Prescriptions from the Doctors of the Church: Saint Hilary of Poitiers (c. 310—c. 368)

Saint Hilary is one of the thirty-six saints who are Doctors of the Church. The Doctors of the Church are renowned for their holiness and also for their important teachings. Using the doctor metaphor, we can say that in a sense each Doctor of the Church gives us a “prescription” for spiritual growth. Saint Hilary’s particular prescription for holiness can help us understand how to live in closer unity with the Trinity.

Born to pagan parents, Hilary had an excellent education steeped in classical Latin and Greek authors. When he studied philosophy, it didn’t satisfy his inquisitive mind. This search led him to Christianity, to which he converted and was baptized when he was about thirty years old. He was married and had at least one daughter. Though he was a layman, around the year 350 he was elected bishop of Poitiers by popular acclaim. He accepted it and was ordained.

Hilary is known as “the Athanasius of the West” because most of his life as a bishop was spent fighting Arianism. Hilary’s efforts helped the West steer clear of Arianism, though there were still some Arians there. Hilary preached tirelessly on the divinity of Christ. But a big problem was that the Roman emperor Constantius favored Arianism. When Hilary attended a church council in 356, his strong denunciation of Arianism angered the emperor so much that he threw Hilary into an exile that would last four years. During that time Hilary wrote an important treatise called On the Trinity, which clarified Catholic teaching on the Holy Trinity.  He also continued to confront the Arians. In 360 or 361 he was finally sent home and the people greeted him with great enthusiasm, including Saint Martin of Tours, one of Hilary’s good friends. Things began to calm down after the death of the emperor. Hilary went to Milan to debate its Arian bishop, Auxentius. Hilary’s calmness and clear teaching won the day and Auxentius had to concede defeat.

Hilary’s prescription: Live in union with the Holy Trinity.

When he was exiled to the East, Hilary decided to use his time well by writing a theological reflection on the Holy Trinity.   It is the first extant study of the Trinity in Latin. In many parts his study was written like a prayer. Hilary was clarifying doctrine not just for an academic purpose, but so that his readers would be able to live their lives in a closer union with the Trinity. In those days many errors were floating around about the Trinity and ordinary Christian people were very confused. Hilary’s writing gave them a clear insight into the Trinity and how that could help them grow in their spiritual life. The key concept was the equality and union of the three divine Persons in the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

This is a prescription that can help us today to live in a closer union with the Trinity. The unity and equality of the three Persons can foster in us a greater awareness of the divine indwelling in our soul. It is a teaching of the Church that when a person is in the state of grace (that is, not guilty of any unconfessed mortal sin) the holy Trinity dwells within their soul by grace. God is so close to us that he completely indwells us to the point where little by little we become more and more like the holy Trinity. In other words we become holy and can live in a very close union with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This bond with the indwelling Trinity can transform our life. Imagine how you would feel if you could see Jesus at your side all through the day. Imagine how that would transform your behavior. Even though we can’t see him with our eyes, Jesus really is living not just at our side but within our souls. That one thought would be able to transform our lives as we grasp more and more the great truth that Jesus dwells within us.

Some practical things to do:

  • We can easily fall into the habit of making the sign of the cross in a hurried, distracted way. Try to make the sign of the cross with attention and devotion as a way of honoring the indwelling Trinity.
  • Read the section on the Trinity that is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 232-297.
  • Think of the dignity of the human person who is indwelt by God, and see what a difference it can make in your relationships with other people.

Prayer (by Saint Hilary)

“Obtain, O Lord, that I may keep ever faithful to what I have professed in the creed of my regeneration, when I was baptized in the Father, in the Son and in the Holy Spirit. That I may worship you, our Father, and with you, your Son; that I may deserve your Holy Spirit, who proceeds from you through your Only Begotten Son… Amen” (On the Trinity, 12, 57).

Feast: January 13
Patron: Children with disabilities, lawyers, and the sick

Excerpt from On the Trinity:

[Jesus] has commanded us to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (see Mt 28:19), that is, in the confession of the Author, [the Father] of the Only-Begotten One [the Son] and of the Gift [the Holy Spirit]. The Author of all things is one alone, for one alone is God the Father, from whom all things proceed. And one alone is Our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom all things exist (see 1 Cor 8:6), and one alone is the Spirit (see Eph 4:4), a gift in all…. In nothing can be found to be lacking so great a fullness, in which the immensity in the Eternal One, the revelation in the Image, joy in the Gift, converge in the Father, in the Son and in the Holy Spirit” (On the Trinity, 2, 1).

God [the Father] knows not how to be anything other than love; he knows not how to be anyone other than the Father. Those who love are not envious and the one who is the Father is so in his totality. This name admits no compromise, as if God were father in some aspects and not in others (ibid., 9, 61).

Translation of above quotes as found in Benedict XVI’s General Audience Address October 10, 2007

By Sr Marianne Lorraine Trouvé, FSP

Image Credit: wikimedia commons

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