Sunday, September 08, 2013

Sulpicius Severus, Letter 1 Part 2

Welcome to the second installment of the first letter of Sulpicius Severus. The first installment can be found here. In this excerpt, we get a clear account of the incident which opponents of St. Martin were trying to use against him.


9. but, however, I will not allow (myself) to hide that about which the question came to light and I will report the whole affair as it was done so that we will, by chance, seem to bypass intentionally that which could expose that blessed man to blame.

10. When, in almost the middle of the winter, Martin arrived at a certain diocese for a solemn custom, just as it is the custom for bishops to visit their churches, the clerics prepared a resting place in the sanctuary of the church and put much fire under a rough and weak floor. They  heaped up a bed with much straw. Then, when Martin placed himself to lie down, he shuddered at the unaccustomed softness of the soothing bed, seeing that he was accustomed to lie down on bare ground with one goat-hair cover spread over him. (11) Thus, disturbed as if having received an injury, he threw off the whole covering. By chance, it heaped part of the chaff which he had moved over the oven. He himself rested, as was his custom, on the bare earth due to the urging of his tiredness from the journey. As we said, at almost the middle of the night, the burning fire seized the burning straw through the broken flooring. (12) Martin, roused from his sleep unexpectedly, with a very great and two-fold danger, as was reported, hindered by the devil's ambush and urging, fled to the help of prayer more slowly than he ought. For, desire to break down the door, when, struggling for a very long time with the bolt with which he shut the door, he perceived a very serious fire around him to such an extent that the fire caught his clothes which he wore. (13) At last, coming to his sense, knowing that his help was not in flight, but in God, taking up the shield of faith and prayer, he turned himself and gave himself completely to God. he prayed with him unharmed in a circle of flames. The monks, who were at the door, after (hearing) the roaring,crackling sound of fire, broke down the bolted doors and, with the fire extinguished, brought Martin out the midst of the flames. although he was thought to have been consumed by such a long-lasting fire. (14) Yet, and God is the witness to my words, Martin himself reported to me and admitted not without a groan, that he was deceived in this situation by the skill of the devil so that, shaken out of sleep, he did not have a plan by which he might fight the danger through faith and prayer. Finally, for as long as the fire raged around him, he, disturbed in his mind, tried to break down the door. (15) When he sought the standards of the cross and arms of prayers, in the middle, the flames ceased and he, then noticed sprinkling water which fought the fire. From this, whoever reads this understands that Martin was tempted by that danger indeed, but he was truly proven by it.    


With this passage, after much rhetorical flourish, we finally get to the incident which has created the occasion for Sulpicius' discussion about saintly power and its limitations. The incident itself, I think, is reasonably simple to reconstruct. An accidental fire was caused by Martin throwing off what was, to his mind, overly soft bedding which fell into the furnace. The fire caught the walls and, while trying the obvious route of escape- the door-, Martin was injured. When he fell back into the room, aided by a mysterious 'dew', Martin found he was safe from the flames until the monks in the rest of the house were finally able to break into the room and save the beleaguered saint.

To us, this story seems almost trivial. Of course, Martin should have watched where was kicking his bedding, but past a warning about fire safety, is this really something to get so worked up over? There is, however, an odd hint of the supernatural implied in how Martin was saved from the flames. As long as Martin struggled against the door, he was, apparently, relying on his own strength. When Martin stopped fighting with the bolt and retreated into the midst of the fire, not only did he get away from the flames, but a sprinkling of water helped keep him safe. The suggestion is that the fire was, actually, a diabolical test of Martin's confidence in God  and that, as soon as he stopped acting on his own will to save himself and started praying, he was victorious. The fact that he didn't immediately see it as a spiritual trial is merely a confession of Martin's human weakness, especially, one must conclude, when roused from a sound sleep by a raging inferno. Of course, he overcame the temptation and the danger which is the point of  the power of his saintliness. Or, at least, this is what Sulpicius wants us to take from this story.

Of course, it is exactly this sort of spiritualizing natural events which drives many people these days crazy. Are we really expected to believe that God saved St. Martin from an everyday house fire because he prayed his way to safety? What about those faithful people, God only knows how many, who have died in fires over the ages? Were they not faithful enough? Doesn't this prove that faith, as conceived by Sulpicius and many of his peers, was merely some sort of magic which has no place in our scientific world of material cause and effect? Why shouldn't we just reject this story as yet another puerile miracle story?

I'm not sure if I have a definitive answer to these questions. Clearly, the conception of the 'holy man' which we discussed in the last post should influence how we read Sulpicius' interpretation of this event. To the 'holy man' and his supporters, even the most trivial thing is spiritual, so it is natural to look whether the spiritual forces of evil were in play during particular events in a way that we wouldn't in this post-Enlightenment age. And I do think we have to take this automatic spiritualizing of natural events as a warning when we are tempted to tell a person that their illness was the result of their lack of faith or other such nonsense. Or, for that matter, when we insist that the survival of one person amid a disaster was a sign of God's favour, when many others, possibly as faithful, perish. I'm not entirely sure I see the difference between this and Sulpicius' spiritualizing of this house fire.

What humbles me about this incident is the recognition that not all that much has changed in the world. It is easy to latch onto this episode's miraculous, almost magical character and use it to assure ourselves that we are so much smarter, so much less credulous than our ancestors. Yet, if we are entirely honest, we have to recognize that, as Christians, we can't escape the real question that Sulpicius raises here: what is the relationship between the physical dangers of this world and our spirituality. While I think, in his desperate attempt to depict St. Martin as a archetypical 'holy man', Sulpicius over-reads the spiritual into this story, his main point is that even godly people like the apostles suffer from the physical injury without losing their status as godly people. In many ways, Sulpicius seems to be trying to answer the age-old question of why do bad things happen to good people- or, at least, here, saintly people. To my eyes, it doesn't look, despite our presumed greater knowledge and sophisicated, like we have any greater insight into that question.

Peace, Phil