Monday, January 26, 2009

Sulpicius Severus, Life of St. Martin 25

Translation:

Since we had heard about his faith, life and virtue at that time and we burned with desire for (meeting) him, we took up the pleasing journey to meet him. At the same time, since our heart was burning to write his life, we sought to learn in part from him how much as he could be asked and we learned in part from those were with him and knew him. (2) In fact, at that time, it was not possible to be believe with what humility, with what kindness he received us. He congratulated us very much and rejoiced in the Lord because he was held so important by us, for whom we took up a journey and sought him. (3) Miserable me- I almost don't dare to confess it- when he thought me worthy to invite us to his holy banquet, he himself brought water for our hands. In the evening, he himself washed our feet for us. Nor did we have the firmness to struggle against and oppose him. In this way, I was overcome by his authority so that I thought it wrong, if I would not have given in. (4) His conversation with me was about nothing else than the necessity to give up the allurements of the world and secular burdens so that, free and unencumbered, we would follow the Lord Jesus. He threw in the most outstanding example of that man, Paulinus, famous to us in the present time about whom we made mention above, who after casting aside the greatest wealth and following Jesus, he almost alone in his times, fulfilled the precepts of the Gospel. (5) It was he who we must follow, it was he, he shouted, who must be imitated: and that the present time was blessed with the proof of such great faith and virtue, when a rich man, who possessed much, by selling everything and giving it to the poor, made possible by his example what was impossible to achieve. (6) Truly, how so much gravity was there in his words and conversation! How great was his dignity? How acute, how effective, how ready and easy was he in solving scriptural questions! Since I know many don't believe at this point- obviously I have seen those who do not believe me when I report these things, I call on Jesus and our common hope to witness that I had never heard about such great skill, such good and pure conversation from that lips of anyone. (8) How trifling this praise is in comparison to Martin's virtues, save only that it was astonishing for an illiterate man that he did not lack this gift.

Commentary:

With this section, we're beginning the home stretch for this Life. Just as in classical biographies, Sulpicius is finishing his hagiography with a consideration of the character of his subject. What is more, in this chapter, he is reinforcing his claim for special authority in the Life of St. Martin by emphasizing his personal meeting with St. Martin. Given that historians and biographers gave special authority to eye-witnesses and personal autopsy, Sulpicius' discussion of his meeting with St. Martin and his community is a significant one. It suggests that those who wish to scoff at the details of his Life of St. Martin are on weak ground because Sulpicius has good evidence for what he has already spoken about. Given his frequent references to his sources, all this chapter does is make this claim explicit.

In St. Martin's behavior to Sulpicius, we find the familiar pattern of Martin's identification with Jesus which is so complete that the Jesus who is in Martin causes him to act in imitation of Him. Thus, we see him serving Sulpicius and washing his feet. Similarly, we find him a formidable exegete, even though he is illiterate. In St. Martin, we find a person who has connected with God inwardly to such a degree, that he begins to echo him outwardly which, I think, is the point of the scriptural parallels in the stories about St. Martin in this life.

The Paulinus mentioned in this passage is likely St. Paulinus of Nola, who, after the death of his son, was baptized and began to distribute his extensive fortune around 390 AD. This decision was widely acclaimed, especially in Western monastic circles. He was later ordained bishop of Nola around 403 AD and corresponded with such Christian leaders as St. Martin, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine and St. Jerome. The tone of this passage would seem to suggest an early date in Paulinus' life, so, perhaps the early 390s. This would establish Sulpicius' visit with St. Martin as occuring around then.

Part of me would like to stop there with this chronological point, but I think that would be ignoring the elephant in the room right now: both St. Paulinus' giving away of his worldly goods and St. Martin's approval. I think it important to plumb the depths of what makes me uncomfortable. After all, we're not talking about just tithing ten per cent here (which I'm not sure we're quite doing yet) or that we are stewards for what God has put in our hands (but we DO get to enjoy it while we're alive, don't we, Lord?), but the simple and literal obedience to Jesus' advice to the rich young ruler to give away all that he has and follow Jesus. Now, that is scary, especially to someone who lives in a highly consumerist society like ours. Examples like St. Paulinus or St. Martin or even modern monastics make me want to look for loopholes and ways of saying that I can get away with more possessions than I need. What I wish for is someone to reassure me that I can be rich (and as someone living in Canada in comparison to most of the rest of the world, I'm rich) and somehow obey Jesus on this point.

What I would like is to know how much is enough to take care of my family and how much is too much. I really don't know. Living in Toronto is expensive and we're on one income right now. Yet, I want things-books mostly, but other things: a nice house, a car, all the accoutrement's of suburban life-, so I don't know how to decide what is needed and what is not. Examples such as St. Paulinus and St. Martin don't let me get away with easy answers. I'm just not sure what to do with the hard answers.

Peace,
Phil

2 comments:

aaronandbrighid said...

I like your translation, but I noticed that in the text as you have it, St Paulinus is not mentioned by name: 'He threw in the most outstanding example of that man, famous to us in the present time about whom we made mention above, who after casting aside the greatest wealth and following Jesus, he almost alone in his times, fulfilled the precepts of the Gospel.' Carolinne White, on the other hand, has 'that famous man Paulinus'. Is the name really in the Latin?

Phil Snider said...

Aaronandbrighid;

Oh. Yes, Paulinus' name is in the Latin in section 4 : "He threw in the most outstanding example of that man, Paulinus, famous to us in the present time about whom we made mention above, who after casting aside the greatest wealth and following Jesus, he almost alone in his times, fulfilled the precepts of the Gospel." I'll fix the translation. Thanks for pointing that out.

Peace, Phil