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Access over 100,000+ Sermons from Ancient to Modern : Christian Books : CHAPTER XL A VISIT FROM VIGILANTIUS

Gathering Clouds A Tale Of The Days Of St Chrysostom by Frederic William Farrar


Quam dissimilis est nunc a se ipso populus Christianus!

Salvian, de Gubernat. Dei.

'Philip and David,' said Chrysostom, 'Proclus has just told me' -- Proclus was the young deacon who helped Serapion to arrange audiences with the Patriarch, and he ultimately became Patriarch himself -- 'that I am to receive a visit to-day from the well-known presbyter, Vigilantius. He has travelled in many lands, and brings me a letter of introduction from the Western poet, Paulinus, Bishop of Nola. I think you will like to hear something about the great men whom he has met; so, if Eutyches will take a little of your work, you may come in after dinner and meet the Gaulish presbyter.

Eutyches won't mind, I know,' said David, for there is not much to do to-day, and he is anxious to write a letter to his friend Walamir, who, as we have just heard, is now with Alaric at Æmona.'

Very well,' said Chrysostom. 'Vigilantius will be here at noon.'

I hope, father,' said Philip slyly, you will give him a better dinner than you gave to the Bishop of Beroea, or we shall have more trouble.'

I shall never hear the last of that unhappy dinner,' said Chrysostom, smiling; and you know it was all your fault, Philip. But, happily, the Lady Olympias has now taken all that out of your hands, and I have no doubt she will manage much better.'

So Vigilantius was invited. He was a Gaul, born at Convenæ, and afterwards settled at Calagurris. Jerome has deluged him with some of the -- pardon the phrase, reader, which, if I dared to quote, would be more than amply justified -- of the worst clerical and ecclesiastical Billingsgate. Untaught by the way in which his own heart had been lacerated by shameless calumnies, the eremite of Bethlehem was disgracefully reckless in the virulence with which he spoke of others. Jerome habitually calls him, not Vigilantius, the watchful,' but Dormitantius, the snorer,' just as, after his quarrel with the learned, saintly, and ascetic Rufinus, of whom originally he could speak in no terms of eulogy too exalted, he pursued that great man, even to his death, with the name of Grunnius, the grunter.' Even when he lay dead in Sicily, the unforgiving saint, in a commentary on Holy Scripture, has no better epitaph for the friend of his youth, whom he had once called his true colleague and brother,' than 'the Scorpion is crushed to the earth between Enceladus and Porphyrion, and the hydra of many heads has ceased to hiss against me,' -- this hydra' being one of the holiest Churchmen of his day, whom Bishop Palladius describes as a man of unequalled learning and unequalled humility.'

It is said that the father of Vigilantius was a vintner; hence Jerome calls him a base-born tapster, a Samaritan, a Jew, a man who belches forth his impure crapulousness, whose tongue ought to be cut out by surgeons, and his insane head healed.' But, in spite of this torrent of foul invective, Vigilantius is spoken of with respect by the voice of history. He was a man of blameless life, of bright intelligence, of fearless candour, and of a forgiving modesty, which is best illustrated by the fact that he never answered by a single syllable the rancorous and frantic vituperations to which he had been subjected by the passionate recluse. The extent to which we are forced to discount the invectives of Jerome may best he estimated by the fact that he has nothing better to say of Chrysostom, a saint whose holiness was incomparably superior to his own, than that he was a mad, pestilent, contaminated, furious, and insanely tyrannical person, who had sold his soul to the devil,' and an impure demon who drags along a filth of words like a torrent.' Jerome, it is true, only translated these words from a hideous libel written by Theophilus; but he lent them the endorsement of his Latin eloquence and his mighty name. And the other saint of his day -- St. Ambrose -- he described as a croaking raven, who, himself entirely dingy, laughs in marvellous fashion at the colours of all other birds.' There are some men, and even good men, who seem at once to inspire each other with mutual antipathy; there are others who are at once drawn to one another. Vigilantius and Jerome disliked each other almost from the day on which they met. Their characters and their temperaments were wholly dissimilar. But the Gallic presbyter felt at once drawn towards Chrysostom, and there was something in his frank impetuosity which attracted the Patriarch's sympathy.

After their brief repast, which the simple Vigilantius thought excellent, though he had been warned beforehand that Chrysostom's entertainments were profoundly despised by connoisseurs, the two youths came in.

Let me introduce to you,' said Chrysostom, two of my young secretaries, Philip of Antioch, and David -- of Constantinople at present, but once of Nazareth.'

Of Nazareth?' asked Vigilantius. I know well the village where Christ was born. I visited it when I was staying with the saintly Rufinus at Jerusalem. Never can I forget its sweet, green valleys, and the prospect from its hill, on whose summit the Lord Jesus in His happy boyhood must have stood so often.' He fixed so earnest a gaze on David's face that the youth was not sorry when Eutyches came in, and called him to settle some point in the Patriarch's correspondence about which he was uncertain.

Who is that youth from Nazareth?' asked Vigilantius. 'I fear I stared at him too rudely, and made him blush. But my reason was that I have seen in the catacombs of St. Callistus, at Rome, a picture of Christ of which his face at once reminded me.'

A picture of Christ!' said Chrysostom. Are there such in existence? I thought that we had every reason to disapprove of all attempts to represent Him in His human aspect. The Council of Eliberis forbade it, and the great Eusebius of Cæsarea was almost indignant with the Empress Constantia when she asked him to procure her a picture of Christ.'

That is true,' said Vigilantius. This catacomb-picture is the earliest attempt to represent the Son of God, and is later than the days of Constantine. But in Palestine I heard that there were some dim and faint traditions about His human aspect, which were repeated to me, especially as to the wonderful sweetness of His smile; and your young secretary reminded me both of this description and of the picture in the crypt of St. Callistus.'

Ah!' said Chrysostom, there is a something about him which, out of reverence and humility, he keeps in the depths of his heart; but I may tell you -- if you will promise not to speak of it -- that he is lineally descended from the family of the Desposyni.'

The wonder and surprise of Vigilantius remained unexpressed, for at this moment David came back; but, rising from his seat, he grasped the youth's hand, and apologised for having stared at him, as he was interested in one who had been born at Nazareth.

David readily forgave him, and Chrysostom said: 'You have mentioned to us the pictures in the Catacombs; are they not being also introduced into churches in the West?'

The first church which I have seen painted all over with pictures,' said Vigilantius, is that of my kind friend Paulinus, Bishop of Nola.'

It is a Church of St. Felix of Nola, is it not?' said Chrysostom.

Yes, he is devoted to St. Felix. He writes a poem in his honour every year; he has an immense festival in his honour on the day of his martyrdom, and has painted the whole church with scenes from his history.'

It is a serious innovation,' said Chrysostom.

It is,' said Vigilantius, and, in my humble opinion, in these days, a dangerous one. Paulinus calls his pictures |The Bible of the laity,| but it is mainly a Bible of St. Felix.'

Who was St. Felix of Nola, sir?' asked Philip.

Only to think that you should not know,' said Chrysostom, whose intercourse with Philip was habitually playful. 'Why, even a boy like Eutyches would tell you that.'

Will your Beatitude try him?' said Philip, revenging himself by a title which, in public, his adopted father could hardly reprove. 'Eutyches!' he called out, his Beatitude wants you.'

Philip does not know who St. Felix of Nola was!' said Chrysostom. Tell him, Eutyches.'

Eutyches looked puzzled. Come, Eutyches,' said Philip, 'the Patriarch wants you to pour out the stores of your erudition, and to shame my ignorance.'

This must be one of Philip's jokes, my Lord,' said Eutyches. 'Frankly, I don't know.'

Philip smiled in mischievous triumph. Well,' said Chrysostom, 'Vigilantius will tell you.'

Felix,' said Vigilantius, was a priest of Nola who was a confessor in the persecutions of Decius and Valerian, but of whom little is known except legends. I will tell these youths one pretty story about him. On one occasion he was being pursued by the soldiers during the persecution. He had barely time to hide himself in a cave on the mountain-side, and a spider instantly spun its web over the entrance. The pursuers, seeing the spider's web, did not enter the cave. |Ubi Deus est,| said Felix as he came out after they had passed: |ibi aranea murus; ubi non est, ibi murus aranea.|'

Translate that for Philip's benefit, Eutyches,' said Chrysostom.

|Where God is,|' said Eutyches, but Philip knows it without my translation -- |there a spider's web is a wall; where He is not, a wall is but a spider's web.|'

Thank you, sir,' said Philip, and now that Eutyches has made me blush by his erudition' -- he looked at the Patriarch with twinkling eyes he had better go back to his work, or we shall get behindhand.'

Eutyches punished Philip by an unobserved pull at his ear as he went out, for which he was repaid afterwards.

Tell us more about the Chapel of Paulinus,' said Chrysostom. 'Are his pictures really useful?'

Far from it,' said Vigilantius. The half-Pagan rustics practically worship them.'

I hope not; that were an idolatry to be abhorred of Christians. But surely Paulinus does not venture to paint Christ?'

No; he stops short there,' said Vigilantius. When he wants to indicate Christ he paints a snow-white lamb under a bloodstained cross. Another of his novelties is to have endless candles burning round the shrine of St. Felix, even in the day time; and he undoubtedly prays to him, as if the saints were ubiquitous.'

I am unwilling to say anything severe of a truly good man like my brother, the Bishop of Nola,' said Chrysostom, 'but I will confess to you that much of this seems to me to be fraught with danger, and to be utterly unwarranted by Holy Writ.'

I love and honour Paulinus,' said Vigilantius, but, my lord Patriarch, I cannot but admit that being, as he is, a late convert from Paganism, he has carried into Christianity much Pagan ritual and many Pagan superstitions. Perhaps I speak with unbecoming freedom before your Dignity?'

Speak freely,' said Chrysostom; and as for titles, I gladly exonerate all my visitors from using them.'

I was going to be so bold as to say that there seems to be some truth in the complaint of Faustus when he says of Christians: |The sacrifices of the heathen you have turned into love-feasts, their idols into martyrs, whom you worship with similar devotion; you propitiate the shades of the dead with wine and vanities; the solemn days of the Gentiles you keep with them, and -- though this, thank God! is not true of all -- certain it is that you have changed nothing from their manner of life.|'

Faustus the Manichee? Was he not once a teacher of Augustine of Hippo, some of whose writings I have read?'

Yes. Faustus spoke severely, but there is a terrible substratum of fact under his denunciations.'

It is too true,' said the Patriarch; there is much to fear from this re-intrusion of Pagan ritual into the Christian Church; and the deplorable degeneracy from the old ideal of Christian innocence causes the deepest misgivings of my heart. Do you think that this relic-worship, this blaze of candles in daylight, these pictures, these martyr-festivals, have a good effect on the people?'

None at all, or a bad one, on the testimony of Paulinus himself. I have heard him bitterly deplore the orgies of drunkenness, and other grave scandals, caused by the nightly vigils which the Council of Eliberis so strongly condemned, as Augustine of Hippo has also done. As for relic-worship, even Jerome sneers at |superstitious womanlings| grovelling over supposed fragments of the true Cross. If the example of Paulinus prevails, we shall soon have a new polytheism. What need have we to pray to imperfect mortals, when we can pray to Christ? Is it not monstrous, Bishop, to imagine that they are more compassionate than He, or that we need to thrust their intercession between our souls and His infinite tenderness? Jerome has no language too abusive to denounce me for holding these opinions; he taunts me with incredible ignorance; he expresses a pious hope that during my snores I may be destroyed like the firstborn of Egypt. But when he condescends to arguments, all that he can adduce seem to my simplicity to be so sophistically misapplied that even a well-taught child could answer them.'

Ah' said the Patriarch, I am sorry that he should thus speak and write of you. This ferocity which cannot forgive a difference of opinion is the plague-spot of our Christianity. How intensely we all need the verse, |

I said I will take heed to my ways, that I offend not with my tongue.|'

Amen! and amen!' said Vigilantius. When I read how Jerome says that I am more pernicious than Cacus or Geryon, a more portentous monster than Leviathan or the Nemean lion, I am only sorry for him, and for the effect of such a style on the minds of others -- not for myself. It cannot hurt me. His offence is more rank when he tries to blacken my character by a ridiculous story. He says that one night, when there was an earthquake at Bethlehem, I leapt out of bed, equally destitute of faith and clothing, and, being intoxicated, remained at night praying in the Cave of the Nativity as naked as Adam and Eve in Paradise. His falsehood that I was intoxicated -- which I have never been in my life -- is his way of reviving the untrue sneer that my father was a publican. May God forgive him! I am sure I do.'

Alas!' said Chrysostom, it is language like this which makes the heathen say, with a sneer, |There was a day when even Christians loved one another.| But why is he so vehemently embittered against you? Were you not his guest at Bethlehem?'

I was, Bishop; and, oh! with what reverence my soul was filled when I was sheltered in his cave, which is close by the cave of Christ's nativity. I can sympathise with Jerome when he calls the village of Bethlehem more august than the city of Rome.'

His must be a delightful life.'

It might be,' said the Gaul, with a sad smile. 'The place is full of charm. The fields in spring are embroidered with blue and purple and crimson flowers, like the High Priest's ephod, and they ring with the songs of birds. In summer there are the shadows of the hills, and of groves rich in foliage. In autumn it was pleasant to pace the leaf-strewn walks. Even in winter there was no fear of cold, for there is an abundance of fuel.'

Happy Jerome!'

No, not happy, I fear. Yet Jerome might be as happy as anyone. He lives pen in hand, and has the delight of constant occupations. He daily teaches the two noble ladies, Paula and Eustochium, who came with him from Rome; he writes many letters and many books; he instructs the monks; he educates the boys of his monasteries, and preaches to the pilgrims, who swarm in hundreds to his coenobium.'

Then how comes it that you only say his life might be happy?'

For two reasons. First, he makes himself ill, fretful, and irritable with over-asceticism; and, next, he is always involving himself in a whirl of controversies; which he renders ten times more bitter by his ferocious eloquence.'

You have not yet told us why his anger burns so hotly against you.'

It is because I dare to hold some of the opinions which the wronged Jovinian also held, against which Jerome has written his fiercest denunciations. Jovinian, as you know, had been a monk and an ascetic, who wore a single rough tunic, lived on bread and water, and even went about in winter with bare feet. Experience convinced him that there was no essential moral or spiritual profit in this will-worship. He never married, but he held that it is only a false tradition which imposes celibacy on presbyters. In that he agrees with the Nicene Fathers. Surely marriage is in all respects as sacred as celibacy? Did not Clement of Alexandria say that to disparage marriage was to disparage the Apostles? Was not St. Peter married? Did not the holy Philip give his daughters in marriage? Does not St. Paul say that a bishop must be the husband of one wife? Did not Athanasius say that |nothing prevented the right of a bishop to marry if he chose|?'

Marriage,' said Chrysostom, is honourable in all. I have myself ventured to say distinctly, |Enjoy the married state with due moderation, and you shall be first in the kingdom of heaven, and enjoy all blessing.| But you would not disparage celibacy for such as feel themselves called to it?'

No,' said Vigilantius; but when I consider the vile custom of living with agapetæ, with which even imperial laws have tried to grapple in vain, it is clear to me that the enforcement on the many of an ideal possible only for the few, will be in the future, as it has been in the past, a source of immense demoralisation and a curse to the whole Church of God.'

Was this the only ground of Jerome's wrath?'

No,' said Vigilantius. I have ventured to raise my voice against what seem to me to be trivialities and superstitions; and I have held this to be all the more incumbent on me, because herein I oppose the current tendencies.'

Is it true that you have denounced fasting?'

No; I have only said that it is nowhere enjoined as a Christian duty; that it cannot be intrinsically pleasing to God as an end, but only as a means; and that for most temperaments it makes the Christian life not more easy, but more difficult.'

Here Philip ventured to interpose a question. 'Bishop,' he said, may I ask the Presbyter what he would say to the words,

|But the days shall come when the Bridegroom shall be taken from them. Then shall they fast, in those days|?'

I could reply,' said Vigilantius, but it will be more respectful if I leave the answer with the Patriarch.'

That text does not apply, Philip,' said Chrysostom. 'These are in no sense the days when the Bridegroom is taken from us. He is with us always, even to the end of the world; and much more with us than He could be by His bodily presence. My views about fasting have changed greatly since the days when I destroyed my health by it for ever.'

As to fasting,' said Vigilantius, 'Jerome, in his too famous letter to Eustochium, shows how absolutely powerless it was to deliver him even from the temptations which he most hated. But one of the truest saints I ever knew told me that fasting made him irritable and ill-tempered; that it robbed him of command over his acts, feelings, and expressions; that it makes his tongue, lips, and brain no longer in his power; that it deprives him in many ways of all self-command, makes him use the wrong word for the right, makes him seem out of temper when he is not, and makes him smile or laugh when he ought to be serious. Worse than all, he said that when thoughts present themselves to his mind in fasting, he feels wholly unable to throw them off any more than if he were some dead thing, and that thus they make an impression on him which he is unable to resist. So far from making his prayers more fervent, he finds that fasting hinders him from fixing his mind upon them. From sheer languor and listlessness it tempts him to sloth; and, what is worst of all, he says that even moderate fasting is so undeniably a means of temptation as to expose him to thoughts from which he would habitually turn with shame and abhorrence. Yet he persists in fasting, because he says that it is enjoined by God. Surely this is a fatal error? We are to fly from temptation, not seek it; and God would never have enjoined that which is for most men a source of greater moral difficulties.'

The right fasting,' said Chrysostom, is habitual moderation, and abstinence from evil. My predecessor, Gregory of Nazianzus, once, most wisely, kept his Lent by silence, because he felt himself too much tempted to hasty words. And in that beautiful |Shepherd,| by Hermas, which I gave to you boys the other day, Philip -- you remember what the good Shepherd says to Hermas?'

Yes, sir,' said Philip. He tells Hermas that the true and acceptable fast is the forgiveness of injuries, and the advance in godliness.'

That is my view,' said Vigilantius; and even if I be wrong, I hardly think,' he added, laughing, 'that what I have said justifies Jerome in his remark that I wish to reduce men to the condition of swine, or that I call abstinence a heresy, or that my object is to enrich my drinking-shops! I need hardly say that I have none; but that matters nothing to such controversialists.'

My son,' said Chrysostom, do not let these assaults irritate you. There never yet was a good man whom some did not call Beelzebub, as they called our Master. Forget them.'

When I need comfort,' said Vigilantius -- 'and I often do -- I think of Him Whom men called a |

gluttonous man and a winebibber,| of Whom they said that He was a Samaritan, and had a devil. Jerome's writings will live, and I shall be handed down, it may be, to after-ages as a name of scorn. What matters it? God is the judge; not man.'

But you must also forgive your slanderer.'

I forgive him,' said the Presbyter, with all my heart. Jerome, much as he has wronged me, is sincere. The Church owes him much service, if some wrongs. I shall not answer him. I shall not defend myself. I trust my cause to Him that judgeth righteously. I shall retire, till my life ends, to the quiet duties of my office and my home. I kneel for your blessing, Patriarch, and thank you for your kindness to one whom the Church hates.'

Farewell, Vigilantius! May God be with you!' said Chrysostom, and over the head of the kneeling presbyter he pronounced his blessing. 'If you are dear to Christ it will matter very little that you are hated by some who profess to be the sole true representatives of His Church.'

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