Some Observations on the Dialogues of Suplicius Severus

The Dialogues of Sulpicius Severus are a fairly little-known work by one of the more obscure Western Fathers. Nevertheless, he forms an important part of the flow of information and theology of the early monastic movement from East to West. When we think Gaulish monastic father figures these days, John Cassian springs to mind; however, Sulpicius Severus played a complementary role.

More needs to be said about Sulpicius than what I will say now, but a few items must be mentioned to give a proper context for these notes.

First, while Cassian used the dialogue form for the purpose of teaching ascetical practice, spirituality, and theology, Sulpicius preferred to describe lives and events that focused upon proofs rather than techniques. That is, his works tended to be stories about Martin of Tours (his main work being the principal Life of St Martin) and other monks but while Cassian used stories to identify practices or to make an ascetic point, Sulpicius preferred tales of the miraculous to confirm the efficacy of the monastic way of life. (If I had to offer one theory as to why modern students of Christian spirituality know Cassian and not Sulpicius it would be  the modern disdain for miraculous elements that strain the bounds of credibility.  Sulpicius tends not to strain the bounds of credibility, rather he blows past them at a tremendous speed…)

Second, Sulpicius stood in conscious literary relationship with Jerome. This deserves an examination in its own right—there are some very interesting passages in the Dialogues that wrestle with Jerome as a teacher and author where Sulpicius both attempts to cast himself in direct relationship with Jerome but also attempts to supplant him literarily.  In any event, Sulpicius was very much a student of Jerome’s writings and if Sulpicius tended to the miraculous, it was a technique he learned from Jerome and his three monastic lives: the Life of Paul, the Life of Hilarion, and the first monastic novella, the Life of Malchus the Captive Monk.

In the literature from the desert there are a number of fairly common topoi that serve as miraculous confirmation of ascetic practices. These include clairvoyance, miraculous healings, ascetics appearing in dreams, vivid encounters with demons, vivid encounters with angels, supernatural feeding, ascetics exhibiting angelic properties, and honor shown to holy men by wild and vicious creatures. Jerome especially picks up the last in his two more imaginative lives, the Life of Paul and the Life of Malchus. In the Life of Paul, Antony is given directions to Paul’s cave first by a centaur (VP 7), then by a satyr (VP 8), and finally by a wolf whom he sees entering Paul’s dwelling (VP 9). During their conversation, a raven brings them bread (VP 10). Likewise, in the Life of Malchus, the centerpiece of the dramatic escape of Malchus and his chaste wife comes when they take refuge in a desert cave that turns out to be a lions’ den and their pursuers are killed by the fierce beasts but the chaste couple are left unharmed.

So—these are the literary models from which Sulpicius is drawing. The whole point of the Dialogues is similar to that of Cassian’s Conferences, namely, how can the life and piety of the Eastern monks be translated into religious life in the West? Sulpicius seeks to establish that this translation has successfully occurred in the preeminent person of Martin of Tours. Indeed, Martin has so successfully accomplished this feat that his signs and wonders surpass those of the Eastern monks.

To make his point, he casts a first-person narrative where a far-traveling friend, Postumianus, returns from a voyage East and regales Sulpicius and his companion “the Gaul” with tales of the Eastern monks. This occurs in the first book of the Dialogues; the second and third books are the rejoinder where Sulpicius, the Gaul and a host of other eyewitnesses describe tales of Martin of Tours and his mighty miracles.

Stepping back from the particulars, Sulpicius seems to be working with a particular problem of place and social location. The lure of the desert is bound up with the solitary life, the pure life. Even the Eastern monastics who lived in communities were living away from the rest of sinful humanity. How, then, could Martin have the same kind of holiness without the physical remove from society? Furthermore, one of the wonders of the Egyptian monks in these early days was their refusal to distinguish between persons based on their status. A bishop would receive the same reception as a peasant; rulers and prelates came to them in the desert. In the West, it was Martin who was traveling to see the royal and the powerful. How could these be explained without compromise?

Sulpicius begins by focusing his first book on three miraculous topoi in particular: supernatural feeding, ascetics with angelic properties and the reception of ascetics by vicious beasts. I’m going to suggest that he selects these for a very particular reason and that in doing so, he is communicating one of the theologies at the root of the early Eastern monastic movement: the return to Eden. That is, the solitary monk through the ascetic process can conditionally recover elements of the Edenic state where, like Adam, he dwells in constant communion with God, enjoys an angelic state of being, the little food he requires is supplied without toil by nature itself, and he lives in harmony with the wild beasts.

As the character Postumanius narrates his trip through Egypt, we see this theme playing out in a number of ways. Section 1.13 gives us a solitary who, through the help of an ox and a well has created a garden paradise in the desert:

There was also a garden there full of a variety of vegetables. This, too, was contrary to what might have been expected in the desert where, all things being dry and burnt up by the fierce rays of the sun produce not even the slenderest root of any plant. But the labor which in common with his ox, the monk performed, as well as his own special industry, produced such a happy state of things to the holy man; for the frequent irrigation in which he engaged imparted such a fertility to the sand that we saw the vegetables in his garden flourishing and coming to maturity in a wonderful manner. On these, then, the ox lived as well as its master; and from the abundance thus supplied, the holy man provided us also with a dinner.

Further, even the desert provides this holy man with the fruits he needs complete with a requisite vicious beast:

Then after dinner, when the evening was coming on, our host invites us to a palm-tree, the fruit of which he was accustomed to use, and which was at a distance of about two miles. For that is the only kind of tree found in the desert, and even these are rare, though they do occur. I am not sure whether this is owing to the wise foresight of former ages, or whether the soil naturally produces them. It may indeed be that God, knowing beforehand that the desert was one day to be inhabited by the saints, prepared these things for his servants. For those who settle within these solitudes live for the most part on the fruit of such trees, since no other kinds of plants thrive in these quarters. Well, when we came up to that tree to which the kindness of our host conducted us, we there met with a lion; and on seeing it, both my guide and myself began to tremble; but the holy man went up to it without delay, while we, though in great terror, followed him. As if commanded by God, the beast modestly withdrew and stood gazing at us, while our friend, the monk, plucked some fruit hanging within easy reach on the lower branches. And, on his holding out his hand filled with dates, the monster ran up to him and received them as readily as any domestic animal could have done; and having eaten them, it departed. We, beholding these things, and being still under the influence of fear, could not but perceive how great was the power of faith in his case, and how weak it was in ourselves.

The lion not only does not eat the ascetic but has returned to the vegetarian state of the garden.

Similarly, section 1.14 gives us a she-wolf who eats bread from an ascetic’s hand and who apologizes in canine form when she takes two biscuits one night instead of her accustomed one. In 1.15 a lioness beseeches healing from an ascetic for her five cubs born blind. He heals them and she brings him the skin of a rare animal as a cloak as thanks. In 1.16, an ascetic new to the desert ate poisonous roots which put him in torment. Accordingly, an ibex came and taught him which roots were safe and which were dangerous.

Section 1.17 makes a deliberate connection with the two great (literary) monastic exemplars, Antony and Paul. Within this same section, connected as it were to these figures, is the preeminent Edenic anchorite:

I saw the Red Sea and the ridges of Mount Sinai, the top of which almost touches heaven, and cannot, by any human effort, be reached. An anchorite was said to live somewhere within its recesses: and I sought long and much to see him, but was unable to do so. He had for nearly fifty years been removed from all human fellowship, and used no clothes, but was covered with bristles growing on his own body, while, by Divine gift, he knew not of his own nakedness. As often as any pious men desired to visit him, making hastily for the pathless wilderness, he shunned all meeting with his kind. To one man only, about five years before my visit, he was said to have granted an interview; and I believe that man obtained the favor through the power of his faith. Amid much talk which the two had together, the recluse is said to have replied to the question why he shunned so assiduously all human beings, that the man who was frequently visited by mortals like himself, could not often be visited by angels. From this, not without reason, the report had spread, and was accepted by multitudes, that that holy man enjoyed angelic fellowship.

Like (the pre-Eve) Adam, the anchorite was entirely solitary, he held converse with angels and, like both prelapsarian humans, was naked yet not ashamed.  While Postumanius goes on to describe some marvels in a monastery, he then goes on to recount ascetics who failed. Though he continues on for several more sections, it becomes evident that the nameless ascetic of Sinai is the pinnacle of the Eastern monastic exemplars.

After Postumanius finishes, the Gaul begins to hold forth on Martin. The central thesis of the Dialogues is laid out in 1.24 thusly:

Indeed, Postumianus, replied I [Sulpicius], while I was listening attentively, all this time, to you talking about the excellences of the saints, in my secret thoughts I had my mind turned to my friend Martin, observing on the best of grounds that all those things which different individuals had done separately, were easily and entirely accomplished by that one man alone. For, although you certainly related lofty deeds, I really heard nothing from your lips (may I say it, without offense to these holy men), in which Martin was inferior to any one of them. And while I hold that the excellence of no one of these is ever to be compared with the merits of that man, still this point ought to be attended to, that it is unfair he should be compared, on the same terms, with the recluses of the desert, or even with the anchorites. For they, at freedom from every hindrance, with heaven only and the angels as witnesses, were clearly instructed to perform admirable deeds; he, on the other hand, in the midst of crowds and intercourse with human beings— among quarrelsome clerics, and among furious bishops, while he was harassed with almost daily scandals on all sides, nevertheless stood absolutely firm with unconquerable virtue against all these things, and performed such wonders as not even those accomplished of whom we have heard that they are, or at one time were, in the wilderness.

The holiness of the Eastern ascetics cannot only be matched but entirely surpassed. While their virtues and miracles were spread amongst many men, all of these virtues and miracles can be found in Martin himself. By extension, therefore, if Martin can surpass the Eastern ascetics, there is no good reason why western ascetics (especially through the intercessions of Martin) cannot thereby equal or surpass them as well.

I’ll not go through Dialogues books 2 and 3 in detail here but will make some pointed observations in regard to the foregoing section. Two items in particular seem to occupy the attention of Sulpicius. First, can the active life of a bishop be as virtuous as the monastic life? Second, Can the more active life impart virtues and benefits that the solitary life cannot?

In regard to the first, Sulpicius makes acknowledgment that the purely contemplative life is more perfect. He is, after all, an ascetic writing for ascetics. This point is made most specifically in section 2.4 in the words of the Gaul:

I have often noticed this, Sulpitius, that Martin was accustomed to say to you, that such an abundance of power was by no means granted him while he was a bishop, as he remembered to have possessed before he obtained that office. Now, if this be true, or rather since it is true, we may imagine how great those things were which, while still a monk, he accomplished, and which, without any witness, he effected apart by himself; since we have seen that, while a bishop, he performed so great wonders before the eyes of all. Many, no doubt, of his former achievements were known to the world, and could not be hid, but those are said to have been innumerable which, while he avoided boastfulness, he kept concealed and did not allow to come to the knowledge of mankind; for, inasmuch as he transcended the capabilities of mere man, in a consciousness of his own eminence, and trampling upon worldly glory, he was content simply to have heaven as a witness of his deeds. That this is true we can judge even from these things which are well known to us, and could not be hid; since e.g. before he became a bishop he restored two dead men to life, facts of which your book has treated pretty fully, but, while he was bishop, he raised up only one, a point which I am surprised you have not noticed.

Thus, Martin the monk raised two people from the dead while Martin the bishop restored only one. (This is Sulpicius’s idea of “less power” when it comes to extolling his patron!)

What I’d like to focus on, though is the second point. Martin orders around some domestic animals—a possessed cow in 2.9 (compare the possessed camel in the Life of Hilarion)—but Sulpicius makes a deliberate transfer of the “domesticating” power of ascesis.

Martin does not dwell in the deserts; he is in the cities. As a result, his power isn’t over the savage animals of the wastes but over the nobility. While desert ascetics have the power to tame creatures, Martin is given power over kings and queens. Furthermore, while the desert ascetics can only save themselves and their comrades from beasts, Martin’s effect upon the nobility has the potential for much wider social change.

The Gaul presents an extended  narrative that lays the foundation for this. First, he shows the hostility against which Martin contended:

Well, just about the time when he first became a bishop, a necessity arose for his visiting the imperial court. Valentinian, the elder, then was at the head of affairs. When he came to know that Martin was asking for things which he did not incline to grant, he ordered him to be kept from entering the doors of the palace. Besides his own unkind and haughty temper, his wife Arriana had urged him to this course, and had wholly alienated him from the holy man, so that he should not show him the regard which was due to him. (2.5)

Mere royalty, however, are no match for Martin:

Martin, accordingly, when he had once and again endeavored to procure an interview with the haughty prince, had recourse to his well-known weapons— he clothes himself in sackcloth, scatters ashes upon his person, abstains from food and drink, and gives himself, night and day, to continuous prayer. On the seventh day, an angel appeared to him, and tells him to go with confidence to the palace, for that the royal doors, although closed against him, would open of their own accord, and that the haughty spirit of the emperor would be softened. Martin, therefore, being encouraged by the address of the angel who thus appeared to him, and trusting to his assistance, went to the palace. The doors stood open, and no one opposed his entrance; so that, going in, he came at last into the presence of the king, without any one seeking to hinder him. The king, however, seeing him at a distance as he approached, and gnashing his teeth that he had been admitted, did not, by any means, condescend to rise up as Martin advanced, until fire covered the royal seat, and until the flames seized on a part of the royal person. In this way the haughty monarch is driven from his throne, and, much against his will, rises up to receive Martin. He even gave many embraces to the man whom he had formerly determined to despise, and, coming to a better frame of mind, he confessed that he perceived the exercise of Divine power; without waiting even to listen to the requests of Martin, he granted all he desired before being asked. Afterwards the king often invited the holy man both to conferences and entertainments; and, in the end, when he was about to depart, offered him many presents, which, however, the blessed man, jealously maintaining his own poverty, totally refused, as he did on all similar occasions.

But that’s not all… Section 2.6 describes in servile detail how the queen, wife of Maximus, used to serve Martin hand and foot:

[Maximus] frequently sent for Martin, received him into the palace, and treated him with honor; his whole speech with him was concerning things present, things to come, the glory of the faithful, and the immortality of the saints; while, in the meantime, the queen hung upon the lips of Martin, and not inferior to her mentioned in the Gospel, washed the feet of the holy man with tears and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Martin, though no woman had hitherto touched him, could not escape her assiduity, or rather her servile attentions. She did not think of the wealth of the kingdom, the dignity of the empire, the crown, or the purple; only stretched upon the ground, she could not be torn away from the feet of Martin. At last she begs of her husband (saying that both of them should constrain Martin to agree) that all other attendants should be removed from the holy man, and that she alone should wait upon him at meals.

And it goes on like that for a while. The point Sulpicius is making is that Martin has totally domesticated one of the most dangerous creature in his environment, a woman who was royalty. Some of the ascetics of the desert would not so much as look at a women (see Historia Monachorum in Aegypto, 1.4-9) let alone allow themselves to be touched by one. Sulpicius uses this opportunity for scandal to reveal Martin’s greater power than the ascetics. Not only can he be safely touched by a woman, he is able to use it for godly ends. When Postumanius expresses wonder at a woman touching Martin, the Gaul responds:

Why do you not notice, as grammarians are wont to teach us, the place, the time, and the person? For only set before your eyes the picture of one kept in the palace of the emperor importuned by prayers, constrained by the faith of the queen, and bound by the necessities of the time, to do his utmost that he might set free those shut up in prison, might restore those who had been sent into exile, and might recover goods that had been taken away—of how much importance do you think that these things should have appeared to a bishop, so as to lead him, in order to the accomplishment of them all, to abate not a little of the rigor of his general scheme of life? (2.7)

Implicit is the revelation of Martin’s greater power. Due to his power over the king and queen, he is able to have profound effects upon the actions and policy of those in government.

The theme of the domestication of beasts is set forth explicitly in the description of Martin’s dealings with a nobleman named Avtianus, described in Book 3:

You knew the too barbarous and, beyond measure, bloody ferocity of Avitianus, a former courtier. He enters the city of the Turones with a furious spirit, while rows of people, laden with chains, followed him with melancholy looks, orders various kinds of punishments to be got ready for slaying them; and to the grave amazement of the city, he arranges them for the sad work on the following day. When this became known to Martin, he set out all alone, a little before midnight, for the palace of that beast (ad praetorium bestiae). (3.4)

Martin torments Avitianus in his sleep, he awakes, finds Martin there, and sets all of his prisoners free, departing from the city. Avitianus comes up later in the book as well:

But to return to Avitianus: while at every other place, and in all other cities, he displayed marks of horrible cruelty, at Tours alone he did no harm. Yes, that beast (illa bestia), which was nourished by human blood, and by the slaughter of unfortunate creatures, showed himself meek and peaceable in the presence of the blessed man. I remember that Martin one day came to him, and having entered his private apartment, he saw a demon of marvelous size sitting behind his back. Blowing upon him from a distance (if I may, as a matter of necessity, make use of a word which is hardly Latin , Avitianus thought that he was blowing at him, and exclaimed, ‘Why, you holy man, do you treat me thus?’ But then Martin said, ‘It is not at you, but at him who, in all his terribleness, leans over your neck.’ The devil gave way, and left his familiar seat; and it is well known that, ever after that day, Avitianus was milder, whether because he now understood that he had always been doing the will of the devil sitting by him, or because the unclean spirit, driven from his seat by Martin, was deprived of the power of attacking him; while the servant was ashamed of his master, and the master did not force on his servant.

Here the topos is made explicit. The beast is tamed by the holy man.

Thus, in Sulpicius’s writings about Martin, he both envisions and responds to the role of the holy ascetic in Western culture explicitly different from the Eastern model. In the East, the monk inhabits the deserts. He is a solitary. In his solitude, he can recapture the peace of Eden. In the West, though, the holy ascetic is no less a man of prayer, but is one who acts upon the whole social structure by means of his relations at the top. Through the moderating influence of holiness upon the nobles, a “peaceable kingdom” may be achieved.

In a sense, Suplicius tries to pull off quite a number of things here, some of which should probably give us pause. Not only does he translate Eastern piety into Western culture but in doing so, he reverses the monastic approach to the Constantinian state of the Church. While the monks reacted by retreating from it, Sulpicius fully embraces it. Martin by no means holds himself apart but actively engages the machinery of the state at its highest levels, using his influence to moderate the vicious state of the State.

3 thoughts on “Some Observations on the Dialogues of Suplicius Severus

  1. Derek Olsen

    Thanks, Tony. While I’m intrigued by the Dialogues I haven’t studied them or their secondary literature enough to publish anything substantive on it yet. It is something I’m kicking around as part of a future project, though…

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