose is both to titilate with the idea of evil, but also subtly insist that we can overcome it ourselves. Evil, most often is much more subtle than all that.


Maureen said...

Interesting. I actually pictured him more as a classic religious conman, the sort of guy who turns entertainment industry skills into a way to control people. Asbestos wasn't uncommon stuff on the other side of the empire, for example, and a lot of his other hijinks bear this interpretation as well. A flourishing monastery might be interpreted by such a person as promising ground for finding marks, much as conmen often flock to places full of the vulnerable and trusting.

Or it might also have been a case of an "Iago" looking for people to control, and willing to try whatever works to get that control. I've seen that happen with other flourishing young groups and clubs, although fortunately not with any religious ones.

Of course, conmen have been known to drink their own Kool-Aid as well, or sincere people to feel that trickery is justifiable if it "leads people toward the truth". (I watched that Jim Jones biography last night on American Experience, and had to turn it off because it was creeping me out too much.)