While we were celebrating the Infancy of our divine Lord, Felix of Nola rejoiced our hearts with the sight of his sanctity at once so triumphant and yet so humble, revealing under gentlest aspects the potency of our Emmanuel. Illumined by the glow of Pentecostal fires, Paulinus now comes before us, from that very same town of Nola, by his glory doing honor to him of whom he was the happy conquest. For indeed the sublime path whereby he was at length to gain the heavenly mountain tops, was not at the first opened before him; and Felix it was who, at a somewhat tardy hour, cast into his soul the first seeds of salvation.
Paulinus, heir to an immense fortune, and at twenty-five years of age already Prefect of Rome, Senator and Consul, was far from supposing that there could be a career more honorable for himself or more profitable to the world, than that in which he was thus engaged by the traditions of his illustrious family. Verily, to the eyes of worldly men, no lot in life could be conceived better cast, surrounded as he was by noble connections, buoyed up by the well deserved esteem of great and little, and finding repose in the culture of letters which had already, from his earliest youth, rendered him the very pride of brilliant Aquitaine, where at Bordeaux he first saw the light. Alas! in our days how many who deserve it not are set up as models of a laborious and useful life!
The day came, however, when lo! these worldly careers which heretofore seemed so brimful of work and prospect, now offered to Paulinus but the spectacle of men “tossed to and fro in the midst of days of emptiness, and having for their life’s toil naught but the weaving of the spider-web of vain works!” What then had happened? It was this: once, when in the Campania, subject to his government, Paulinus happened to come to the hallowed spot where lay the tomb of Saint Felix, that humble priest heretofore proscribed by this very Rome, whose power was symbolized by the terrible fasces borne at that moment in front of him,—suddenly floods of new light inundated his soul; Rome and her power became dark as night before this apparition “of the grand rights of the awful God.” With his whole heart, this scion of many an ancient race that had brought the world to subjection, now pledges his faith to God; Christ revealing himself in the light of Felix has won his love. He has long enough sought and run in vain; at last has he found that nought is of greater worth than to believe in Jesus Christ.
In the uprightness of his lofty soul, he will go to the extreme consequences of this new principle which has now taken the place of every other. Jesus hath said: “If thou wilt be perfect, go, sell what thou hast and give to the poor: and then come and follow Me.” Paulinus hesitates not: not for a moment will he neglect what is best to prefer what is least; up to this, perfect in his worldly career, could he now endure not to be so for his God? Up then, and doing! no longer his, these vast possessions, styled even kingdoms; the various nations of the empire before which were displayed his incalculable riches are astounded at this new commerce: Paulinus sells all, in order to purchase the cross, and therewith, to follow his God. For he is well aware that the abandonment of earthly goods is but entering on the lists, and not the race itself; the athlete does not become victor by the mere fact of casting off his garments; but he strips himself, solely with the view of beginning combat; nor has the swimmer already breasted the flood because he stands prepared and stripped on the water’s brink.
In holy impetuosity, Paulinus has rather cut than unknotted the cable that moored his bark to land. Christ is his steersman: and amidst the glad applause of his noble wife Therasia (henceforth to be but his sister and imitatrix), he floats to the secure port of the monastic life, thinking only of saving his soul. One thought alone holds him in suspense: shall he retire to Jerusalem where so many memories seem to invite a disciple of Christ? Then Jerome, whom he has consulted, thus answers with all the frankness of strong friendship: “For clerks, towns; for monks, solitude. Utter folly verily would it be to quit the world in order to live in the midst of a crowd greater than before. If you wish to be what you are called, that is to say, a ‘Monk,’ that is to say ‘alone,’ what are you doing in towns, which surely are not the habitation for ‘Solitaries’ but for the multitude? Each kind of life has its models. Ours are a Paul and an Anthony, a Hilarion and a Macarius; our guides are Elias, Eliseus, and all those sons of the prophets who dwelt in country places and in solitudes, pitching their tents near Jordan’s banks.”
Paulinus followed the counsels of the solitary of Bethlehem. Preferring his title of Monk to the abiding even in the holy city, and seeking the “small field” of which Jerome had spoken, he chose a spot in the territory of Nola, outside the town, near to the glorious tomb where light had beamed upon him. Until his dying day, Felix will take place here below, of home, of honors, of fortune, of relatives. In his sanctuary, as in a downy nest, will he grow, changing, by virtue of the divine seed of the Word within him, his terrestrial form, and receiving in his new being celestial wings, the one object of his ambition, which may lift him up towards God. The world may no longer count on him, either to enhance her feasts or be the recipient of her appointments: absorbed in voluntary penance and humiliation, the former consul is nothing henceforth but the last of the servants of Christ, and the guardian of a tomb.
Great was the joy of the saints in heaven and of holy men on earth, at the news of such a spectacle of total renunciation given to the world. No less great was the indignant astonishment of scandalized politicians, of the prudent according to this world, of a host of men to whom the Gospel is tolerable only when its maxims chance not to jar with the shortsighted prejudices of their wisdom. “What will the great say?” wrote Saint Ambrose. “The scion of such a family, of such a race, one so gifted, so eloquent, to quit the senate! to cut off the succession of such an ancestral line! No, that is out of the question; quite intolerable! Ah! look at these very men, when their own whims are at stake; they then see nothing extraordinary in inflicting on themselves transformations the most ridiculous; but if a Christian anxious about perfection dares to change his costume, oh! he is cried down at once with indignation!”
Paulinus, unmoved, brooked all these attacks, and knew well that his example was not likely to be followed by many. He was aware how God manifests in the few, what might become profitable to the many, if they would but accept the same, and thus is divine Providence justified. Even as the traveler turns not aside from his road by reason of a few barking dogs, so those who enter on the narrow path of the Lord should despise the silly remarks of the worldly and profane; rejoicing the rather in that they are displeasing to those to whom even God is likewise displeasing. Scripture sufficeth to show us what to think of them and of ourselves! So far his own words.
Resolute in his silence and in his determination to leave the dead to bury their dead, the heart of our saint deemed it needful to make one exception, urged by delicacy of feeling in favor of his former master, Ausonius. Paulinus had ever remained the favorite pupil of this famous rhetorician, in whose school at that period even emperors were formed. Ausonius had always been to him as a friend and a father; and the old poet’s soul, transpierced with grief at the departure of this son of his love, was now pouring itself out in wails and complaints, enough to rend the heart of Paulinus. Paulinus wished to try to elevate this soul. so dear to him. above the senseless form of that mold. those mythological vanities in which his life was still cast/ He therefore chose to justify his recent step in a poem. the exquisite gracefulness of which was calculated to delight Ausonius and to win him over. perchance to taste the depth of that Christian sense whereby his former pupil was inspired with a poetry so new to a time-honored disciple of Apollo and the Muses.
He thus addresses him: “Father, wherefore art thou fain to win me back to the worship of the Muses? Another power now pervades my soul, a God greater far than old Apollo. The true, the good have I found at the very source of Goodness and Truth,—even in God, beheld in his Christ. Exchanging his Divinity for our human nature in a sublime commerce, at once Man and God, he, the master of virtues, transforms our being and replaces former pleasures by delights wholly chaste. By means of faith in a future life, he subdues within us the vain agitations of present life. Even these riches which we seem to contemn, he does not reject as either impure or worthless; but, merely teaching us how to love them in a better way, he leads us to commit them to the care of God, who, in return, promises yet more. Call not stupid him who devotes himself to a merchandise the most advantageous and by far the most secure. And what of filial piety? can it be wanting in a Christian? could I possibly fail to pay it unto thee, O father, unto whom I owe everything, science, honors, renown; unto thee, who by thy care hast prepared me for Christ, by cultivating his gifts? Yea, verily, Christ is about to reward thee for this fruit nurtured by thy sap; reject not this his praise of thee, disown not the waters that have welled out from thy fountain. Thy tenderness is hurt at my withdrawing to a distance; but prithee, forgive one whom thou lovest, if he do but that which is expedient. I have vowed my heart to God, I have believed in Christ; on the faith of the divine counsels, I have with the goods of time bought an eternal recompense. Father, I cannot believe that thou shouldst tax me with folly for this. Such errors as these inspire me with no repentance, I rather rejoice to be held a fool by those who follow another path; it suffices me that the eternal King accounts me wise. All that is of man is short, frail, perishable, and (without Christ) but dust and shadow; whether he approve or condemn, the judgment is worth no more than the judge; he dieth, and his judgment fadeth away with himself. When at the supreme moment all is laid bare, tardy then will lamentation be, and of small avail the excuse of him who till then has cringed before the vain out cries of men’s tongues, and has not dreaded the wrathful vengeance of the divine Judge. For my part, I believe; and fear is my goad; I would not that the last day catch me asleep in darkness, or so laden as that I may not fly up on lightest wing to meet my King in mid-heaven. Wherefore, cutting short all hesitation, all ties, all pleasures of earth, I would fain be ready for any event. Alive still, I have nevertheless done with life’s cares; I have confided to God my goods for ages to come, in order to be able, with tranquil heart, to await grim death. If thou approve, congratulate a friend rich in high hope; if not, suffer that I look to Jesus Christ alone for approbation.
Nothing better than such language as this could give an idea of what our fathers were of the olden time, with their simplicity replete at once with grace and force, and that logic of faith which, resting on the word of God, had need of nothing else for reaching heroism at one bound. Indeed one may ask where else could be found anything capable of deducing itself more naturally than the resolutions disclosed to us by Paulinus? What sound practical sense, in all the true and grand signification of the word does, this staunch Roman maintain in his holiness! Here is easily recognized Saint Augustine’s amiable correspondent, who, having been interrogated by the great Doctor on his opinion touching certain doubtful points of the future life, thus replied so charmingly: “Thou dost condescend to ask my opinion regarding the occupation of the Blessed after the resurrection of the flesh. But if thou didst only know how I disquiet myself far more about this present life, about what I am in it, about what I can do in it! Be thou rather my master and my physician; teach me to do the Will of God, to walk in thy footsteps, following Christ; would that, first of all, I may come to die, like thee, this evangelical death which precedes and secures the other.”
Our Saint, however, who was bent on nothing but imitating and learning, soon appeared as one of the most brilliant luminaries of Holy Church. The humble retreat where he thought to hide himself, became the rendezvous of illustrious patricians and their ladies, the center of attraction for all the choicest souls of that century. From places the most distant and the widest apart, an Ambrose, an Augustine, a Jerome, a Martin, together with their disciples, raised their voice in one concert of praise,—we were going to say unanimous, were it not that for the greater sanctification of his servant, God permitted one painful exception at the commencement. Certain members of the Roman clergy, moved (in a sense other than was fitting) by the marks of veneration lavished on this monk, had striven, and not without success, to circumvent, under specious pretexts, the supreme Pontiff himself; and Pope Siricius therefore was brought so far as to be almost on the point of separating Paulinus from his communion. But the meekness and longanimity of the servant of God were not slow in bringing Siricius back to himself, from the error into which his surroundings had led him: envy at last had to turn its teeth elsewhere.
Space does not permit us to descant longer on this his noble career. We must allow the Nocturn Lesson, short as it is, to complete these our pages. In conclusion, let us recollect that the Liturgy is greatly indebted to Saint Paulinus for the precious details contained in his letters and poems, chiefly as regards Christian architecture and the symbolism of its various parts, the cultus of images, the honor due to saints and to their sacred relics. A tradition, but one which unfortunately is not sufficiently established to exclude all doubt, attributes to him the first liturgical use of bells. It is said that by enlarging the dimensions of the ancient small bell, he transformed it into this noble instrument so well fitted to become the voice of the Church herself, and to which Campania and Nola have therefore bequeathed their names i.e. nolœ campanœ, both Latin designations of church bells.
Paulinus Nolæ episcopus, eruditus studiis humanitatis, doctus etiam divinis litteris, multa eleganter et ornate scripsit versibus et soluta oratione. Hujus viri charitas præcipue celebratur, quod vastata a Gothis Campania, omnem facultatem, ne relictis quidem sibi rebus ad vitam necessariis, in alendos pauperes et captivos redimendos contulerit. Quo tempore, ut scribit sanctus Augustinus, ex opulentissimo divite voluntate pauperrimus, et copiosissime sanctus, captus a barbaris sic Deum precabatur: Domine, ne excrucier propter aurum et argentum: ubi enim sint omnia mea, tu scis. Postea vero Wandalis easdem regiones infestantibus, cum ab eo posceret vidua ut filium sibi redimeret, consumptis rebus omnibus in officio pietatis, seipsum pro illo in servitutem tradidit.
Paulinus, Bishop of Nola, instructed in human letters and the holy Scriptures, composed, both in verse and prose, many elegant and remarkable works. The charity of this man was particularly celebrated: for when Campania was being ravaged by the Goths, he devoted all his substance to the feeding of the poor and the redeeming of captives, not reserving unto himself even the necessaries of life. At which time, as Saint Augustine writes, having from the greatest opulency, voluntarily come down to the utmost exigency, yet with all, most rich in sanctity, being now taken captive by the barbarians, he made this prayer to God: “Lord, suffer me not to be put to the torture for the sake of gold and silver; for verily, where all my riches are, thou well knowest.” Afterwards, when the Vandals were infesting these shores, he, being entreated by a widow to redeem her son, all his effects now being consumed in works of charity, delivered himself up to slavery in place of the young man.
Igitur in Africam profectus, domini sui, qui regis erat gener, hortum colendum suscepit. Verum cum prophetiæ dono regis mortem ipsi domino prædixisset, et rex in somnis Paulinum sedentem medium inter duos judices, sibique de manibus eripientem flagellum vidisset: tantus vir cognitus honorificentissime dimissus est, condonatis ei omnibus suis civibus, qui captivi fuerant. Nolam reversus ad episcopale officium, cum verbo et exemplo omnes ad pietatem christianam inflammaret, laterum dolore correptus est; mox cubiculum, in quo jacebat, terræmotu contremuit, ac paulo post animam Deo reddidit.
Wherefore, being now taken into Africa, he received the charge of cultivating the garden of his master, who was son-in-law of the king. At length, by the gift of prophecy, having foretold to his master the death of the king, and the king himself having likewise in a dream beheld Paulinus, seated in the midst of two other judges, wrest from his hands the scourge which he held; how great a man he was, being thus made known, he was honorably dismissed, and was moreover granted the liberation of all his fellow citizens who had been led away captives with him. Being now returned to Nola and to his episcopal functions, by word and example he more and more inflamed all unto Christian piety, until at last, being seized by a pain in his side, presently the chamber wherein he lay was shaken by an earthquake, and shortly afterwards, he rendered up his soul unto God.
Thy goods are now all restored unto thee, O thou who didst believe the word of the Lord! At the very time, so many others vainly sought to retain their treasure, thine was already in safety! Ah! what lamentations reached thine ears amidst this frightful crumbling down of that mighty empire, of which thou hadst been so noble and powerful a magistrate! Thy colleagues in honor, as well as thine equals in wealth, were guilty, it is true, of no fault in not imitating thy voluntary renunciation; but when the terrific hour came wherein nobility was but a more sure title to greater woe, wherein riches brought naught to their possessors save despair and torture,—to how many, then, even in a worldly sense, did thy prudence appear the best! Thou hadst said to thyself that the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and that the violent only bear it away? but could that violence thou hadst imposed on thyself, by breaking for the sake of better bonds, thy fetters here below, be compared to that which more than one of thy former detractors had himself now to endure, and that without profit either for this life or the next? Thus does it often happen, even beyond those sad periods in which the universe seems delivered up to wreck and ruin. The privations demanded by God of those that are His, fall short of the sufferings frequently imposed by the world on its votaries.
Ill indeed did it beseem such men as an Albinus or a Symmachus to stigmatize as cowardly desertion thy retiring into solitude at Christ’s call, seeing that they themselves drew down upon Rome this deluge of wrath, by their obstinate attachment to expiring paganism! If the empire could have been saved, it would have been so by thine imitators such as Pammachius, Aper, and others, who, few as they were, made thee cry out: “O Rome, naught wouldst thou have to fear of the threats uttered against thee in the Apocalypse, if all thy senators understood as these do, the duty of their charge.” Verily, what a counterpoise would have been presented to divine vengeance if that spectacle had been less rare, such as thou hast described it, in one of thy finest poems! It was the morrow of the dread invasion of Radagasius; ancient Rome now expiring was invoking more vainly than ever her senseless gods; but from Nola there arose to the Most High the voice of praise, powerful as the living psaltery, by whose harmonious notes its accents were borne to heaven. Noble indeed was this instrument, the ten strings of which were named, on the one side, Æmilius, Paulinus, Apronianus, Penianus, Asterius; on the other, Albina, Therasia, Avita, Melania, Eunomia: all clear and bright, either following in the footsteps of Cecilia and Valerian, or vowed to God from infancy; all alike in virtue, though unlike in sex, and forming but one choir, at the tomb of Felix, singing sacred hymns. In their suite, and in union with them, was a numerous train of illustrious persons and virgins, all chanting alike to the same Lord, appeasing his ire against a cursed land, and at least retarding his wrathful blow. Ten just men could have saved Sodom; but more than ten were needed for this Babylon drunk with the blood of martyrs, for this mother of the fornications and the abominations of the earth. Nonetheless have ye gained your reward, and even beyond yourselves, your labor has not been fruitless. Faith can never be sterile; since the days of Abraham, faith has ever been the great element of fecundity for the whole world. If Rome’s degenerate sons refused to understand, in the fourth century, the lesson that was being read to them by the heirs of the noblest families of the empire, if they could not or would not see where alone salvation was to be found, by your faith, O illustrious companions of Paulinus, there is born unto Heaven a new race, doing honor to a new Rome, and far outdoing in mighty deeds the old patricians! Like thee, O Paulinus, “contemplating in light divine the primitive ages and then those that followed, we cannot but admire the depth of the Creator’s work, and this mysterious lineage prepared for the Romans of by-gone days during the night of ages.”
Glory then to thee, who didst not turn a deaf ear to the Gospel; and strong in faith, didst conquer the prince of this world. Restore to this age of ours, so like thine own in its utter ruin, that frank love of truth, that simplicity of faith, which in the fourth and fifth centuries saved the baptized world from shipwreck. There is not less light now than there was then; nay, rather, light has been increased by reason of the incessant labors of the Doctors of the Church and the further definitions of Pontiffs. The thing is, that truth, though always equally powerful to the saving of man, does not deliver any, save those who live by faith; and hence it is that dogma, though more and more fully defined, does not in these our days, raise men’s minds to a higher standard. The point is, dogma must not remain a dead letter; Jesus Christ did not transmit it to his Church in the form of a speculative theory; nor when the Church expounds it to her children does she aim merely at charming the ears of her auditors, by beauty of style or amplitude of development. God’s word is a seed; it is cast on the ground, not to be hidden there, but to germinate there, to grow up there, to tower above all other growths there, because its right as well as its might is to appropriate to itself the whole sap of the earth that has received it; so far even as to transform this same soil itself, so that it may yield all that God expects thereof. At least, O Paulinus, may this divine seed produce its full effect in all those who give thee their admiration and offer thee their prayers! Without diminishing truths of scripture, without pretending to interpret according to the whims of earthly fancies, the words of our Lord, thou didst take to the letter everything that should be so taken; and therefore art thou now a saint. Oh! may every word of God be thus also uncompromisingly accepted by us; may each word be the ruling principle of our thoughts and of our actions.
On this day which ushers in the Vigil of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, we cannot but recall thine own tender devotion to the “Friend of the Bridegroom.” The place thou holdest on the cycle makes thee the herald of God’s precursor on earth. Prepare then our souls to hail the apparition of this brilliant star; may we, like thee, be warmed by his rays so as to celebrate with enthusiasm the great things thou hast already sung of him.