Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Hammer of the Arians

Today is the memorial of St. Hilary of Poitiers, Doctor of the Church. Here is part of his account, from his book on the Trinity, of how he, originally a pagan Neoplatonist, became Christian:

I believe that the mass of mankind have spurned from themselves and censured in others this acquiescence in a thoughtless, animal life, for no other reason than that nature herself has taught them that it is unworthy of humanity to hold themselves born only to gratify their greed and their sloth, and ushered into life for no high aim of glorious deed or fair accomplishment, and that this very life was granted without the power of progress towards immortality; a life, indeed, which then we should confidently assert did not deserve to be regarded as a gift of God, since, racked by pain and laden with trouble, it wastes itself upon itself from the blank mind of infancy to the wanderings of age. I believe that men, prompted by nature herself, have raised themselves through teaching and practice to the virtues which we name patience and temperance and forbearance, under the conviction that right living means right action and right thought, and that Immortal God has not given life only to end in death; for none can believe that the Giver of good has bestowed the pleasant sense of life in order that it may be overcast by the gloomy fear of dying.

And yet, though I could not tax with folly and uselessness this counsel of theirs to keep the soul free from blame, and evade by foresight or elude by skill or endure with patience the troubles of life, still I could not regard these men as guides competent to lead me to the good and happy Life. Their precepts were platitudes, on the mere level of human impulse; animal instinct could not fail to comprehend them, and he who understood but disobeyed would have fallen into an insanity baser than animal unreason. Moreover, my soul was eager not merely to do the things, neglect of which brings shame and suffering, but to know the God and Father Who had given this great gift, to Whom, it felt, it owed its whole self, Whose service was its true honour, on Whom all its hopes were fixed, in Whose lovingkindness, as in a safe home and haven, it could rest amid all the troubles of this anxious life. It was inflamed with a passionate desire to apprehend Him or to know Him....

While my mind was dwelling on these and on many like thoughts, I chanced upon the books which, according to the tradition of the Hebrew faith, were written by Moses and the prophets, and found in these words spoken by God the Creator testifying of Himself 'I Am that I Am, and again, He that is has sent me unto you.' I confess that I was amazed to find in them an indication concerning God so exact that it expressed in the terms best adapted to human understanding an unattainable insight into the mystery of the Divine nature.

One of the quirks of his career was that he was a married bishop; many episcopal sees in those days were filled by popular acclamation, and when the people of Poitiers wanted him as their new bishop, he was practically forced to accept, despite being married and having a daughter. He became a bulwark against Arianism in the West, and had a very uneven career in attempting to oppose it. But out of his failures as well as his successes came the works that made him, in Augustine's words, an illustrious teacher of the churches. He was recognized as a Doctor of the Church by Pius IX in 1851.

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