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

Prescriptions from the Doctors of the Church: Saint Basil the Great (c. 330–January 1, 379)

Saint Basil the Great 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 Basil’s particular prescription for holiness will help you create and keep a simple plan of holiness for your life.

Basil came from a family of saints. His parents are Saint Basil the Elder and Saint Emmelia of Caesarea. Four of their ten children also became saints—Basil, Macrina, Gregory of Nyssa, and Peter. Basil studied in Athens, where he became close friends with Saint Gregory Nazianzen. After this, Basil had a spiritual awakening that led him to focus on his interior life. He visited various monasteries and later established his own. He wrote a Rule for monks that became the foundation of monastic life in the East. His Rule influenced Saint Benedict who wrote the Rule that would influence the West.

Basil eventually left the monastery to become a hermit. However, Archbishop Eusebius of Caesarea soon summoned him to refute Arius’s teachings that Christ was not divine. Basil had much success in refuting Arianism and in 370 became a bishop himself. Basil also wrote important works that helped the Church articulate the dogma of the Trinity. Basil had a great influence on the Eastern liturgy, composing many prayers and hymns. As bishop, Basil was known for his tireless work for the sick and the poor, for whom he built many soup kitchens and a huge hospital. He was so beloved by Christians and non-Christians alike that upon his death, the entire city mourned.

Basil’s prescription: Have a balanced plan for your spiritual life.

Saint Basil’s rule for monks is essentially a very balanced plan for growing in the spiritual life. But if it’s for monks, what does that have to do with the lives of busy people today?

It doesn’t mean adopting his particular plan, also called a rule of life. The first responsibility each of us has is to faithfully fulfill the duties of our state in life. Most people are called to marriage, so their plan will have a lot to do with loving one’s spouse and children, while pursuing a career to support their family.

Basil’s rule is known for balance and moderations. He did away with any extreme ascetical practices (like excessive fasting or sleep deprivation). So any plan we develop for our own lives should also be balanced. Lay people can’t live as if they were monks. They can love their family in practical ways and be Christ for each other.

Write down your own personalized plan of life.

You can include some spiritual practices that you can take on. Sunday Mass should be a given, because it is an obligation for all Catholics. But could you attend Mass on another day too? Or put in some prayer time such as the rosary and reading the Bible? If you are a parent you can help your children to learn about and practice their faith.

Some practical things to do:

  • Write your own spiritual plan of life. For help with this consult the book Plan of Life by Fr. Roger Landry.
  • Don’t overwhelm yourself. It’s better to do a few things you can follow through on, rather than trying to do so many things you’ll give up.
  • Is there some area of life where you need better balance? For example, people often have trouble finding balance in regard to food. If you find yourself eating too much junk food, learn how to cook simple, healthful meals and don’t buy the junk food. Focus on the area that will make the most difference in your life.

Prayer

Saint Basil, you knew how to lead a balanced life centered on God. Pray for us as we too strive to give our whole lives to God day by day, practicing virtue and loving God and our neighbor day by day.

Feast: January 2 (with Saint Gregory Nazianzen)
Patron: Russia, monks, tailors

Selection from Saint Basil:

On Charity toward One’s Neighbor

We have already said that the law [of God] develops and maintains the powers existing in germ within us. And since we are directed to love our neighbor as ourselves, let us consider whether we have received from the Lord the power to fulfill this commandment also. Who does not know that man is a civilized and gregarious animal, neither savage nor a lover of solitude? Nothing, indeed, is so compatible with our nature as living in society and in dependence upon one another and as loving our own kind. Now, the Lord himself gave to us the seeds of these qualities in anticipation of his requiring in due time their fruits, for he says: “A new commandment I give you: that you love one another” (Jn 13:34). Moreover, wishing to animate our soul to the observance of this commandment, he did not require signs of wonders as the means of recognizing his disciples (although he gave the power of working these also in the Holy Spirit), but he says: “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). Further, he establishes so close a connection between the two great commandments that benefit conferred upon the neighbor is transferred to himself: “For I was hungry,” he says, “and you gave me to eat” (Mt 25:35). . . .

It is, accordingly, possible to keep the second commandment by observing the first, and by means of the second we are led back to the first. He who loves the Lord loves his neighbor in consequence. “If anyone love me,” said the Lord, “he will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:23); and again, he says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12). On the other hand, he who loves his neighbor fulfills the love he owes to God, for he accepts this favor as shown to himself. Wherefore Moses, that faithful servant of God, manifested such great love for his brethren as to wish his name to be struck off the book of God in which it was inscribed, if the sin of his people were not pardoned (see Ex 32:32). Paul, also, desiring to be, like Christ, an exchange for the salvation of all, dared to pray that he might be an anathema from Christ for the sake of his brethren who were his kinsmen according to the flesh (see Rom 9:3).Yet, at the same time he knew that it was impossible for him to be estranged from God through his having rejected his favor for love of him and for the sake of that great commandment; moreover, he knew that he would receive in return much more than he gave.

From the Long Rules for monks

By Sr Marianne Lorraine Trouvé, FSP

St Basil, On the Long Rules part I, Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1950, page 25-26.

Prescriptions from the Doctors of the Church: Saint Alphonsus (September 27, 1696–August 1, 1787)

Saint Alphonsus 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 Alphonsus’s particular prescription for holiness can lead us to a greater love for Jesus.

Alphonsus was born near Naples, Italy. His wealthy family provided him with the finest education and by age sixteen he had earned doctorates in both civil and canon law. Two years later, he joined the Confraternity of Our Lady of Mercy and cared for the sick at the hospital for “incurables.” At the same time, he began to practice law. However, after several years, Alphonsus left the bar, disgusted by the unscrupulous machinations of the court system.

Alphonsus entered the seminary and was ordained in 1726. He soon became known for his sermons, which were eloquent and persuasive. His great compassion led him to evangelize everyone, especially the poor, with patience and love. Due to his untiring efforts, groups in which people would pray and reflect on the Word of God began to arise throughout the city. In 1732, Alphonsus founded the Redemptorists, dedicated to evangelizing the materially and spiritually poor the world over. He became an expert in moral theology and was widely sought after as a compassionate confessor. Despite resisting the honor, Alphonsus was made a bishop when he was sixty-six years old. He wrote over one hundred books, including classics such as The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ and The Glories of Mary. Known for his strong devotion to Mary, Alphonsus died at the age of ninety-one, just as the Angelus bells tolled.

Alphonsus’ prescription:  Live with a penitent heart. Go to confession on a regular basis.

Being an expert in moral theology, Alphonsus did his best to help people to have a spirit of contrition for their sins. He knew that people often sinned from weakness and did not realize the seriousness of their sins. His remedy was to move people to have a deeper love for Jesus, a penitent heart that would help them to want to invite Jesus more and more into their lives. Alphonsus focused on love more than on sin itself. He would preach about the sufferings of Jesus, which he endured out of love for each one of us. This emphasis on love had the power to help people come to a deeper conversion in their lives. Alphonsus moved many hearts when he preached and gave parish missions. It was because Alphonsus himself had a penitent heart that he was able to move people so deeply.

Some practical things to do:

  • Go to confession. If it has been a while since you’ve received this sacrament, prepare for it by focusing on Jesus’ love for you. He is ready to pour out his love and mercy on you and forgive all your sins through the ministry of the Church. After your initial confession put it on your schedule to go regularly. A monthly confession is a good ideal to strive for.
  • Do you have some resentment in your heart against any particular person? If so, pray for the grace to give up the bitterness and reconcile with that person if possible. It may not be possible to have an actual reconciliation. In that case simply forgive in your heart.
  • Practice gratitude. Praise God for the many gifts he has brought into your life. You may wish to pray with the Psalms, which are full of praise prayers.

Prayer

Saint Alphonsus Liguori, pray for me that I might live with a penitent heart just as you did. Inspire me with thoughts and sentiments of love for God and for my neighbor. Help me to see Jesus in each person whom I meet. Amen.

Feast: August 1
Patron: Moral theologians, confessors, and those suffering from arthritis

Excerpt from the writings of Saint Alphonsus:

The Scriptures are clear enough in pointing out how necessary it is to pray, if we would be saved. “We ought always to pray, and not to faint” (Lk 18:1). “Watch and pray, that you enter not into temptation” (Mt 26:41). “Ask, and it shall be given you” (Mt 7:7). The words “we ought,” pray,” “ask,” according to the general consent of theologians, impose the precept, and denote the necessity of prayer. . . .

 Without the assistance of God’s grace we can do no good thing: “Without Me, you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). Saint Augustine remarks on this passage, that our Lord did not say, “Without Me, you can complete nothing,” but “without Me, you can do nothing;” giving us to understand that without grace we cannot even begin to do a good thing. Even more, Saint Paul writes, that of ourselves we cannot even have the wish to do good. “Not that we are sufficient to think anything of ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God” (2 Cor 3:5). If we cannot even think a good thing, much less can we wish it.

The same thing is taught in many other passages of Scripture: “God works all in all. I will cause you to walk in my commandments, and to keep my judgments, and do them.” (Ezek 37:27). So, as Saint Leo I says, “Man does no good thing, except that which God, by his grace, enables him to do.”. . .  

From these two premises, on the one hand, that we can do nothing without the assistance of grace; and on the other, that this assistance is only given ordinarily by God to the person who prays, who does not see that the consequence follows, that prayer is absolutely necessary to us for salvation? And although the first graces that come to us without any cooperation on our part, such as the call to faith or to penance, are, as Saint Augustine says, granted by God even to those who do not pray; yet the Saint considers it certain that the other graces, and especially the grace of perseverance, are not granted except in answer to prayer: “God gives us some things, as the beginning of faith, even when we do not pray. Other things, such as perseverance, he has only provided for those who pray.”

Hence it is that the generality of theologians, following Saint Basil, Saint Chrysostom, Clement of Alexandria, Saint Augustine, and other Fathers, teach that prayer is necessary to adults, not only because of the obligation of the precept (as they say), but because it is necessary as a means of salvation. That is to say, in the ordinary course of Providence, it is impossible that a Christian should be saved without recommending himself to God, and asking for the graces necessary to salvation. Saint Thomas teaches the same: “After Baptism, continual prayer is necessary to man, in order that he may enter Heaven; for though by Baptism our sins are remitted, there still remains concupiscence to assail us from within, and the world and the devil to assail us from without” (Part 3, q. 39, a. 5).

From The Great Means of Prayer, chapter 1, “The Necessity of Prayer.”

By Sr Marianne Lorraine Trouvé, FSP