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January 13 Saint of the Day – Hilary of Poitiers

Hilary of PoitiersOn this day in 1815, British troops captured Fort Peter in St. Marys, Georgia, in the only battle of the war of 1812 to take place in that state. While in the area they robbed the local jewelry store and burned down the fort. Watches bearing the inscription “St Marys GA 1815” still turn up occasionally at “boot sales” in Britain. They are all replicas.

Both east and west today commemorate St. Hilary of Poitiers (ca. 300 – 368), sometimes called the “Athanasius of the West” for his defense of the doctrine of the Trinity, and “The Hammer of Arians” for his offense. Although a goodly number of his words have been preserved, his allegiance appears to be up for grabs. One Orthodox source makes him out to be a deep student of the Greek fathers; a Catholic source portrays him as the defender of the true faith against the apostasy of the Greeks; an Anglican source identifies him as the first bringer of systematic thought to the fuzzy-headed West. One can almost hear these three mighty churches thundering at each other across the great Quidditch pitch of theology: “We’ve got Hilary, yes we do! We’ve got Hilary, how ’bout you?”

Concerning his early life we have a lot of “mustas.” He musta had rich parents because he had a good education. He musta known Greek because he knew so much about Neoplatonism. He musta been born in Poitiers because, well, because he musta. We do know that he was an adult convert, and that he was made bishop of Poitiers to and/or by popular acclaim, and while still married. He apparently had no relatives named Sidney, so get that out of your mind right now. He did have a daughter named Abra, which we know from a letter he wrote her. Hilary wrote a lot of letters. We do not know what his wife’s name was. Draw your own conclusions.

When the curtain rises on the part of the play we are more certain about, Hilary has been called onto the rug for a letter to the Emperor badmouthing Arians. What bad luck: the panel hearing the case were all Arians, and he was sent into exile. What good luck: they shipped him to Phrygia in sunny Anatolia. What bad luck: by all accounts Phrygia in the fourth century was a bit of a dump. While in exile he wrote his two great treatises, “On the Synod,” a letter which explained in Latin the findings of the Nicene Council, and “On the Trinity,” a longer work which did the exact same thing only better, for values of “better” approximating “prolixer.” His constant debates with prominent local Arians finally grew so tiresome that he was shipped back to Poitiers with a note pinned to his shirt saying, “Please don’t send him here again.”

Some of Hilary’s letters struck such a “can’t we all get along” tone that his fellow Trinitarians thought he must be going soft. Others were considerably less friendly, including a letter of impeachment against Auxentius, the bishop of Milan. This landed the two of them before Emperor Valentian I, where to Hilary’s utter flabbergastment, Auxentius presented himself as a true, red-blooded Trinitarian. Hilary called him a hypocrite, and was run out of town on a paving stone. Auxentius quietly went back to both Milan and his Arian ways. His name is mud now, and a recent poll in Milan found no one willing to admit he had ever been their bishop.

Ultimately Hilary retired to Poitiers to write scripture commentaries and compose hymns. He is called the first Latin hymnographer, though some experts suggest that some or all of the hymns ascribed to him were actually written by Francis Bacon. For reasons I could not ascertain, he is the patron saint against snake bites. He was officially made a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius IX in 1951.


New feature! Read more about today’s saint (aka bibliography):
St. Hilary of Poitiers (Catholic.org)
Phrygia (Wikipedia)
First Council of Nicea (Wikipedia)
Auxentius of Milan (Wikipedia)
Hilary of Poitiers (Wikipedia)
St. Hilary of Poitiers (Catholic Encyclopedia 1913)
General audience of Pope Benedict XVI at St. Peter’s Square, 10/10/2007
Hilary of Poitiers (OrthodoxWiki)
The Life and Writings of St. Hilary of Poitiers (Christian Classics Etherial Library)
Omer Englebert, Lives of the Saints (book on paper)


Copyright © 2013 Alex Riggle. All Rights Reserved.

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About Your Intrepid Blogger

I live in the Tacoma area. When not writing things some people think are funny, I teach technology to 7th and 8th graders at a local middle school.

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