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Saint Hilary of Poitiers.

"To those who wish to stand in God's grace, neither the guardianship of saints nor the defences of angels are wanting"--Hilary, Commentary on the Psalms.

Hilary was born c.315 in Poitiers, whose early Christianising and monasteries attest to the impact of his bishopric there from 353 to his death from natural causes around 367, on either January 13/14 (Feast Days) or (in some martyrologies) November 1.

Thanks to his aristocratic pagan parents, he received a traditional classical education, embracing Neo-Platonism until self-converted to the Faith by private Bible study, especially swayed by God's "I Am That I Am" (Exodus 3:14) and John's explanation (1:1-13) of the nature and relationship of The Word, God, and Christ.

His exemplary new Christian life--he was the first Westerner commemorated for asceticism--caused his elevation to the see by popular demand, which he vainly resisted not least because he felt bound to live apart from his wife in perpetual continence. A letter preserved as a local church treasure (says his 6th-century successor Venantius Fortunatus) to their thirteen-year-old daughter Abra so successfully drew her from earthly things to God's that she devoted her short life (342-360) to good works around Poitiers (Church Memorial: December 6).

Being exiled to the East (356) by the Arian emperor Constantius II allowed him to acquire full details of the Council of Nicaea (325) and current Greek theology, writing the first three (of twelve) books of his masterpiece, On The Trinity, and so impressively defending orthodoxy at the Council of Seleucia (359) that Constantius, fearing his influence, recalled him in 360.

On The Trinity, the first (along with Marius Victorinus') extensive Western exposition, argues the consubstantiality of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, with due emphasis on the divine attributes of the Begotten Son; his insistence on the need for faith inspired the book's alter native title De Fide.

On The Councils (written in exile) further explains Eastern theology to Westerners, being also rich in secular history, as was the (now) fragmented Opus Historicum. Hilary also composed Commentaries on the Psalms and Matthew's Gospel. He was furthermore the first Western hymnodist, albeit only three survive, one being the matudinal Lucis Largitor Splendide (O Glorious Dispenser of Light) written for Abra. "Hilary first blossomed forth in the poetry of hymns" (Isidore of Seville, On Ecclesiastical Offices). Modern views of his style range from "difficult and obscure" (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church) to "ein guter Stilist" (Tusculum Lexicon). Fortunatus (Poem 1:38) hailed it as "jewelled eloquence. More radiant than precious stones." The Catholic Information Network notice ( offers a judicious compromise: "His style is lofty and noble, beautified with rhetorical ornaments and figures, but somewhat studied; and the length of his periods makes him sometimes obscure to the unlearned." Hilary himself (Trinity 4:25, 8:1) demanded that bishops be eloquent, not meretriciously but to assist audiences' understanding.

An especially attractive feature of Hilary was his concern for children, not merely Abra, expressed e.g. in Commentary on Matthew 18, Trinity 3:24-5: "Little children's minds open the road to heaven for them. To imitate Our Lord's own humility, we must return to the simplicity of God's little ones." His iconography often includes a child, frequently cradled; he is the patron saint of handicapped children.

Though sometimes suspected of Origenist and Monophysite leanings, Hilary became known as 'the Athanasius of the West.' St Augustine (Against Julianus 8) dubbed him "illustrious doctor of the churches." Jerome (Against Rufinus 41) calls him "most eloquent trumpet of the Latins against the Arians," elsewhere (On Isaiah 60) likening him and St. Cyprian to "two fair cedars transplanted by God." Likewise extolling his anti-Arian victories, Gregory of Tours (History of the Franks 1:39, 2:37, 3:1) credits him with "resurrecting the dead and many other miracles." In 1851, Pius IX proclaimed him "Doctor of the Church." His Feast Day gives the name Hilary to the spring term at the English Law Courts, also Oxford and Durham Universities.


* 9360 'Google' sites include his Catholic Encyclopedia notice.

* On The Trinity, On The Councils, and Psalms Commentaries were translated by W. Sanday and others (New York, 1896), Trinity also by S. McKenna (Catholic Univ. America, 1954); the Hymns by W.N. Myers (Univ. Pennsylvania, 1928).

* Modern studies include: C.F.A. Borchardt, Hilary of Poitiers' Role in the Arian Struggle (The Hague, 1966); E.P. Meijering, Hilary of Poitiers on the Trinity (Leiden, 1982); P.Galtier, Saint Hilare de Poitiers: le premier docteur de l'eglise latine (Paris, 1960).

From the treatise On the Trinity by Saint Hilary, bishop

The Father's gift in Christ

Our Lord commanded us to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. In baptism, then, we profess faith in the Creator, in the only-begotten Son and in the gift which is the Spirit. There is one Creator of all things, for in God there is one Father from whom all things have their being. And there is one only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom all things exist. And there is one Spirit, the gift who is in all. So all follow their due order, according to the proper operation of each: one power, which brings all things into being, one Son, through whom all things come to be, and one gift of perfect hope. Nothing is wanting to this flawless union: in Father, Son and Holy Spirit, there is infinity of endless being, perfect reflection of the divine image, and mutual enjoyment of the gift.

Our Lord has described the purpose of the Spirit's presence in us. Let us listen to his words: I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. It is to your advantage that I go away; if I go, I will send you the Advocate. And also: I will ask the Father and He will give you another Counsellor to be with you for ever, the Spirit of truth. He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on his own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and He will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for He will take what is mine.

From among many of our Lord's sayings these have been chosen to guide our understanding, for they reveal to us the intention of the Giver, the nature of the gift and the condition for its reception. Since our weak minds cannot comprehend the Father or the Son, we have been given the Holy Spirit as our intermediary and advocate, to shed light on that hard doctrine of our faith, the incarnation of God.

We receive the Spirit of truth so that we can know the things of God. In order to grasp this, consider how useless the faculties of the human body would become if they were denied their exercise. Our eyes cannot fulfill their task without light, ether natural or artificial; our ears cannot react without sound vibrations, and in the absence of any odour our nostrils are ignorant of their function. Not that these senses would lose their own nature if they were not used; rather, they demand objects of experience in order to function. It is the same with the human soul. Unless it absorbs the gift of the Spirit through faith, the mind has the ability to know God but lacks the light necessary for that knowledge.

This unique gift which is in Christ is offered in its fullness to everyone. It is everywhere available, but it is given to each man in proportion to his readiness to receive it. Its presence is the fuller, the greater a man's desire to be worthy of it. This gift will remain with us until the end of the world, and will be our comfort in the time of waiting. By the favours it bestows, it is the pledge of our hope for the future, the light of our minds, and the splendour that irradiates our understanding.

Barry Baldwin is Emeritus Professor of Classics at the University of Calgary
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Author:Baldwin, Barry
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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