Friday, October 21, 2022

The Feast of St Hilarion the Abbot

St Hilarion was born in the last decade of the 3rd century to a pagan family, near Gaza in the Roman province of Palestine. He became a Christian when he was sent as a youth to study in Alexandria, which was of course not just a patriarchate, but one of the early Church’s major intellectual centers. Early on in his life as a Christian, he visited St Anthony in the desert, where he conceived a strong desire for solitude in the service of God. (The word “monk” derives ultimately from the Greek “monos – only, alone.”) He therefore left Anthony, who was frequently visited by people who wished him to heal or exorcise them; the continual search for solitude would form the pattern of much of the rest of Hilarion’s life.
Returning to his own country, he first gave away everything he had inherited from his parents, then withdrew into the desert at a place near the sea called Maiuma, and for many years, lived the same kind of harshly ascetic life as Anthony, conceding nothing more than the barest possible minimum to the necessities of the body. Being still a young man, he often felt the temptations of the flesh. On such occasions, he would intensify his fasting, and say to his body, “I will see to it, thou ass, that thou kick not, and feed thee with straw, rather than barley.”
The Temptation of St Hilarion, 1857 ca., by the French painter Octave Tassaert (1800-74). St Jerome describes something of the temptations to which Hilarion was subjected, in a similar vein to which St Athanasius describes those of St Anthony, and the artist here has been inspired by various depictions of those temptations. 
After twenty years of this life, he performed his first miracle, the healing of a woman from barrenness. This was followed by others, and in due course, disciples began to gather around him, and form small communities, much as was happening at the same time in Egypt under Anthony’s inspiration and example. As St Jerome writes, “the Lord Jesus had the older Anthony in Egypt, and the younger Hilarion in Palestine.” For this reason, the Roman liturgical tradition honors them both with the title of “abbot”; in the Byzantine Rite, he and Anthony are both called “the Great.”
When Anthony died in 356, Hilarion knew of it by inspiration. He had long been troubled by the constant flow of visitors coming to see and speak to him, and the prosperity (such as it was) of the monastic community that had effectively grown up around him. He therefore determined to abandon Maiuma and go to Egypt. There he first visited the place where Anthony had lived for so many years, and then took up a renewed ascetic life in another part of the desert. But “the poor ye shall always have with you”, and here too, Hilarion was prevailed upon to intercede with the Lord by his prayers, to end a drought, and to heal many sick and injured persons. He therefore withdrew once again, first to Sicily, and then, when his fame also followed him there, to Dalmatia (St Jerome’s native country), and finally to Cyprus, where he ended his days. St Epiphanius, bishop of the town of Salamis on that island, came to know him in his final years, and wrote a brief account of him which St Jerome used in writing his biography.
The Monastery of St Anthony in Egypt, which is located about 210 miles southeast of Cairo, and about 18 miles west of the Red Sea coast. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by LorisRomito, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Before the Tridentine liturgical reform, most churches of the Roman Rite kept October 21st as the feast of St Ursula and her companions, said to number 11,000, and to have been martyred by the Huns near Cologne in the 5th century. St Hilarion’s feast was kept in only a minority of places, but among them was the Papal court, whose liturgical tradition was codified by Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) at the beginning of the 13th century, forming the ancestor texts of the Tridentine books. The legend of St Ursula contains a story that she and her companions traveled to Rome, and the Pope resigned to join them in their travels, after which the cardinals expunged all of his acts. The silliness of this must have been evident to the learned men of the Roman curia, who might also have preferred the life of Hilarion as the work of one of their own, since Jerome had been the secretary to Pope St Damasus I. In a Roman breviary printed at Venice in 1481, we find Ss Ursula and Companions noted in the calendar, but in the proper of the Saints, there are no lessons for them, nor even a prayer for a commemoration, while Hilarion has three fairly long historical lessons which sum up what is written in St Jerome’s life.
Saints Gregory the Great and Jerome, 1495-1500 ca., by the Spanish painter Pedro Berruguete (1450 ca. - 1504.) In accordance with a long-standing artistic convention, Jerome is anachronistically dressed as a cardinal, since the secretary of the Pope would ordinarily have been a cardinal. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)  
In the Breviary of St Pius V, the virgin martyrs are kept only as a commemoration, a recognition of fact that the traditional account of their lives and martyrdom is full of impossibilities, and must be regarded as historically untrustworthy. St Hilarion, on the other hand, remains as a feast of simple rank, with two proper readings [1], though rather shorter than those of the earlier printed editions. This may seem to be a demotion, but it is not. The lessons retain the substance of what St Jerome reports about him, and are shortened to accommodate two new aspects of the Divine Office introduced by the Tridentine reform. One is that on a simple feast, at least one of the Matins readings must be taken from the Bible. The other is that the psalms of the nocturn are taken from the feria, where they were previously taken from the pertinent Common of Saints. The shortening of the lessons would therefore balance the lengthening of the psalmody. [2]
Although the post-Tridentine liturgical reform was certainly very conservative, Hilarion’s feast was not retained on the calendar merely in function of the Roman church’s habitual liturgical conservatism. The original calendar of the Breviary of St Pius V, issued in 1568, contains six abbots: three of the West, Benedict, his disciple Maurus, and the French Saint Giles, and three of the East, Anthony, Hilarion and Sabbas, the founder of the great lavra outside Jerusalem. Of these feasts, one of each part is a double feast (Anthony and Benedict), one a simple (Giles and Hilarion), and one a commemoration (Maurus, who shares his day with another Saint whose life was written by Jerome, St Paul the first hermit, and Sabbas.)
This returns to one of the most important themes of the post-Tridentine reform, its role as the Church’s liturgical answer to the emergence of Protestantism. The soi-disant reformers rejected as “corruptions” of the true Gospel any number of things that had very deep roots in the Church, roots that went far further back than what we now call the Middle Ages, to which they mostly attributed the supposed corruptions. Among them was monasticism in its manifold expressions, and it goes without saying that in lands where Protestantism prevailed, huge numbers of monastic foundations, many of them very old and important, were destroyed, and their property used to buy the compliance of the local nobility in the establishment of the new religion. The presence of three Western abbots and three Eastern ones on the calendar asserts that the monastic life is not a medieval corruption, but rather part of the common tradition shared by the churches of the East with those of the West.
The ruins of Fountains Abbey, a Cistercian house founded in 1132, 3 miles outside the English city of Ripon in North Yorkshire. Image from Wikimedia Commons by, CC BY SA 4.0. (I believe that the name “Downton Abbey” was made up by its Catholic creator, Julian Fellowes, in homage to Fountains Abbey, since the fictional estate is also located a few miles outside of Ripon. Many English houses and institutions still bear the names of the original owners dispossessed of them by the avarice and impiety of Henry VIII and his descendants.)
Likewise, the presence in the liturgy of a monastic life written by St Jerome, although the lessons of St Hilarion do not mention this fact. Jerome is the only Church Father to whom the reformers could appeal to justify their rejection of the so-called Deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament, although on this point, Jerome himself was not at all consistent. But Jerome was also very much in favor of many things to which the early Protestants were wholly opposed, including monasticism. If Jerome is to be taken as an authentic witness to the teachings of early Church on the matter of the Deuterocanonicals, why should he not also be taken as an authentic witness to the value of monasticism? This question cannot, of course, possibly be resolved without a universally recognized authority within the Church that has the right to judge on such matters.
[1] Before 1913, a simple feast could have either one or two proper readings, with the other two or one being taken from the Scripture of the day. This was changed by the reform of St Pius X, so that all simple feasts have only one proper reading.
[2] Before 1568, the psalms of Matins for the feast of St Hilarion would be taken from the common of a simple confessor, nine psalms, totaling 93 verses. In the Breviary of St Pius V, they are taken from the feria; this year, that would mean the twelve psalms of the ferial nocturn of Friday, which have 209 verses.

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