The feast of St. Hilary of Poitiers, shared by the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox

Saint Hilary, the “hammer against Arianism” of the western church, was born around 320 A.D. He was raised as a pagan, but converted to Christianity as an adult.

Discarding the approach of those who believed the purpose of life was only to satisfy desires he began his search for God by agreeing with the philosophers was saw that human beings should rise above desires and live a life of virtue. Hilary could see in his own heart that humans were meant for even more than living a good life; that was not enough to justify the enormous gift of life. So Hilary went looking for the giftgiver. He was told many of the things about the divine that we still hear today: that there were many Gods, that God did not exist but all creation was the result of random acts of nature, that God existed but did not really care for his creation, or that God was in creatures or images. Hilary saw in his own soul told him these images of the divine were wrong. God had to be one because no creation could be as great as God. God had to be concerned with his own creation — otherwise why create it.

At that point, Hilary tells us, he “chanced upon those books which…were written by Moses and the prophets.” When he read the verse where God tells Moses “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14), Hilary said, “I was filled with admiration at such a clear definition of God, which expressed the incomprehensible nature in words most suited to human understanding.” In the Psalms and the Prophets, he found descriptions of God’s power, concern, and beauty. For example in Psalm 139, “Where shall I go from your spirit?” he found confirmation that “there is no place without God, nor is there any place which is not in God.”

Still he was troubled. He now knew the giftgiver, but what was he, as the recipient of the gift? Was man just created for the moment to disappear at death? It only made sense to him that God’s purpose in creation should be “that what did not exist began to exist, not that what had begun to exist would cease to exist.” Then he found the Gospels and read John’s words including “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God…” (John 1:1-2). From John he learned that these words “do not merely tell me that the Son was called God [but was God]… no accidental title, but an eternal reality, a permanent element of his existence…”Finally Hillary’s soul was at peace: “No longer did it look upon the life of this body as troublesome or wearisome, but believed it to be what the alphabet is to children… namely, as the patient endurance of the present trials of life in order to gain a blissful eternity.”

After becoming a Christian, he was elected bishop of Poitiers in 350 in what is now France by the acclamation of both laity and clergy. He was already married with one daughter named Apra.

When the emperor Constantius II began to sympathize with Arian doctrines, St. Hilary became involved in the opposition to his efforts. The Arians did not believe in the divinity of Christ and the Arians had amassed a lot of power, especially in some regions of the Eastern Church. Some may wonder at all the trouble; it might seem to be only words to us today. However, the fight over Arianism was not a fight over words, but rather for the eternal life of those who might accept the Arian position and stop believing in Jesus as second member of the Trinity and their hope of salvation. Pope Benedict XVI says of Hilary: “… his concern as a Pastor impelled him to work strenuously to re-establish the unity of the Church on the basis of right faith as formulated by the Council of Nicea.”   In the work, “On the Trinity,” Hilary tells us, “For one to attempt to speak of God in terms more precise than he himself has used: — to undertake such a thing is to embark upon the boundless, to dare the incomprehensible. He fixed the names of His nature: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Whatever is sought over and above this is beyond the meaning of words, beyond the limits of perception, beyond the embrace of understanding.”

Hillary’s work branded him as a troublemaker. When Hilary wrote to the emperor in 356 protesting the Arians’ persecution of their opponents, he was exiled from Poitiers to the East. His banishment gave him time to study and write. He learned everything he could about what the Arians said and what the orthodox Christians answered and then he began to write. “Although in exile we shall speak through these books, and the word of God, which cannot be bound, shall move about in freedom.”

After three years, the emperor kicked him back towards Poitiers. Sulpicius Severus tell us that the emperor was tired of having to deal with the pest, who had become a defender and champion of the orthodox apostolic teaching, and felt that Hilary would be less of a threat back in his diocese. Having not told Hilary that he had to go straight back to his home, Hilary took his time traveling through Greece and Italy, preaching against the Arians as he went.

St. Hilary continued to fight against Arianism until his death in 367 or 368. He was proclaimed a doctor of the Roman Church in 1851. His holy relics still rest in the cathedral bearing his name at Poitiers in France.

He is revered as the Patron against snakebites. He has also lent his name to the “Hilary term” of English law courts and universities, which begin on or near his Feast Day.

Hilary’s extant writings can be read at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf209.toc.html.

A sermon on St. Hilary by Pope Benedict XVI can be found at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/audiences/2007/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20071010_en.html

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