January 23, 2020

A Miracle of Saint Paulinus of Nola (St. Gregory the Dialogist)

By St. Gregory the Dialogist

(Dialogues, Bk. 3, Ch. 1)

Being careful to entreat of such fathers as lived not long since, I passed over the worthy acts of those that were in former times, so that I had almost forgot the miracle of Paulinus, Bishop of Nola, who both for time was more ancient, and for virtue more notable, than many of those which I have spoken of. Wherefore I will now speak of him, but as briefly as I can. For as the life and actions of good men are soonest known to such as be like them, so the famous name of venerable Paulinus became known to my holy elders, and his admirable fact served for their instruction: who, for their gravity and old years, are as well to be credited, as if that which they reported they had seen with their own eyes.

When as in the time of the cruel Vandals, that part of Italy which is called Campania was overrun and sacked, and many were from thence carried captive into Africa, then the servant of God, Paulinus, bestowed all the wealth of his Bishopric upon prisoners and poor people. And not having now anything more left, a certain widow came unto him, lamenting how her son was taken prisoner by one that was son-in-law to the king of the Vandals, and by him carried away to be his slave. Therefore she besought him, that he would vouchsafe to help her with a ransom for the redeeming of her son. But the man of God, seeking what he had to give the poor woman, found nothing left but himself alone, and therefore he answered her in this manner: "Good woman, nothing have I to help you but myself, and therefore take me, and in God's name say that I am your servant, and see whether he will receive me for his slave, and so set your son at liberty." When she heard these words from the mouth of so notable a man, she took them rather for a mock than coming from true compassion. But as he was an eloquent man, and passing well learned in humanity, so did he quickly persuade the doubtful woman to give credit to his words, and not to be afraid to offer a Bishop for the ransom of her son.

Whereupon away they traveled both into Africa. And when the king's son-in-law came abroad, the widow put up her petition concerning her son, humbly beseeching him that he would vouchsafe to set him now at liberty, and bestow him upon his mother. But the barbarous man, swelling with pride and puffed up with the joy of transitory prosperity, refused not only to do it, but disdained also to give any ear to her petition. This way therefore taking no success, the desolate widow tried the next, and said unto him: "Behold, I give you here this man instead of him, only take compassion on me, and restore to me my only son." At which words he, casting his eyes upon Paulinus, and seeing him to have an honest and good face, asked him of what occupation he was. The man of God answered: "Trade or occupation I have not, but some skill I have in the keeping of a garden." This pleased the pagan very well, whereupon he admitted him for his servant, and restored to the widow her son, with whom she departed out of Africa, and Paulinus took charge of the garden.

The king's son-in-law coming often into the garden, demanded certain questions of his new man, and perceiving him to be very wise and of good judgment, he began to give over the company of his old familiar friends, and conversed much with his gardener, taking great pleasure in his talk. Every day Paulinus brought him to his table diverse sorts of green herbs, and after dinner returned to his garden. After a long time, one day, as his master and he were in secret talk together, Paulinus spake unto him in this manner: "Consider, my Lord, what is your best course, and how the kingdom of the Vandals shall be disposed of, for the king is to die shortly." Upon hearing this news, because he was in special grace with the king, he informed him, adding that his gardener, who was a wise man, had told him so much. The king, hearing this, was desirous to see the man he spake of. "Your Majesty," he said, "shall see him, for his manner is to bring me in daily fresh herbs for my dinner, and I will give orders that he shall do it in your presence."

With this direction being given, as the king sat at dinner, Paulinus came in, bringing with him diverse fresh herbs. As soon as the king beheld him, he fell trembling, and sending for Paulinus' master (who by the marriage of his daughter was so near allied unto him), acquainted him with that secret which before he had concealed, saying: "It is very true that which you have heard, for last night, in a dream, I saw certain judges in their seats sitting upon me, amongst whom this man also sat, and by their sentence that whip was taken from me, which for the punishment of others some time I had. But inquire, I pray you, what he is, for I do not think one of so great merit to be an ordinary man, as he outwardly seems."

Then the king's son-in-law took Paulinus in secret, and asked him what he was, to which the man of God answered: "I am your servant," he said, "whom you took for the ransom of the widow's son;" but when he would not be satisfied with that answer, but did instantly press him to tell, not what he was now, but what he had been in his own country, and did urge him very often to answer to this point, the man of God, adjured so strictly, not being able any longer to deny his request, told him that he was a Bishop. Hearing this his master and lord became wonderfully afraid, and humbly offered him, saying: "Demand what you will, that you may be well rewarded of me, and so return home to your country." To whom the man of God, Paulinus, said: "One thing there is wherein you may much pleasure me, and that is, to set at liberty all those that be of my city."

This he obtained, for straightway throughout Africa all were sought out, their ships laden with wheat, and to give venerable Paulinus satisfaction, they were all discharged, and in his company sent home. Not long after the king of the Vandals died, and so he lost that whip and severe government, which to his own destruction and the punishment of Christians by God's providence he had before received. And thus it came to pass that Paulinus, the servant of almighty God, told the truth, and he that voluntarily made himself a bondman, returned not back alone, but with many from captivity, imitating him who took upon him the form of a servant, that we should not be servants to sin. For Paulinus, following his example, became himself for a time a servant alone, that afterward he might be made free with many.

Concerning this holy man's death, it remains yet in the records of his own church, how that he was with a pain of his side brought to the last, and that, while all the rest of the house stood sound, the chamber only in which he lay sick was shaken with an earthquake, and so his soul was loosed from his body, and by this means it came out, that they were all stricken with a great fear that might have seen Paulinus departing this life.*


* Clarification 1: St. Gregory the Great here recounts that Paulinus of Nola sold himself to the Vandals to redeem the son of a poor widow, having before employed all he could raise in the ransom of other captives, and that he labored as a slave working in the garden, till his master, discovering his merit, and that he was endued with a gift of prophecy, gave him his liberty. Some think this happened under the Goths, who sacked Nola in our Saint’s time. Ceillier says that this history belongs to our Saint’s successor, whose name, according to some catalogues, was Paulinus II, and who died in 442. For before that year the Vandals had made descents into that part of Italy. Nor does St. Austin, Uranius, or any other author mention any such thing of our Saint. Many deny that the Saint’s immediate successor was called Paulinus. But all agree that there was a Bishop of Nola called Paulinus the Younger, and Paulinus II, or according to others III, who lived in 520, as Muratori observes, of whom St. Gregory, who wrote his dialogues about the year 540, most probably is to be understood. The Vandals entered Africa in 427. Paulinis distinguishes three Paulinus’s of Nola, and that it was the third, called the Younger, who sold himself to the Vandals before the year 535. He is mentioned in an epitaph found in the cemetery of Nola. This Paulinus foretold the death of Thrasimund, who died in 511. St. Gregory the Great was informed of this good bishop’s voluntary captivity by eye-witnesses.

Clarification 2: The story here told by St. Gregory presents various chronological difficulties. The Vandals established their kingdom in Africa between 429 and 439 (in which latter year Gaiseric, or Genseric, took Carthage); their ravages in Italy (culminating in the sack of Rome by Gaiseric in 455) did not begin in the lifetime of Paulinus; and Gaiseric himself, who is evidently the king here referred to, did not die until 477, more than forty years after the death of Paulinus. As a matter of fact, Alaric took Nola in 410, after his sack of Rome, and Paulinus, then newly appointed Bishop, was made prisoner. "Our Paulinus, Bishop of Nola," writes St. Augustine, "who from one most wealthy had become voluntarily poor and most abundantly holy, when the Barbarians sacked Nola, and he was held captive, prayed thus in his heart, as we afterwards learned from him: 'Lord, let me not be tormented on account of gold and silver, for Thou knowest where all I have is'" (City of God, I. 10). Alaric died within the year. It seems not impossible, as M. André Baudrillart suggests (Saint Paulin Evêque de Nole, pp. 167-170), that the foundation for St. Gregory's story is some tradition connected with the taking of St. Paulinus in 410, and that the Vandals have been confused with the Visigoths, Gaiseric with Alaric. There is no evidence that St. Paulinus was ever a prisoner in Africa.