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Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume I: January. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.

January 29

St. Sulpicius Severus

[Disciple of St. Martin]  HE 1 was born in Aquitain, not at Agen, as Scaliger, Vossius, Baillet, &c. have falsely inferred from a passage of his history, 2 but near Toulouse. 3 That he was of a very rich and illustrious Roman family, we are assured by the two Paulinus’s, and Gennadius. His youth he spent in studying the best Roman authors of the Augustan age, upon whom he formed his style, not upon the writers of his own time: he also applied himself to the study of the laws, and surpassed all his contemporaries in eloquence at the bar. His wife was a lady of a consular family, whom he lost soon after their marriage, but he continued to enjoy a very great estate which he had inherited by her. His mother-in-law Bassula loved him constantly as if he had been her own son: they continued to live several years in the same house, and had in all things the same mind. 4 The death of his beloved consort contributed to wean his heart from the world: in which resolution he seems to have been confirmed by the example and exhortations of his pious mother-in-law. His conversion from the world happened in the same year with that of St. Paulinus of Nola, 5 though probably somewhat later: and St. Paulinus mentions that Sulpicius was younger than himself, and at that time (that is, about the year 392) in the flower of his age De Prato imagines Sulpicius to have been ten years younger than St. Paulinus, consequently that he was converted in the thirty-second year of his age. Whereas St. Paulinus distributed his whole fortune amongst the poor at once; Sulpicius reserved his estates to himself and his heirs, employing the yearly revenue on the poor, and in other pious uses, so that he was no more than a servant of the church and the poor to keep accounts for them. 6 But he sold so much of them as was necessary to discharge him of all obligations to others. Gennadius tells us that he was promoted to the priesthood; but from the silence of St. Paulinus, St. Jerom, and others, Tillemont and De Prato doubt of the circumstance. Sulpicius suffered much from the censures of friends who condemned his retreat, having chosen for his solitude a cottage at Primuliacus, a village now utterly unknown in Aquitain, probably in Languedoc. In his kitchen nothing was ever dressed but pulse and herbs, boiled without any seasoning, except a little vinegar. He ate also coarse bread. He and his few disciples had no other beds but straw or sackcloth spread on the ground. He set at liberty several of his slaves, and admitted them and some of his old servants to familiar intercourse and conversation. About the year 394, not long after his retreat, he made a visit to Saint Martin at Tours, and was so much taken with his saintly comportment, and edified by his pious discourses and counsels, that he became from that time his greatest admirer, and regulated his conduct by his direction. Ever after he visited that great saint once or twice almost every summer as long as he lived, and passed some time with him, that he might study more perfectly to imitate his virtues. He built and adorned several churches. For two which he founded at Primuliacus, he begged some relics of St. Paulinus, who sent him a piece of the cross on which our Saviour was crucified, with the history of its miraculous discovery by St. Helena. 7 This account Sulpicius inserted in his ecclesiastical history. These two saints sent frequent presents to each other of poor garments or the like things, suitable to a penitential life, upon which they make in their letters beautiful pious reflections, that show how much they were accustomed to raise their thoughts to God from every object. 8 Our saint recommending to St. Paulinus a cook, facetiously tells him that he was utterly a stranger to the art of making sauces, and to the use of pepper, or any such incentives of gluttony, his skill consisting only in gathering and boiling herbs in such a manner that monks, who only eat after having fasted long, would find delicious. He prays his friend to treat him as he would his own son, and wishes he could himself have served him and his family in that quality. 9 In the year 399 St. Paulinus wrote to our saint that he hoped to have met him at Rome, whither he went to keep the feast of the prince of the apostles, and where he had staid ten days, but without seeing anything but the tombs of the apostles, before which he passed the mornings, and the evenings were taken up by friends who called to see him. 10 Sulpicius answered, that an indisposition had hindered him from undertaking that journey. Of the several letters mentioned by Gennadius, which Sulpicius Severus wrote to the devout virgin Claudia, his sister, two are published by Baluze. 11 Both are strong exhortations to fervour and perseverance. In the first our saint assures her that he shed tears of joy in reading her letter, by which he was assured of her sincere desire of serving God.  1
  In a letter to Aurelius the deacon, he relates that one night in a dream he saw St. Martin ascend to heaven in great glory, and attended by the holy priest Clarus, his disciple, who was lately dead: soon after, two monks arriving from Tours, brought news of the death of St. Martin. He adds, that his greatest comfort in the loss of so good a master, was a confidence that he should obtain the divine blessings by the prayers of St. Martin in heaven. St. Paulinus mentions this vision in an inscription in verse, which he made and sent to be engraved on the marble altar of the church of Primuliacus. 12 St. Sulpicius wrote the life of the incomparable St. Martin, according to Tillemont and most others, before the death of that saint: but De Prato thinks that though it was begun before, it was neither finished nor published till after, his death. The style of this piece is plainer and more simple than that of his other writings. An account of the death of St. Martin, which is placed by De Prato in the year 400, is accurately given by St. Sulpicius, in a letter to Bassula, his mother-in-law, who then lived at Triers. The three dialogues of our saint are the most florid of all his writings. In the first Posthumain, a friend who had spent three years in the deserts of Egypt and the East, and was then returned, relates to him and Gallus, a disciple of St. Martin, (with whom our saint then lived under the same roof,) the wonderful examples of virtue he had seen abroad. In the second dialogue Gallus recounts many circumstances of the life of St. Martin, which St. Sulpicius had omitted in his history of that saint. In the third, under the name of the same Gallus, several miracles wrought by St. Martin are proved by authentic testimonies. 13 The most important work of our saint is his abridgment of sacred history from the beginning of the world down to his own time in the year 400. The elegance, conciseness, and perspicuity with which this work is compiled, have procured the author the name of the Christian Sallust, some even prefer it to the histories of the Roman Sallust, and look upon it as the most finished model extant of abridgments. 14 His style is the most pure of any of the Latin fathers, though also Lactantius, Minutius Felix, we may almost add St. Jerom, and Salvian of Marseilles, deserve to be read among the Latin classics. The heroic sanctity of Sulpicius Severus is highly extolled by St. Paulinus of Nola, Paulinus of Perigueux, about the year 460, 15 Venantius Fortunantus, and many others down to the present age. Gennadius tells us, that he was particularly remarkable for his extraordinary love of poverty and humility. After the death of St. Martin, in 400, St. Sulpicius Severus passed five years in that illustrious saint’s cell at Marmoutier. F. Jerom De Prato thinks that he at length retired to a monastery at Marseilles, or in that neighbourhood; because in a very ancient manuscript copy of his works, transcribed in the seventh century kept in the library of the chapter of Verona, he is twice called a monk of Marseilles. From the testimony of this manuscript, the Benedictin authors of the new treatise On the Diplomatique, 16 and the continuators of the Literary History of France, 17 regard it as undoubted that Sulpicius Severus was a monk at Marseilles before his death. Whilst the Alans, Sueves, and Vandals from Germany and other barbarous nations, laid waste most provinces in Gaul in 406, Marseilles enjoyed a secure peace under the government of Constantine, who, having assumed the purple, fixed the seat of his empire at Arles from the year 407 to 410. After the death of St. Chrysostom in 407, Cassian came from Constantinople to Marseilles, and founded there two monasteries, one for men, the other for women. Most place the death of St. Sulpicius Severus about the year 420, Baronius after the year 432; but F. Jerom De Prato about 410, when he supposes him to have been near fifty years old, saying that Gennadius, who tells us that he lived to a very great age, is inconsistent with himself. Neither St. Paulinus nor any other writer mentions him as living later than the year 407, which seems to prove that he did not survive that epoch very many years. Guibert, abbot of Gemblours, who died in 1208, in his Apology for Sulpicius Severus, 18 testifies that his festival was kept at Marmoutier with great solemnity on the 29th of January. Several editors of the Roman Martyrology, who took Sulpicius Severus, who is named in the calendars on this day, to have been this saint, added in his eulogium, Disciple of St. Martin, famous for his learning and merits. Many have proved that this addition was made by the mistake of private editors, and that the saint originally meant here in the Roman Martyrology was Sulpicius Severus, bishop of Bourges; 19 and Benedict XIV. proves and declares 20 that Sulpicius Severus, the disciple of St. Martin, is not commemorated in the Roman Martyrology. Nevertheless, he has been ranked among the saints at Tours from time immemorial, and is honoured with a particular office on this day in the new Breviary used in all that diocess. See his works correctly printed, with various readings, notes, dissertations, and the life of this saint at Verona in 1741, in two volumes folio, by F. Jerom De Prato, an Italian Oratorian of Verona: also Gallia Christiana tum Vetus tum Nova: Tillemont, t. 12. Ceillier, t. 10. p. 635. Rivet, Hist. Litér de la France, t. 2. p. 95.  2
Note 1. Severus was his own proper name, Sulpicius that of his family, as is testified by Gennadius and all antiquity. Vossius, Dupin, and some others, on this account, will have him called Severus Sulpicius, with Eugippius and St. Gregory of Tours. But other learned men agree, that after the close of the republic of Rome, under the emperors, the family name was usually placed first, though still called Cognomen, and the other Prænomen, because the proper name went anciently before the other. Thus we say Cæcilius Cyprianus, Eusebius Hieronymus, Aurelius Augustinus, &c. See Sirmond, Ep. prætixa Op. Servati Lupi, and Hier. De Prato in vita Sulpicii Severi, p. 56, &c. [back]
Note 2. Sulp. Sev. Hist. l. 2. c. 44. [back]
Note 3. Ib. c. 48. and Ep. ad Bassulam. de Prato, p. 57. [back]
Note 4. S. Paulinus, Ep. 5 & 35. [back]
Note 5. Ib. Ep. 11. n. 6. [back]
Note 6. S. Paulinus, Ep. 1 & 24. [back]
Note 7. Ib. Ep. 52. [back]
Note 8. Sulpic. Sev. Ep. ad Paulin. ed à D’Achery in Spicileg. T. 5. p. 532. et inter opera S. Paulini, p. 119. [back]
Note 9. Sulp. Sever. Ibid. [back]
Note 10. S. Paulin. Ep. ad Sulpic. Sev. p. 96. [back]
Note 11. Baluze, T. 1. Miscellan. p. 329. [back]
Note 12. S. Paulinus. Ep. 32. p. 204. [back]
Note 13. Many, upon the authority of St. Jerom, rank Sulpicius Severus among the Millenarians, though all allow that he never defended any error so as to be out of the communion of the church. But that he could not be properly a Millenarian seems clear from several parts of his writings. For, in Ep. 2 and 3. he affirms, that the souls of St. Martin and St. Claras passed from this world to the immediate beatific vision of God. He establishes the same principles, Ep. 1. ad Claudiam Soror. c. 5. And in his Sacred History, l. 2. c. 3. explaining the dream of Nabuchodonosor he teaches, that the destruction of the kingdoms of this world will be immediately succeeded by the eternal reign of Christ with his saints in heaven. In the passage, Dial. 2. c. 14. upon which the charge is founded, Sulpicius relates in the discourse of Gallus, that St. Martin on a certain occasion said, that the reign of Nero in the West and his persecution were immediate forerunners of the last day: as is the reign of Antichrist in the East, who will rebuild Jerusalem and its temple, reside in the same, restore circumcision, kill Nero, and subject the whole world to his empire. Where he advances certain false conjectures about the reign of Nero, and the near approach of the last judgment at that time: likewise the restoration of Jerusalem by Antichrist; though this last is maintained probable by cardinal Bellarmin, l. 3. de. Rom. Pontif. c. 13. But the Millenarian error is not so much as insinuated. Nor could it have been inserted by the author in that passage and omitted by copiers, as De Prato proves against that conjecture of Tillemont. St. Jerom indeed, l. 11. in Ezech. c. 36. represents certain Christian writers who imitated some later Jews in their Deuteroseis in a carnal manner of expounding certain scripture prophecies, expecting a second Jerusalem of gold and precious stones, a restoration of bloody sacrifices, circumcision, and a Sabbath. Amongst these he names Tertullian in his book De Spe Fidelium, (now lost,) Lactantius, Victorinus Petabionensis, and Severus (Sulpicius) in his dialogue entitled, Gallus, then just published: and among the Greeks Irenæus and Apollinarius. De Prato thinks he only speaks of Sulpicius Severus by hearsay, because he mentions only one dialogue called Gallus, whereas two bear that title. At least St. Jerom never meant to ascribe all these errors to each of those he names; for none of them maintained them all except Apollinarius. His intention was only to ascribe one point or other of such carnal interpretations to each, and to Sulpicius the opinion that Jerusalem, with the temple and sacrifices, will be restored by Antichrist, &c. which cannot be called erroneous; though St. Jerom justly rejects that interpretation, because the desolation foretold by Daniel is to endure to the end. In the decree of Gelasius this dialogue of Gallus is called Apocryphal, but in the same sense in which it was rejected by St. Jerom. Nor is this exposition advanced otherwise than as a quotation from St. Martin’s answer on that subject. See the justification of Sulpicius Severus, in a dissertation printed at Venice in 1738, in Racolta di Opuscoli Scientifici, t. 18. and more amply by F. Jerom de Prato, Disser. 5. in Opera Sulpicii Severi, t. 1. p. 259. commended in the Acta Eruditor. Lipsiæ, ad an. 1760. Gennadius, who wrote about the year 494, tells us, (Cat. n. 19.) that Sulpicius was deceived in his old age by the Pelagians, but soon opening his eyes condemned himself to five years rigorous silence to expiate this fault. From the silence of other authors, and the great commendations which the warmest enemies of the Pelagians bestow on our saint, especially Paulinus of Milan, in his life of St. Ambrose, (written at latest in 423,) and St. Paulinus of Nola, and Paulinus of Perigueux, (who in 461 wrote in verse the life of St. Martin,) l. 5. v. 193, &c. some look upon this circumstance as a slander, which depends wholly on the testimony of so inaccurate a writer, who is inconsistent with himself in other matters relating to Sulpicius Severus, whose five years silence might have other motives. If the fact be true, it can only be understood of the Semi-Pelagian error, which had then many advocates at Marseilles, and was not distinguished in its name from Pelagianism till some years after our saint’s death, nor condemned by the church before the second council of Orange in 529. Pelagius was condemned by the councils of Carthage and Milevis in 416, and by Pope Innocent I. in 417. If Sulpicius Severus fell into any error, especially before it had been clearly anathematized by the church, at least he cannot be charged with obstinacy, having so soon renounced it. We must add, that even wilful offences are blotted out by sincere repentance. See F. Jerom De Prato in vita Sulp. Sev. s. 12. p. 69, & 74. t. 1. Op. Veronæ, 1741. [back]
Note 14. The sacred history of Sulpicius Severus is a most useful classic for Christian schools; but not to be studied in the chosen fragments mangled by Chompré, and prescribed for the schools in Portugal. True improvement of the mind is impossible without the beauties of method and the advantages of taste, which are no where met with but by seeing good compositions entire, and by considering the art with which the whole is wound up. A small edition of Sulpicius’s history, made from that correctly published by De Prato, would be of great service. Nevertheless, Sulpicius, though he has so well imitated the style of the purest ages, declares that he neglects elegance; and he takes the liberty to use certain terms and phrases which are not of the Augustan standard, sometimes because they were so familiar in his time, that he otherwise would not have seemed to write with ease, and sometimes because they are necessary to express the mysteries of our faith. How shocking is the delicacy of Bembo; who, for fear of not being Ciceronian, conjures the Venetians per Deos immortales, and uses the words Dea Lauretana! or that of Justus Lipsius, who used Fatum, or destiny, for Providence, because this latter word is not in Cicero, who, with the Pagans, usually speaks according to the notion of an overruling destiny in events which they believed ordained by heaven. For this term some of Lipsius’s works were censured, and by him recalled. [back]
Note 15. Vit. St. Martin, versu expressa, l. 5. v. 193, &c. [back]
Note 16. Tr. de Diplomatique, T. 3. [back]
Note 17. Hist. Litér. T. 11. Avertissement préliminaire, p. 5. [back]
Note 18. Published by Bollandus, ad 29 Jan. p. 968. [back]
Note 19. See Annatus, Theolog. positives, l. 4. c. 26. and Dominic Georgi in Notis ad Martyrol. Adonis, ad 17 Jan. [back]
Note 20. Bened. XIV. in litteris apost. præfixis novæ suæ editioni Romani Martyrologii (Romæ, 1749.) s. 47. p. 34. [back]