Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sulpicius Severus, Life of St. Martin 27

Here we come to the conclusion of Sulpicius Severus' Life of St. Martin; a series which I began around two and a quarter years ago (has it been that long!) back on St. Martin's day 2006. In a couple days, I intend to collate links to all the passages and publish them in a separate posting, along with some ideas about future directions for this project and for my translating efforts in general. So, stay tuned for that post.


No one ever saw him angry, nor excited, nor lamenting nor laughing. He was always one and the same. Somehow preferring heavenly joy in his face, he seemed to be beyond the limits of human nature. (2) Nothing was ever on his lips except Christ. Nothing was ever in his heart except piety, peace and pity. Frequently, he was accustomed to weep for the sins of those who seemed to be his detractors, who harassed him with poisoned tongue and the mouth of vipers, although he lived apart and quietly. (3) Truly, we know about some who envied his virtue and his life, who hated him what they did not see in themselves and what they were not able to imitate. And, O crime which one must be pained and groan over, not a few were almost persecutors, to be sure just a few. Some, however, were reported to be bishops. (4) It isn't really necessary to name anyone. Many are accusing us falsely. It is enough that, if someone of them should read this and recognize themselves, he would blush. If he becomes angry, he will admit he was the one spoken about, when, perhaps, we were thinking of another person. (5) But we do not shrink away if anyone who is that type of person would hate us along with such a great man. (6) I am easily confident that this little deed is pleasing to all the saints. As for the rest, if anyone should read this without faith, he will sin. (7) I am conscious that I was motivated by my trust of the facts and love of Christ to write, to set out well-known things and to speak truthfully. I hope that whoever not only reads this book, but who believes them will have the reward which is prepared by God.


As we come to the conclusion, Severus continues his summation of St. Martin's character which he began in section 26. These last two chapters remind of how ancient biographies tend to end with rapid sketches of the essential personality of the person featured. There are differences, of course. For instance, we don't see any attempt to describe St. Martin physically. The focus is on spiritual gifts and virtues. That makes sense in this context, but one does wonder sometimes about what these people looked like and whether they resemble our picture of them.

Severus' concern with the opposition to St. Martin and, by extension, himself strikes me as interesting. St. Martin was the first of a type of bishop which was, by this time, reasonably common in the East, but not so much in the East: the monk bishop. The next generation would see its share (St. Augustine and his circle to name only a few examples, but the ascetic bishop was not necessarily a common figure in synods of the day. They weren't unheard of. St. Paulinus, mentioned by Severus, is a good example. Still, they were something of a novelty which may explain some of the opposition which St. Martin accidentally stirred up.

His opposition, it seems, is portrayed as more 'worldly'. These bishops were already influential within their provinces and were deeply involved in the church politics of the day. They were the ancestors of the mediaeval prince-bishops who came to dominate as lords considerable land holdings. They were more likely to emphasize their position in society, to develop an elaborate (and expensive) 'court' and to display the church's wealthy as a way of emphasizing their political power and influence. If we remember this, we can understand why the monk-bishop would make these other bishops look bad. Here we see monk-bishops diverting the resources used to emphasize the magnificence of the Church and its representative in the region, the bishop, to poor relief etc. The latter use of the Church's resources is, of course, more in line with what Christ commanded us to do which makes it embarrassing when someone actually acts on it.

We are, of course, in the middle of the conflict between the burgeoning monastic movement in the West and the trimphalistic Church of the late Roman period. This means that, in a sense, Severus has tipped his hand a little in this passage and revealed that his telling of St. Martin's life wasn't just motivated by a desire to edify the reader, but, also, to convince him of the benefit of the monastic movement in general. Just as St. Athanasius' Life of Antony had a similar double goal: edification and the strengthening of the Egyptian monastic movement, so to does Severus' effort.

This isn't to denigrate the very real spiritual goals of this Life. St. Martin is intended as an example of living a Christ-like life and we are expected to be inspired to imitate him.



Weekend Fisher said...

Congratulations on the milestone.

Roger Pearse said...

The worldly bishop reacts with fury to the discovery that some of his priests do not share his vices; a sad story that echoes down the years. Churchill called this "the anger that accompanies detected wrong-doing."