Saint Hilary of Poitiersadmin | 13 January 2010
The collect for today, the Feast of Saint Hilary (c. 315-368), Bishop of Poitiers, Doctor of the Church (source):
whose servant Hilary
steadfastly confessed thy Son Jesus Christ to be true God and true man:
We beseech thee to keep us firmly grounded in this faith;
that we may rejoice to behold his face in heaven
who humbled himself to bear our form upon earth,
even the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord,
who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Hilary was born in Poitiers, Gaul, of wealthy pagan parents. After receiving a thorough education in Latin classics, he became an orator. He also married and had a daughter. At the age of about 35, he rejected his former paganism and became a Christian through a long process of study and thought. Robert Louis Wilken describes his path to conversion in The Spirit of Early Christian Thought (p. 86):
[Hilary] found himself turning to more spiritual pursuits. In his words he wished to pursue a life that was “worthy of the understanding that had been given us by God.” Like Justin [Martyr] he began to read the Bible, and one passage that touched his soul was Exodus 3:14, where God the creator, “testifying about himself,” said, “I am who I am.” For Hilary this brief utterance penetrated more deeply into the mystery of the divine nature than anything he had heard or read from the philosophers. Shortly thereafter he was baptized and received into the church.
Around 353 he was chosen bishop of Poitiers and became an outspoken champion of orthodoxy against the Arians. St Augustine praised him as “the illustrious teacher of the churches”. St Jerome wrote that Hilary was “a most eloquent man, and the trumpet of the Latins against the Arians”. Hilary became known as “Athanasius of the West”.
Almost immediately upon assuming the office of bishop, St Hilary became active in the debate over the Trinity then dividing the church. At that time, the defenders of the Council of Nicaea suffered official disfavour: Emperor Constantius, son and successor of Constantine the Great, supported the pro-Arian bishops. Hilary refused the emperor’s demand to sign a condemnation of Athanasius, whereupon Constantius exiled him to Phyrgia. Hilary made good use of his time in exile. He met with Greek-speaking church leaders and theologians and wrote important works on church doctrine. His most celebrated book is On the Trinity, a twelve-volume work in which Hilary refuted Arianism by proving the consubstantiability of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He began writing hymns after seeing that Arians used hymns to spread their false doctrines. Deciding that orthodox Christians should popularise their beliefs in the same way, he became the first Latin hymn-writer of the Church.
While in exile, St Hilary publicly and forcefully defended Nicene orthodoxy at church synods and councils in 356 and 359. The emperor decided that Hilary was causing too much trouble for Arians in the eastern church and so in 360 ordered him to return from exile to Poitiers. He was received back home in Gaul with great rejoicing and thanksgiving. When Constantius died in 361, official support for Arianism ended. Hilary’s eloquent defence of orthodoxy was decisive in removing or converting remaining Arian bishops, and he is recognised for the great achievement of restoring order to the church of his time. He died at Poitiers in 368.
St Hilary believed that the only way to learn about God was through adoration and devotion. God must be approached with a devout mind. True knowledge of God comes only through thinking with understanding formed by piety. Theology therefore requires the warmth of faith.
St Hilary was proclaimed Doctor of the Church in 1851 by Pope Pius IX. A portal to St Hilary’s writings can be found here.
In conclusion, a prayer of St Hilary:
Almighty God, bestow upon us the meaning of words, the light of understanding, the nobility of diction, and the faith of the true nature. And grant that what we believe we may also speak. Amen.
Source of prayer: Pocket Prayers, compiled by Christopher Herbert.
Artwork: Parmigianino, Saint Hilary of Poitiers, 1522. Fresco, San Giovanni Evangelista, Parma, Italy.