Sunday, August 18, 2013

First Letter of Sulpicius Severus- Part 1

As promised here is the first installment of the 1st Letter of Sulpicius Severus:

(for those of you who are interested, here is the link to the Latin (p.138ff)

1. Yesterday, when many monks came to me, in the midst of continuous stories and a long conversation, mention of my little book which I published about the life of the blessed Bishop Martin came up. I listened with great pleasure that it was eagerly read by many. 2. Nevertheless, it is reported to me that someone, caught up by an evil spirit, had asked why Martin, who had raised the dead and drove flames away from houses, had himself recently been burned by fire and suffered a dangerous injury.

3. O that wretch, whoever he is! We recognize the treachery and speech of the Jews in his words, who mocked the Lord, placed on a cross, with these words "He saved others; he cannot save himself" (Matthew, 27,42). Truly, had that man, whoever he is, been born in those times so that he, who falsely abused the holy man of the Lord in the similar way for example, could speak to the Lord with those words. 5. What, then, who ever you are, is Martin not powerful for that reason? Is he not holy that that reason, because he was tried by fire?

O blessed man, similar in all things to the Apostles even in the insults of men! Without a doubt, the gentiles were reported to think this about Paul, when a viper bit him: "This man must be a murderer whom the fates did not allow to live after being saved from the sea" (Acts 28,4). He, after he shook off the snake into the fire, suffered no evil. Rather, when they saw nothing evil touched him, turning to him, they said he was God. Yet, by examples of this type, most unlucky of all mortals, you must prove your treachery so that, if scandal moved you because Martin seemed to be touched by the flame of a fire, you report his merits and spiritual power tainted because, surrounded by fire, he did not die.

6. Understand, wretch, understand what you do not know, that almost all holy men are more proven by their dangers. Indeed, I see Peter, powerful by faith, with stubbornly passed over the sea with his feet and pressed the unstable water with a human step. Nor did the prophet of the nations, whom the waves swallowed and restored him after three days and as many nights, emerging from the deep, seem to be less to me for that reason, whom the waves swallowed and restored him, . I do not know whether, as I may say, he who lived in the deep or who crossed over the depths of the sea was greater.

7, But I think you, you idiot, did not read this or, if you had read them, did you understand (these stories). Nor did the blessed Evangelist bring an example of this type by divine plan in his sacred letters unless that the human mind should be educated by these calamities of shipwrecks and serpents and, just as the Apostle reported, who was glorified by the nakedness, hunger and dangers of brigands, all of these things are common things to endure for holy men, but there was always power for the just to endure and conquer these things. While they endure through all their trials and, so much more bravely do they, who are always unconquered, conquer, by so much they endure more difficulties.

8. Hence, what is called the weakness of Martin, is full of worth and glory, if only because, being tried by a very dangerous fate, he overcame. In this respect, no one should be astonished that I left this out in my little book which we wrote about his life, when, in that very place, I admitted that I did not embrace all of his deeds: because If I had wanted to pursue everything, I would have published an immense volume to my readers. Nor were these things so few which he did that everything could be included. Nevertheless, I will not allow this to be hidden and I will report the whole story as it was done so that, by chance, we should seem to pass by intentionally this incident which could be presented for criticism against that blessed man.    


This letter raises several interesting issues. To start with, we get a glimpse of how Sulpicius' the Life of St. Martin was received. In a way, the Life of St. Martin is a peculiarity because, not only is it written when those who knew Martin were still alive, but, even more unusual, it was written when its subject was still alive. Martin was a highly controversial bishop in his days as the Life itself indicates, so it is inevitable that there would be critics of so laudatory a work as the Life. While Sulpicius makes it clear that most monastics liked his Life, he has to address criticism of his portrayal and, more importantly, his casting of Martin as an archetypal 'holy man' in the already developing monastic tradition emerging out of Egypt and Syria. The criticism is double-edged- first an attack on Martin's status as a holy man through what looks like a lapse in his spiritual power (virtus), but, just as importantly, an attack on Sulpicius' credibility because he failed to report this damaging evidence.

This last point has some point to it, of course. The Life is so laudatory, so positive in its claims for Martin that it is hard not to believe that Martin has his lapses as well. While contemporary Western society seems to have the daft notion that saints are perfect (probably nurtured by well meaning nonsense from within the Church), it is clear to anyone who investigates it that, while saints might reflect an extraordinary devotion to God, they had as many flaws as anyone else. Yet, what is interesting is the implication that the criticism of Sulpicius' omission of this story comes from a source which also knew Martin and his community well enough to dredge up this seemingly damaging evidence. There is no indication who the critic is, although it is difficult to believe that Sulpicius didn't know. The continued coy repetition of 'whoever he is' in the early part of the letter makes me thinks Sulpicius knew very well who the critic is, but he just didn't want to say. For my money, I wonder if it isn't Brice (later Martin's successor as bishop and, oddly, also a saint, but, at this time, a fierce critic of Martin who went so far as to question Martin's grip on reality) or someone associated with him. That is speculation and, given the opposition we know Martin stirred up, the criticism could have come from other directions.

Yet, the real point of this letter is not a critic catching Sulpicius out. The more important point is that this story forces Sulpicius to talk about the how we know a 'holy man'; a spiritual stereotype which governed much monastic literature in the fourth century. There has been quite a bit written about the holy man in Late Antiquity over the last thirty or forty years, so I can't hope to replicate that literature. However, briefly, the figure of the 'holy man' becomes important fairly early on in the history of monasticism with St. Anthony and various other Egyptian and Syrian monastics who adopted a severely ascetic lifestyle. Some of these figures began to emerge as spiritual leaders by virtue of their miraculous powers (as reported by the literature) and their wisdom developed through prayer. As a result, in their village communities, they became important intercessors with God, but, also, with the secular and ecclesiastical authorities on a whole range of issues. Indeed, both bishops and civil authorities all the way up to emperors would opt to visit these holy men in the hopes of receiving their blessing and, possibly, their support. The implication is that the monastic 'holy man' gained power through his special relationship with God, which allowed him to do all sorts of things; some miraculous, because of their special spiritual power.

Sulpicius' Life can be understood as an attempt to encourage the spread of monasticism in 4th century Roman Gaul by portraying him as a native-born 'holy man' in the tradition of the Desert Fathers. As a result, Sulpicius makes much of Martin's miraculous healings, supernatural battles with the 'gods' of the countryside and his dealings with Emperors and near-Emperors to buttress the claim that Martin had the extraordinary spiritual power, gained through his conquest of his own passions and faults. This conquest of his human limitations makes him a valued spiritual guide and, more importantly for Sulpicius' hope to encourage the ascetic life in Gaul, spiritual authority. So, it was important for Martin's spiritual authority to always be able to overcome the dangers put in his way. He does this throughout the Life, but, here, he seems to fail. Why is this a problem?

The problem with this failure is the unstated suggestion that this fire may have had a supernatural origin. It is a common place in hagiography that fire often is deployed by evil spirits, particularly when they arise suddenly and spread unpredictably fast. For example, in the Life, Sulpicius depicts Martin, while on one of his expeditions to clear of pagan altars, turned aside a tree set on fire by a demon which threatened to destroy a whole pagan village (Life, 14-). The irony, of course, must have been too good to resist, of course, that Martin who turned aside a flaming tree on one occasion proved to be helpless later one, when surrounded by flames. Where, one can almost hear being asked, is Martin's power now!

What is interesting with this criticism, however, isn't the deployment of evil spirits and/or demons to explain what would strike us as natural phenomena or coincidence. Rather, it is the implication that the saint demonstrates his power, at least partly, by his invulnerability whether physical or spiritual. The 'holy man', according to this view, has to have such power that he cannot be injured by the machinations of evil in this world. If he is, he is not really a 'holy man'.

Of course, this position, if it was truly held, is absurd. Sulpicius easily refutes it by noting the multitude of times that the Apostles or, even Christ himself, suffered from the attacks of evil in this world. Nobody can earn immunity from suffering in this world, so the implication that Martin's authority is somehow injured by being burned in a raging fire flies in the face of clear examples of holy men and women being injured or killed in this world. Sulpicius refers back to the Apostles and prophets to emphasize that God's holy ones might be injured, but those injuries were evidence of their endurance and faithfulness and turned out for their and the church's building up. And that is leaving off the voluntary suffering of Christ which used the force of evil to break evil's hold on the world.

Yet, this is the point when the 'who cares?' question needs to be asked. Isn't this just a moment in the arcane disputes about sainthood and who wins the prize in the ascetic Olympics (okay, you're sitting on a 10 foot pole. I'll beat that. I'll sit on a 50 foot pole! Luxury, you think a 50 foot pole is bad! I....). For me, however, what we're really talking about here is the problem of suffering and the Christian life. For so many people, both those practicing a faith and those not, faith serves as some kind of invisible shield from bad things. God is the cosmic cop who prevents bad things from happening to us because we have preferred status as his children. One look at the headlines in Egypt or a glance at a parish prayer list should make that claim an absurdity, but the delusion of faith giving immunity to suffering remains a prevalent temptation. If God himself doesn't avoid suffering or a saint can't avoid injury, then who are we to think we can? Faith isn't magic. It is, instead, a hope which will carry us through the suffering that is so much a part of this beautiful, but damaged world. Sulpicius' well-chosen examples reinforce this because the sufferings and failings of Paul, Peter, Jonah and others, ultimately, are made good in encouraging us to persevere in the face of difficulties. They represent a reflection of the Cross' divine 'judo' which takes the force of the evil in this world and uses it to overthrow it. And it is the hope implicit in this turning of evil to good that sustains me throughout the struggles that I experience in my ordinary life.

Watch for the second installment of this letter in a few days!


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

St. Martin in the Letters of Sulpicius Severus

I've decided now that I've finally finished the three letters of Sulpicius Severus on St. Martin, that I'd publish a draft translation of them for comment or, at least, to help me think through some of the linguistic and/or historical issues with them. So, I'm intending to publish them, section by section with commentary, as it occurs to me. I should note that this is not incredibly well researched commentary, but just things that popped into my head as I translated. So, consider both it and the commentary as a work-in-progress.

There is, of course, a bit of a history to this project. Way back in 2009, I finished posting my translation of Sulpicius Severus', Life of St. Martin. You can find that translation and commentary series right here. My intention was that I'd do a few more revisions, work-up a decent translation and self-publish a serviceable Letters of Sulpicius Severus, the Dialogus by the same author, bits of the same author's Chronicle and Gregory the Great's much later biography of Martin. My rationale for this is that these works aren't generally as well known as the Life, but give important supplementary information. My observations on my preliminary reading of this material can be found in my Return to St. Martin post from last July.

translation as a gift to the two St. Martin-in-the-Field churches' I've attended (in West Toronto and London, Ont). However, last year, it got into my head that I'd like to add the other sources which discuss St. Martin such as the

So, the Letters are first. These are, presumably, part of a larger collection of letters which have not survived. I suspect that these letters survive because they were preserved with manuscripts which also contained the Life (I will check on that, of course). By any measure, they are peculiar. They pick up where the Life leaves off. Indeed, the First Letter purports to answer sceptical critics of the Life and of St. Martin, while St. Martin was still alive. In this letter, Sulpicius Severus rebukes an critic who scoffed at Martin's presumed status as a holy man because he had been injured in a fire whereas, if he was truly blessed and/or powerful, he should have escaped injury. The criticism exploits the common view of the monk as holy man who had almost magical powers because of God's favour. Sulpicius Severus rebukes this conception and, of course, defends his hero.

The next two letters deal with Martin's death. The Second Letter passes on the bad news to a colleague. Severus is in the depths of grief, so the writing is highly rhetorical and emotional. Modern readers might be a little put off by the extremes of emotion and rhetorical flash. Indeed, to judge from the introduction of the Third Letter, so were some contemporaries including, possibly, Severus' own mother. The Third Letter gives a more sober account of Martin's death, albeit with flashes of the grief from the previous letter.

My procedure with the Letters will be to break them into digestible chunks, publish the translation and commentary together. So, this will take a few weeks to manage, but I hope you'll enjoy exposure to the story of St. Martin as told by Sulpicius Severus.