Monday, April 13, 2009

Best Saint Story – St Hilaire

I couldn’t count the number of times during my winter walk when I sought out a relatively warm place to take a little rest during the day. In rural Belgium and France, in towns too small for a café or a mayor’s office, or when the café and the mayor’s office were closed, an unheated church often served this purpose – none too warm and generally lacking a restroom, but at least a place to sit out of the elements, sometimes even with a few toasty pillar candles. Sitting in a pew surrounded by fabulous statues and paintings, some so sooted from long-extinguished candles that they’re nearly black, I can’t help but play Name-that-Saint.

I’ve noticed two categories of Saints – those mentioned in the Bible and all the rest. The Biblical gang – Saint Mary, probably the most ubiquitous, Saint John the Baptist a distant second – are usually depicted in some allegory of their Biblical roles. Nice art, nice meaning. The others were once everyday people who such lived influential Christian lives that someone after their death decided that they should never be forgotten and started the paperwork to sainthood. I never kept track, but Saint Denis, the Parisian Bishop holding his own head, Saint Georges, slaying an evil dragon, and Saint Martin slicing his cape in two to share with a beggar are maybe the most represented. I saw them in nearly every church, at least one of the three, anyway.

The further west I walked, through a lot of snow and ice as it turned out, the more I started seeing images and references to Saint Hilaire, whom I never heard of before. He’s often identified in a Latinized style as Saint Hilarius, which is just plain funny.

There are tons of churches, streets, and plazas named for him in the region between Chartres and Bordeaux. In Aulnay, the impressive Eglise St Hilaire is a designated UNESCO site for its cultural contribution. He must have been a pretty cool guy,but frankly, he doesn’t make a good Name-that-Saint contestant, not having any particular attributes to distinguish him from the rest – if there’s no name tag, I have no way to recognize him.

It wasn’t hard to find out why he became the namesake of so much in the west of France; the region is pretty good about having information signs outside historical sites.

An early fellow, he evangelized the area around Poitiers, his bustling Roman-settled hometown in the early 4th century. That was a while ago, in the Christian calendar sense – the Edict of Milan, in which Emperor Constantine declared religious tolerance so it was no longer illegal to be Christian – happened in 313, just two years before Hilaire’s birth. He started his life as a wealthy pagan, then became highly educated and traveled widely, then read the Bible in Greek and converted. When he returned home, he became the first Bishop there – maybe the only one qualified for the job? – and set about evangelizing western Gaul, in person and in his writings.

He was an early pioneer in a sense; most of those around him would have worshiped either the Roman gods or the remaining Druids. I could imagine there were more than a few Roman soldiers who weren’t so hip to Constantine’s new order not to toss the Christians into the arena with lions. Nonetheless, Hilaire is attributed with transforming a Roman structure into a fancy Baptistery, which is purported to be the oldest Christian structure in France, and can be viewed in Poitiers still today. To stand in front of the Baptistery is to stand where Saint Hilaire actually once stood.

The information signs make it clear that Hilaire was an active guy, most particularly a persistent voice against Arianism, the widespread view that took the position God was God above the Son and the Holy Spirit, and instead pushed for the concept of the Trinity, which became the strong foundation of Catholicism and Protestantism practiced today and became inextricably embedded in church art and architecture. Without Hilaire’s effort, how different the world may have become. His work influenced his North African contemporary, Augustine, who came up with the whole monastic rule thing. Augustine and Hilaire both became known as Doctors of the Church, and later Sainted for their contributions so that the world would never forget them. Charlemagne spoke well of Hilaire and sponsored many a chapel in his name.

Martin, a converted Roman soldier from Turkey, came to Poitiers to learn from Hilaire, suggesting Hilaire at least had some press time in his day. Martin, a hugely present Saint in all of Europe since the Middle Ages, is the reason for big parties in every village, town, and city on each November 11th through the ages. Hilaire encouraged Martin to establish monasteries in Ligugé on the outskirts of Poitier, which he did and then lived there for some years until he became Bishop of Tours, four days’ walk north of Poitiers, where he established another one. During the Middle Ages, these monasteries become standard stopping places for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela.

The wild thing about modern pilgrimages: I stayed at this monastery in Ligugé – the same one that Saint Martin lived in and Saint Hilaire visited. The artistic community of monks today have very nice accommodation for pilgrims and people on religious retreats. Tucked beside at the mouth of a small canyon, the village around the monastery is a quaint one. There are other monasteries in the area where pilgrims to Santiago can stay for a night, most notably a community of Benedictine nuns at Saint-Benoit that was also established long long ago with the influence of Saint Hilaire. Sometimes, it’s difficult for a pilgrim to choose. Hurray for the low-profile Saint Hilaire and his remarkable story.


Amawalker said...

I've often why all the biblical saints are from the New Testament -why have none of the Old Testament characters have been beatified? Was it a new idea of the Catholic Church?

Winter Pilgrim said...

For sure there are Old Testament Saints - Saint Michael the Archangel is probably the most well represented in the art and architecture I've seen.

I've also seen statues and carvings of Saint David a lot in Catholic Churches - he's always got the crown, since he was King David in the Old Testament, and a harp, since he wrote the Psalms. Look for him on the choir loft or the organ.

Whether they were called Saints in the Old Testament or it was a later Catholic concept, I don't know.