Feast Day: January 13th
January 13th, 367 AD was the day that bishop Hilary of Poitiers, France died peacefully. He had been born about 57 years prior to well-off pagan parents and had grown from a good classical upbringing to a dramatic early encounter with the Christian Scriptures where he found something he didn’t know he was looking for. It seems he started towards the beginning because it was when he got to Exodus and God’s words to Moses in the burning bush that finally the sparks caught hold of his heart: “I was frankly amazed at such a clear definition of God, which expressed the incomprehensible knowledge of the divine nature in words most suited to human intelligence.” [Hilary of Poitiers, De Trinitate, I.5.] He was baptized at the age of 35, along with his wife and young daughter, but only 5 years later the laity and priests of the small Christian community at Poitiers (I saw it estimated around 350) clamored for him to become their bishop.
He didn’t wait long to get to work. Within two years we have his first large writing: a Commentary on St. Matthew’s Gospel, the earliest complete commentary on that Gospel in Latin. Like so many of the bishops of this same time – recall Ambrose in Milan, and Gregory and Basil in Cappadocia – these words were not merely pious reflections of a saintly man, nor just the writings of a scholarly theologian, nor even the authoritative teachings of a successor of an apostle – they were a courageous confrontation against the untruths rampant in his day (and perhaps ours too).
Apostles must therefore take death into their new life and nail their sins to the Lord’s cross. They must confront their persecutors with contempt for things present, holding fast to their freedom by a glorious confession of faith, and shunning any gain that would harm their souls. They should know that no power over their souls has been given to anyone, and that by suffering loss of this short life they achieve immortality. [St. Hilary of Poitiers, Commentarius in Evangelium Matthaei, 1]
Arianism was not just in Italy or Turkey, it was also here in France, in fact, spewing from the pen of Saturninus, the bishop just a bit further south in France. Rallying what orthodox bishops that he could find, Hilary managed to excommunicate Saturninus and his minions, and had the guts to also write a letter to Constantius II (the Arian son of the Emperor Constantine). His missive does not survive, but evidently it was rather scathing because Hilary was promptly exiled to Turkey, and when he returned a decade later, he would describe Constantius II as “a tyrant whose sole object had been to make a gift to the devil of that world for which Christ had suffered.” [Hilary of Poitiers, Contra Constantium Augustum]
There, far from home, Hilary dove deep into what first brought him to love the Lord, the Bible. He wrote his most famous work during, De Trinitate, during these years, but within its pages we find a man expounding doctrine on the bedrock of Scripture:
Since their [the heretics] malice, inspired by the devil’s cunning, empties the doctrine of its meaning while it retains the Names which convey the truth, we must emphasise the truth which those Names convey. We must proclaim, exactly as we shall find them in the words of Scripture, the majesty and functions of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and so debar the heretics from robbing these Names of their connotation of Divine character, and compel them by means of these very Names to confine their use of terms to their proper meaning. … 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 [God] 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. [St. Hilary of Poitiers, De Trinitate, II.5., multiple translations]
This is a man who could not be dislodged from the truth of Scripture, no matter the consequences, even if it meant exile from his beleaguered flock, and family! This little boy, Hilarius (his name deriving from the Greek word hilaros, which in fact means cheerful, merry, or happy) was joyous only in remaining faithful to the revelation of God. Writing a letter back to his people, similar to St. Paul and sounding much like that imprisoned apostle, he says “Although in exile we shall speak through these books, and the word of God, which cannot be bound, shall move about in freedom.”
His preaching in the Arian East remained so strident in the full truth of the Gospel, that he was exiled from exile. Sulpicius Severus, a renowned Christian historian of this age of the Church so filled with heresy, and heroes, wrote that the Emperor eventually sent Hilary back to Poitiers frustrated by the “sower of discord and a disturber of the Orient.” He returned to much acclaim, and a faithful flock, and resumed his episcopal duties for the final few years of his life, leaving the Church his final commentary on the Psalms, teaching the ignorant to the very end.
There is no doubt that all the things that are said in the Psalms should be understood in accordance with Gospel proclamation, so that, whatever the voice with which the prophetic spirit has spoken, all may be referred nevertheless to the knowledge of the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Incarnation, Passion and Kingdom, and to the power and glory of our resurrection. [Hilary of Poitiers, Instructio Palmorum, 5]
Fr. Dominic Rankin has tried his best to bring Hilary’s voice into this quick glance at his life. For a better, and beautiful, further glimpse, may I recommend Pope Benedict XVI’s words on this great early bishop: