January 13 – Hilary of Poitiers

Picture of the Ordination of Hilary of Poitiers from a 14th century book of saintsHilary of Poitiers (ca. 300–368) is 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, their import is a matter of some debate. One Orthodox source makes him 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; and 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 (“pagans of distinction” according to one source and is that an excellent band name or what?) 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, having “read himself into the faith” with a copy of the New Testament. We also know he was made bishop of Poitiers to (by?) popular acclaim, and while still married. He had a daughter named Abra[1], which we know from a letter he wrote her. Hilary wrote a lot of letters. We do not know his wife’s name. 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. Unfortunately the panel hearing the case were all (wait for it) Arians, and he was sent into exile[2]. Fortunately, his place of exile was Phrygia, in sunny Anatolia. Unfortunately, by all accounts Phrygia was a bit of a dump in those days. While in exile he continued to govern his diocese from afar (and this before email!), and wrote his two great treatises, On the Synod, which explained in Latin the findings of the Nicene Council, and On the Trinity, which did the exact same thing only better, for values of “better” approximating “prolixer.” (It also answered his critics that he was too easy on the Arians in the first one; see below.) 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[3].”

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. Other letters were considerably less friendly, including a letter of impeachment against Auxentius, the bishop of Milan. The two of them were called before the emperor (Valentinian I, if you were wondering), whereupon Auxentius presented himself as a true, red-blooded Trinitarian, whereupon Hilary called him a hypocrite, whereupon Hilary was run out of town on a paving stone. Auxentius 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, and three of his hymns remain, although one of my sources says “none are indisputable.” Who disputes with hymns? Although one, we are told, runs to seventy verses. I might dispute with our choir director if she decided we had to sing that one.

For reasons I could not ascertain, he is the patron saint of “teaching children to walk” as well as “against snake bites.” It doesn’t do to think about that combination for very long.

He was officially made a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius IX in 1951.


[1] Abra went on to become a saint. St. Abra, in fact. She is known for her work for the poor, and for dying while still a teenager. Kids! You don’t have to wait until your twenties to help the poor!
[2] One source suggests it also had to do with politics, Hilary having insulted the emperor as well.
[3] Okay I made up the “pinned to his shirt” part. The rest, as they say, is history.