Stilicho’s Son – Episode 16

Copyright © 2015 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
Historical fiction

When a man hears of another who sleeps on stone, he should beat himself with lead,” announced Celestius loudly. “When a man’s vowed celibacy, the greater man should castrate himself. When one man eats only bread and water, the greater man should eat porridge. How many ways are there to show devotion to God and achieve glory not just for ourselves but for him?” 

Everyone turned to Celestius, who seemed to think we were speaking of monks.

Proba called for more wine and then diverted the conversation to Paulinus, “We should thank our new bishop for what he’s done for Italy.”

“I’m merely an imitator. Saint Martin did much more for Gaul,” Paulinus said with self-deprecation. “I follow his holy example. The glory belongs to God.”

“Not all of us have heard your story,” said Proba, gesturing toward me.

Paulinus looked at me. “Would you like to hear of Saint Martin?”

“You knew him?”

“Before I tell you of him, let me tell you about my life in Rome. Otherwise, it will seem to you that what I was and what I became are the lives of two men, not one. I served as a lawyer and was granted the singular honor of serving Rome as Consul and then governor of Campania. I met Bishop Ambrose at Milan on one of my journeys home. You were still young when he passed into glory. Ambrose told me the story of your father’s first days after Theodosius died, when there was fear of civil war. Dividing the empire between Theodosius’s sons inflamed the jealousies of the armies and the Consistories. Ambrose supported your father’s claim to manage the imperial sons. So the empire passed peacefully from father to general and now to sons.”

“Not so easy as you make it sound, Your Grace,” I pointed out. “The East denied my father’s claim. He had to leave Arcadius to his eunuchs when he came West with Honorius. The eastern Consistory then declared my father an enemy. Do you also remember that? What sort of honor do they pay Theodosius when they discount his judgment of a man he raised from a mere infantryman to Master General of the empire and foster-father to his sons?”

“Yes, such things dishonor him. I’m not one to believe jealous men’s claims.”

He paused respectfully, then continued his story, “I spent some time in Spain where I met my wife. Our son died after only a few days. My brother was murdered, and I was accused of the terrible crime. It was an evil time. It was cold that fall. The wet season was ending there even as it began here, and the harvest was so good, we expected a double yield over the year before. As good as the wet summers are for the crops, they’re bad for my eyes, and I had another attack, the kind that inflames the membranes and makes me nearly blind.

“Martin’s reputation was already great then. When I saw him, I was surprised by his simplicity. No, not surprised, but pleased. I was pleased this great miracle-worker was so humble and kind. He said very little to me, but he touched my eyes and spoke to God, and the soreness stopped the moment his fingers touched my skin. It hasn’t returned since. When I was governor in Campania, I’d heard much of the shrine at Nola, and so I went there, confident that’s what God wanted. And now I’ve heard we have a mutual friend,” continued Paulinus, “Volusian of the Ceionii. His niece Melania and her husband have joined me at Nola. It’s a blessing to have such distinguished servants at my side.”

The men of Volusian’s family had been members of the Senate for hundreds of years, devoted to the gods and to Rome. Their women, however, were not. As in many senatorial families, the Ceionian women were well educated and well financed. Volusian’s fanatic niece was a married girl of twenty who lost two children and decided to devote the rest of her life to God, and since my mother was often sought as counsel, the girl confessed to her that she and her husband desired to give their lands to the needy and live in holy poverty. Naturally, the girl wasn’t supported by the Church or her family. Yet with a virtuousness as criminal as my father’s, my mother encouraged the ridiculous girl, and that act of charity nearly decimated the wealth of two distinguished clans and eroded what support my family still had among the senators.

Volusian’s aunt, the renowned elder Melania, for whom his fanatic niece was named, returned a portion of the True Cross to Rome from Palestine, and a great-cousin, Paula, had been a follower of Bishop Jerome, who preached such severe self-deprivation, that, following his lead, Paula’s daughter starved herself to death. Jerome was hounded out of the City, and despite her loss, Paula faithfully followed.

Unlike his famously-pious women, Volusian experienced the Mithraic baptism that had been performed for centuries, and still, he was a practical man. Though soaked with the blood of a sacrificial bull, he was nonetheless a catechumen. It was a safe compromise for as long as it lasted. He carefully avoided the baptism that would cleanse him of his past sins. Like many men, he would prolong that sacrament until age or infirmity would make him safely unable to commit new ones. Until then, he would keep attracting priests like a rich virgin attracts bachelors.

“I haven’t seen Volusian in a long time,” I told Paulinus. “I know of Melania’s decision. My mother encouraged her even when her parents didn’t. It wasn’t taken well by some of the Ceionii.”

Paulinus appeared surprised. “I find that hard to believe. I’ve heard nothing but satisfaction from both families. Even Volusian, whose devotion I sometimes question, is delighted with her choice.”

I decided then that Paulinus was a truly naive man, which wasn’t so unusual for a bishop, but certainly for a senator.

“When I served the empire, my life was joyless and uncertain. I think it’s the same for Volusian, maybe for every senator, every man. It’s easier for the poor to come to the Church, but it’s sometimes more important to bring eminent men into our community. Ours is a church of the world. We live in the world while waiting for the Heavenly Church to arrive. Men like Volusian can help us do that with his example and his wealth.”

“I’m sure you’re an excellent bishop,” I commented. Then I mentioned the letter I carried for him from Bishop Augustine and sent Gallus to get it. “It was in July that I met him,” I explained. “I already knew much about him from his own writing, but meeting him made that seem all so different. I admit I didn’t at first connect the ‘saintly brother’ he referred to with the eminent senator Volusian used to talk about. You sounded like two men, as you said, Your Grace, and I’ve had the pleasure now of meeting both.”

“There’s no one I share quite the same discussions with as that blessed man,” said Paulinus. “We were last discussing the day when we will be in Heaven and how we might be sure of God’s Grace in that matter.”

When Gallus returned, Paulinus took the letter respectfully, but he enthusiastically tore the seal and started reading to us:

“To Brother Paulinus and Sister Therasia, Most Beloved and Sincere Saints Worthy of Affection and Veneration, Fellow‑disciples with Himself under the Lord Jesus as Master, Augustine Sends Greetings in the Lord,

“I asked in a former letter your opinion as to the nature of the future life of the saints, and you have said with perfect truth, that before we meet the dissolution of this mortal body, we must die, in a gospel sense, by a voluntary departure, withdrawing ourselves, not by death, but by deliberate resolution, from the life of this world. This course is a simple one, for we ought so to live in this mortal life that we may be in some measure fitted for immortality. The whole question, however, which perplexes men like myself, is this: how we ought to live for the welfare of those who have not yet learned to truly live by dying—not in the dissolution of the body, but by turning themselves with a certain mental resolution away from the attractions of mere natural things.

“Your answer was that we should make their current state in this present life the point of our discussion. I add now that the finding and following of this life itself must come before our finding and possessing that toward which it leads. The cause of all my ignorance and embarrassment when we discussed this before was that I sought the interest of those who are citizens and subjects, not of Rome which is on earth, but of Jerusalem which is in Heaven. It was more agreeable to me to speak with you about what we shall be, rather than about what we now are.

“I know that with love we should seek the good of our neighbor, that he may rightly spend the present life so as to obtain life eternal. I know also that we ought to prefer spiritual to carnal, immutable to mutable things, and that all this a man is so much more or less able to do, according as he is more or less helped by the Grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord. But I do not know the reason why one or another is more or less helped or not helped by that Grace; this only I know, that God does this with perfect justice, and for reasons which to Himself are known as sufficient…”

The letter was long. He continued to read, but I’d stopped listening. I was looking at Gallus and thinking how much he must be enjoying this.

When Paulinus finished, he folded the letter neatly. “My dear Therasia will be delighted. We’d be even more blessed if only he weren’t an ocean away.” He handed the letter to Proba.

“Does he believe ‘perfect justice’ should be something no man understands?” Pelagius asked, not nearly so inspired as Paulinus.

They set to discussing the merits of the letter for some time.

In the middle of their excitement, I found myself unable to resist my curiosity, and I asked Paulinus to tell me about Ausonius. The room grew quiet. Everyone turned to me as if I’d made the gravest offense, but I persisted, “You were once his student.”

Paulinus glanced about at the faces of the dinner guests. As he greeted each one, they gazed away, but I didn’t look away, so his cheerless eyes settled on me. “My teacher, yes,” he said, nodding. “What would you like to know?”

“Did you ever share his philosophy?” 

He smiled gratefully, an affectionate memory in his eyes. He took some time to remember, and then he quoted,

I saw the frost on bent grass,
Heavy globes on cabbage leaves,
And my roses laughing at me,
And eastward was the morning star,
And dewdrops glistened white,
That soon must perish in the early sun.
The golden sun at morning sees her born,
And at evening finds her old.
Yet wise is she who has so soon to die,
And lives her life in some succeeding rose.
While the rose is new,
Pluck the rose, for life is as short for you.

The poem was Ausonius’s.

“He could take pleasure in the minuteness of things,” I commented admiringly. “He appreciated the beauty around him in a way few men do.”

“I met him when I was just beginning my law studies. He was already in his sixties, a statesman and poet. He had taught emperors, had been to war, had children and even grandchildren by then. He was like a god to me. How many days did we spend on his farm outside Rome or at the Forum or dinners of the Illustrious? We believed we could summon forth the divine Muses, that Apollo would strum his lyre beside us while we sang and drank. We believed ourselves blessed, and when we served Rome, we believed it was the most sacred of callings. I was still young when I left that life, when I came to appreciate the beauty of Christ over the things of this world. Is that what makes you curious, Tribune, that a man can suddenly see a truth to which another, older, wiser man remains blind? What did it mean in the end that he valued his comforts and mortal things? He died many years ago on his farm, loving only his roses and poetry.”

“And you. He loved you.”

There followed a long pause, and it seemed to me that, again, he appreciated what I offered. “I’ll tell you, Tribune, what I told him all those years ago, if my memory doesn’t fail me.” He took another moment before reciting his own poetry:

Not that they beggared be in mind, or brutes,
That they have chosen their dwelling place afar
In lonely places: but their eyes are turned
To the high stars, the very deep of Truth.
Freedom they seek, an emptiness apart
From worthless hopes: din of the marketplace,
And all the noisy crowding up of things,
And whatsoever wars on the divine,
At Christ’s command and for His love, they hate;
By faith and hope they follow after God,
And know their quest shall not be desperate,
If but the Present conquer not their souls
With hollow things: that which they see they spurn
That they may come at what they do not see,
Their senses kindled like a torch, that may
Blaze through the secrets of eternity.
The transient’s open, everlastingness
Denied our sight; yet still by hope we follow
The vision that our minds have seen, despising
The shows and forms of things, the loveliness
Soliciting for ill our mortal eyes.
The present’s nothing: but eternity
Abides for those on whom all truth, all good,
Hath shone, in one entire and perfect light.

These lovely translations from:
* Ausonius “On Newblown Roses” translated by Waddell, Helen. Mediaeval Latin Lyrics. Penguin Books. 1952.
** Paulinus of Nola “To Ausonius” translated by Waddell, Helen. Mediaeval Latin Lyrics. Penguin Books. 1952.