St. Hilary of Poitiers: 14 January

Br. Columba Maria

Early life and conversion

Saint Hilary was born, about 310, to a noble patrician in Poitiers in the West of France, where Druidism was still current. Though a pagan, he was quite virtuous and had a piercing intelligence. He was an avid reader, especially of Latin. He married a girl of equal virtue and they had a daughter, Abra. All seemed well. He seemed to possess the best that life could offer. But he couldn't help himself from asking, what now? Much hard thinking led him to recognise that men were more than brute beasts, and yet were outdone by them if the latter could enjoy the abundance of nature without worrying to possess them. He at length reckoned that one should aim to keep one's soul in innocence, while foreseeing wisely, avoiding studiously, and supporting patiently, the miseries of this life. Yet this was not enough for him. Thinking on, he asserted that true peace, certain security, was in God. To know Him, to love Him, that was his aim now.

But how could a pagan accomplish it? He put all the existing gods under the microscope and discredited all of them. God had to be unique, all-powerful, everlasting. He set upon reading the Pentateuch, and came to the words of the God of the Hebrews to Moses: “I am Who am”. This was the perfect definition of the true God to common man. Now, then, let the true God show Himself. The words of Wisdom: the Creator reveals Himself in the greatness of His works and the beauty of His creatures. "One cannot understand the immensity of God, one can only believe it,” Hilary concluded.

The final jump from this imperfect world to the infinite perfections of God was achieved with the words of Saint John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God....and the Word was made flesh.” He, his wife, and his daughter were baptised in 353.

Episcopal consecration

The water had hardly dried on his forehead when Maxence, Bishop of Poitiers, and a very holy man, was called to his reward. Who would be called to succeed him was the question, and when the people assembled in the cathedral, just like saint Ambrose, the word rose in the air and was carried aloft: “Hilary, Bishop! Hilary, Bishop!” The reluctant Hilary could not shake off his nomination, and, taking leave of his happy marital home, where he and his wife had lived celibately since their regeneration, he took up his residence in the episcopal palace.

Against the Arian heresy

It was the age of the Arian heresy which denied Christ's divinity, and hence also the Blessed Trinity. Constance, Emperor, for whatever reason, was imposing the heresy throughout the empire. Anyone who opposed him was either imprisoned or banished.

Hilary took up his pen and wrote him a letter:

Liberal by nature are you, August Caesar. How many times, from your paternal munificence, has mercy shot forth. So have I hope of being heard. Alas, it's not with words, but with tears that we come to beg you to put an end to the bloody oppression that afflicts the Catholic Church… Will you therefore instruct the magistrates burdened with the administration of the provinces, to remain within the limits of their remits; no longer intrude into religion… Prince, you work, you govern the state by wise principles, like a soldier on guard, you watch day and night to see that your subjects rejoice in the sweetness of liberty. They cry to you: 'I am Catholic; I don't want to be a heretic. I am Christian; I don't want to be Arian. No, I'd rather die than bend the knee to a human power, and soil the virginity of my faith.'

So the letter continued respectfully but firmly. And so the emperor would respond as hitherto, coming down heavily on the worthy bishop.


First, the Arian bishops of Gaul wanted revenge. They could not rouse either Constance or his representative in Gaul, Julian, so they convoked a council at Béziers, and, after Hilary denounced them as blasphemous heretics, they deposed him and compelled him to go into exile. He was sent to Phrygia in Asia Minor, suffering not only exile but much deprivation. But, as he said, "May we be banished for ever, so long as the truth is preached."

His wife and daughter eventually contacted him. His daughter had reached sixteen and, receiving a suitor, had sought her father's advice. Hilary prayed hard and was able to offer her the pearl of great price, which Our Lord would grant her if she embraced holy virginity.

However, Hilary's principal work in the desert was a twelve volume study of the Blessed Trinity, so badly needed by society at a time when the most fundamental points of our faith were misunderstood or denied: what is God and who is Jesus. It is the great theological work of the fourth century. The very least we can say is that Hilary did not eat idly what little bread he ate in the desert!

The emperor sought next another ecumenical council to drive home his advantage. He first chose Nicomedia to host it, but the very heavens seemed against it, for the city was reduced to rubble by a prolonged storm. Next, the diabolical idea was hit upon of having a council for the western and eastern churches in different cities! Authority would never be secured under such a scheme. Hilary, hoping against himself, took his place at Seleucia, but the meeting broke up in only a few days, and twenty prelates were chosen to visit the emperor himself and air their grievances. Hilary joined them.

Before they began this synod of Constantinople, news filtered through that the council at Rimini, in the west, had signed a heretical formula. Not surprisingly, any dissenting bishops were exiled, and the east and west were united in Arianism. But, as Hilary said, "The Faith knows no danger." He asked, and got, an audience with Constance. There, after introducing himself, an exiled bishop, he appealed to what he knew of Constance, an intelligent, pious man, seeking the truth. "We are baptised, he said, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost; why be too clever? Let us retain the Gospel; not some new system of curious novelties."

Alas, it was to no avail, and Hilary decided it was time to speak out.

We combat today against a hypocritical persecutor, against an enemy who flatters, against Constance, the antichrist. This torturer does not break our bones, he coddles us with feasts. He doesn't condemn us to prison where we find true liberty, he heaps honours on us in his court and makes us slaves. He does not decapitate with the sword, he kills the soul with gold… He confesses Christ to deny Him. He decrees unity to destroy peace, he honours priests so that there be no more bishops, he builds churches to deny the faith.

Triumphant return

Having decried the scandal, in a book launched amongst his Gallic subjects, Hilary was exiled back to the west! To a tumultuous welcome, Martin returned to Poitiers.

Hilary, after such a gap of years, made a visitation of his diocese. The seed he had planted had taken root, and the people flocked to see him. Many miracles were achieved.

About this time, his erstwhile pupil, Martin of Tours, returned to him, delighted to be again under Hilary's guidance. Hilary saw a deep disquiet in Martin. He offered him a piece of land, secluded, quiet, that had been left him by his parents. Martin was delighted, and was able to found the monastery of Ligugé, the first of its kind in the west, where silence, fasting, manual labour and prayer would mark the passage of time. Hilary soon learned the beauty of this life and was a frequent visitor, helping and being helped to grow in divine love. One day, on his return to Poitiers, he realised he had forgotten his Sacramentary for Mass. Martin had accompanied his aged master on the journey and became aware of the difficulty. Almost as quickly, he became aware of an angel placing the book on the vesting press.

Women, too, feeling the divine call and yearning for a deeper contemplation, were assisted by Hilary. Among these, Florence and Triaise stand out, quitting all commerce with the world, and living alone with only a window to receive their sacramental and temporal upkeep.

Exiled again

Scarcely a year after his return, there was convened a synod at Paris to, yet again, address the Arian issue. Like Saints Athanasius and Basil, Hilary was firm in the faith, yet merciful in receiving back repentant heretics. He reasoned that a summary excommunication of all offenders would only swell the ranks of the heretics with hesitant prevaricators; while to be too lenient would encourage duplicity and ambiguity. Many returned. He next took a trip to Milan, to try to restore peace to that district, whose Archbishop, Auxence, was a redoubtable Arian. The new emperor, Valentinian, in audience with Hilary, said he didn't want to meddle in something he was not qualified to adjudicate. This seemed fair. Auxence appealed to the emperor also, and succeeded

in being given the task by Valentinian, as Archbishop, of judging the truth in something which, thanks to Hilary's preaching, saw more and more people holding the catholic position. Again, Hilary appealed to the emperor, this time accusing his appointment of Auxence of being an act in a matter he said he did not want to get involved in. Valentinian agreed, but did not do the honest thing. He appointed ten bishops to try the issue, including Auxence, who succeeded in denouncing Hilary as an already declared heretic and having him driven back over the Alps!

Hilary took up his pen again and wrote one last polemic, especially against Auxence, ending with his best advice for those yet deceived: "Therefore fly this angel of Satan, this enemy of Christ, this destroyer of souls, this renegade of the faith." The document was read widely, but Valentinian took no action against this intrepid son of the Church.

Ad Deum

While walking through Poitiers one day visiting his churches, he met his daughter. She had obviously been crying. Hilary asked her the reason. "My Father, I want to die. My loves are not of the earth. When am I going to rejoin Him to whom I've given myself, the eternal spouse who waits for me on high?” They said their goodbyes and continued their separate ways. Hilary went straight to his oratory and sustained a long prayer, and was heard to say: “Lord, take her...take her in the immaculate candour of a soul that the earth has taken no hold of.” Someone came in, running, to tell him that Abra had breathed her last. Her mother then came to entreat Hilary to do the same for her, and enable her to rejoin her beloved daughter in heaven. Daddy duly obliged and was very shortly burying the two bodies next to each other in the sepulchre he had built against that day.

A year after his wife and daughter, Hilary's soul, in a blaze of unearthly light, quit his body and his little cell on 13 January, shortly before midnight. This is his 1,650th anniversary. Scores of miracles occurred at the tomb.

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