THE MARTYRS GERVASIUS AND PROTASIUS.
"All Thy garments smell of myrrh, aloes, and cassia, out of' the ivory palaces, whereby they have made thee glad."
A Termination was at length put to the persecution of the Church of Milan, by an occurrence of a very different nature from any which take place in these days. And since such events as I am to mention do not occur now, we are apt to argue, not very logically, that they did not occur then. I conceive this to be the main objection which will be felt against the following narrative. Miracles never took place then, because we do not see reason to believe that they take place now. But it should be recollected, that if there are no miracles at present, neither are there at present any martyrs. Might we not as cogently argue that no martyrdoms took place then, because no martyrdoms take place now? And might not St. Ambrose and his brethren have as reasonably disbelieved the possible existence of parsonage-houses and pony carriages in the nineteenth century, as we the existence of martyrs and miracles in the primitive age? Now the account which is to follow does indeed relate to miracles, but then it relates to martyrs also.
Another objection which may be more reasonably urged against the narrative is this: that in the fourth century there were many miraculous tales which even Fathers of the Church believed, but which no one of any way of thinking believes now. It will be argued that because some miracles are alleged which did not really take place, that therefore none which are alleged took place either. But I am disposed to reason just the contrary way. Pretences to revelation make it probable that there is a true revelation ;pretences to miracles make it probable that there are real ones; falsehood is the mockery of truth; false Christs argue a true Christ; a shadow implies a substance. If it be replied that the Scripture miracles are these true miracles, and that it is they, and none other but they, none after them, which suggested the counterfeit; I ask in turn, if so, what becomes of the original objection, that no miracles are true, because some are false. If this be so, the Scripture miracles are to be believed as little as those after them; and this is the very plea which infidels have urged. No; it is not reasonable to limit the scope of an argument according to the exigency of our particular conclusions; we have no leave to apply the argument for miracles only to the first century, and that against miracles only to the fourth. If forgery . in some miracles proves forgery in all, this tells against the first as well as against the fourth century; if forgery in some argues truth in others, this avails for the fourth as well as for the first.
And I will add, that even credulousness on other occasions does not necessarily disqualify a person's evidence for a particular alleged miracle; for the sight of one true miracle could not but dispose a man to believe others readily, nay too readily, that is, would make him what is called credulous.
Now let these remarks be kept in mind, while I go on to describe the alleged occurrence which has led to them. I know of no intrinsic objection to it in particular, viewed in itself; the main objections are such antecedent considerations as I have been noticing. If Elisha's bones restored a dead man to life, I know of no antecedent reason why the remains of Gervasius and Protasius should not, as in the instance to be considered, have given sight to the blind.
The circumstances were these :—St. Ambrose, at the juncture of affairs which I have described in the foregoing pages, was proceeding to the dedication of a certain church at Milan, which remains there to this day, with the name of " St. Ambrose the Greater;" and was urged by the people to bury relics of martyrs under the altar, as he had lately done in the case of the Basilica of the Apostles. This was according to the usage of those times, desirous thereby both of honouring those who had braved death for Christ's sake, and of hallowing religious places with the mortal instruments of their triumph. Ambrose in consequence gave orders to open the ground in the church of St. Nabor, as a spot likely to have been the burying place of martyrs during the heathen persecutions.
Augustine, who was in Milan at the time, alleges that Ambrose was directed in his search by a dream. Ambrose himself is evidently reserved on the subject in his letter to his sister, though he was accustomed to make her his confidant in his ecclesiastical proceedings; he only speaks of his heart having hurned within him in presage of what was to happen. The digging commenced, and in due time two skeletons were discovered, of great size, perfect, and disposed in an orderly way, the head of each however separated from the body, and a quantity of blood about. That they were the remains of martyrs, none could reasonably doubt; and their names were ascertained to be Gervasius and Protasius; how, it does not appear, but certainly not so alleged on any traditionary information or for any popular object, since they proved to be quite new names to the Church of the day, though some elderly men at length recollected hearing them in former years. Nor is it wonderful that the saints should have been forgotten, considering the number of the Apostolic martyrs, among whom Gervasius and Protasius appear to have a place.
It seems to have been usual in that day to verify the genuineness of relics by bringing some of the energumeni, or possessed with devils, to them. Such afflicted persons were present with St. Ambrose during the search; and, before the service for exorcism commenced, one of them gave the well-known signs of horror and distress which were customarily excited by the presence of what had been the tabernacle of divine grace.
The skeletons were raised and transported to the neighbouring church of St. Faustus. The next day, June 18th, on which they were to be conveyed to their destination, a vast concourse of people attended the procession. This was the moment chosen by Divine Providence to give signal to His Church,
that, though years passed on, He was still what He had been from the beginning, a living and a faithful God, wonder-working as in the lifetime of the Apostles, and true to His word spoken by His prophets unto a thousand generations. There was in Milan a man of middle age, well known in the place, by name Severus, who, having become blind, had given up his trade, and was now supported by charitable persons. Being told the cause of the shoutings in the streets, he persuaded his guide to lead him to the sacred relics. He came near; he touched the cloth which covered them; and he regained his sight immediately.
This relation deserves our special notice from its distinct miraculousness and its circumstantial character; but numerous other miracles are stated to have followed. Various diseases were cured and demoniacs dispossessed by the touch of the holy bodies or their envelopements.
Now for the evidence on which the whole matter rests. Our witnesses are three; St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, and Paulinus, the secretary of the latter, who after his death addressed a short memoir of his life to the former.
St. Augustine, in three separate passages in his works, two of which shall here be quoted, gives his testimony. First, in his City of God, in an enumeration of miracles which had taken place since the Apostles' time. He begins with that which he himself had witnessed in the city of St. Ambrose:—
"The miracle," he says, "which occurred at Milan, while I was there, when a blind man gained sight, was of a kind to come to the knowledge of many, because the city is large, and the emperor was there at the time, and it was wrought with the witness of a vast multitude, who had come together to the bodies of the martyrs Protasius and Gervasius; which, being at the time concealed, and altogether unknown, were discovered on the revelation of a dream to Ambrose the bishop; upon which that blind man was released from his former darkness, and saw the day."—xxii. 8.
And next in his sermon upon the feast-day of the two martyrs :—
"We are celebrating, my brethren, the day on which, by Ambrose the bishop, that man of God there was discovered, precious in the sight of the Lord, the death of His Saints; of which so great glory of the martyrs, then accruing, even I was a witness. I was there, I was at Milan, I know the miracles which were done, God attesting to the precious death of His Saints; that by those miracles henceforth, not in the Lord's sight only, but in the sight of men also, that death might be precious. A blind man, perfectly well known to the whole city, was restored to sight, and ran: he caused himself to be brought near, he returned without a guide. We have not yet heard of his death; perhaps he is still alive. In the very Church where their bodies are, he has vowed his whole life to religious service. We rejoiced in his restoration, we left him in service."
The third passage will be found in the ninth book of St. Austin's Confessions, and adds to the foregoing extracts the important fact that the miracle was the cause of Justina's relinquishing her persecution of the Catholics.
Now let us proceed to the evidence of St. Ambrose, as contained in the sermons which he preached upon the occasion. In the former of the two, he speaks as follows of the miracles wrought by the remains:—
"Ye know, nay, ye have yourselves seen many cleansed from evil spirits, and numbers loosed from their infirmities, on laying their hands on the garment of the saints. Ye see renewed the miracles of the old time, when, through the advent of the Lord Jesus, a fuller grace poured itself upon the earth; ye see most men healed by the very shadow of the sacred bodies. How many were the napkins which passed to and fro! what anxiety for garments which had been laid upon the most holy relics, and made salutary by their very touch! It is an object with all to reach even to the extreme border, and he who reaches it will be made whole. Thanks be to Thee, Lord Jesus, for awakening for us at this time the spirit of the holy martyrs, when Thy Church needs greater guardianship. Let all understand the sort of champions I ask for,—those who may act as champions, not as assailants. And such have I gained for thee, my people, a benefit to all, a harm to none. Such defenders I solicit, such soldiers I possess, not the world's soldiers, but soldiers of Christ. I fear not that such will excite envy; because the higher in their guardianship, the less exceptionable is it also. Nay, for them even who envy me the martyrs, do I wish that they may be patrons. So let them come and see my body-guard; I own I have such arms about me. 'These put their trust in chariots, and these in horses; but we will exalt ourselves in the name of the Lord our God.'
"Elissa;us, as the course of Holy Scripture tells us, when surrounded by the Syrian army, said to his frightened servant, by way of calming him, 'There are more that are for us than are against us.' And to prove this, he begged that Gehazi's eyes might be opened; upon which the latter saw innumerable hosts of angels present. We, though we cannot see them, yet are sensible of them. Our eyes were held as long as the bodies of the saints lay hid in their graves. The Lord has opened our eyes: we saw those aids by which we have often been defended. We had not the sight of these, yet we had the possession. And so, as though the Lord said to us in our alarm, ' Behold what martyrs I have given you!' in like manner our eyes are unclosed, and we see the glory of the Lord, which showed itself once in the passion of the martyrs, and now in their efficacy. We have got clear, my brethren, of no slight a load of shame; we had patrons, yet we knew it not. We .have found this one thing, in which we have the advantage of our forefathers,—they lost the knowledge of these holy martyrs, and we have gained it.
"Bring the victorious victims to the spot where is Christ the sacrifice. But He upon the altar, who suffered for all; they under it, who were redeemed by His passion. I had intended this spot for myself, for it is fitting that where the priest has been used to offer, there he should repose; but I yield the right side to the sacred victims; that spot was due to the martyrs. Therefore let us bury the hallowed relics, and introduce them into a fitting home; and celebrate the whole day with sincere devotion."
In his latter sermon, preached the following day, he pursues the subject:—
"This your celebration, they are jealous of who are wont to be; and being jealous of it, they hate the cause of it, and are extravagant enough to deny the merits of those martyrs, whose works the very devils confess. Nor is it wonderful; it commonly happens that the faithlessness of unbelievers is more extreme than the confession of the devil. For the devil said, 'Jesus, Son of the living God, why hast Thou come to torment us before the time?' And, whereas the Jews heard this, yet they were the very men to deny the Son of God. And now ye have heard the evil spirits crying out, and confessing to the martyrs, that they cannot bear their pains, and saying, 'Why are ye come to torment us so heavily?' And the Arians say, 'They are not martyrs, nor can they torment the devil, nor dispossess any one;' while the torments of the evil spirits are evidenced by their own voice, and the benefits of the martyrs by the recovery of the healed, and the proofs of the dispossessed.
"The Arians say, 'These are not real torments of evil spirits, but they are pretended and counterfeit.' I have heard of many things pretended, but no one ever could succeed in feigning himself a devil. How is it we see them in such distress when the hand is laid on them? What room is here for fraud? what suspicion of imposture?
"They deny that the blind received sight; but he does not deny that he was cured. He says, 'I see, who afore saw not.' He says, 'I ceased to be blind,' and he evidences it by the fact. They deny the benefit, who cannot deny the fact. The man is well known; employed as he was, before his affliction, in a public trade, Severus his name, a butcher his business: he had given it up when this misfortune befell him. He refers to the testimony of men whose charities were supporting him; he summons them as evidence of his present visitation, who were witnesses and judges of his blindness. He cries out that, on his touching the hem of the martyrs' garment, which covered the relics, his sight was restored to him. We read in the Gospel, that when the Jews saw the cure of the blind man, they sought the testimony of the parents. Ask others, if you distrust me; ask persons unconnected with him, if you think that his parents would take a side. The obstinacy of these Arians is more hateful than that of the Jews. When the latter doubted, they inquired of the parents; these inquire secretly, deny openly, as giving credit to the fact, but denying the author."—Ep. 22.
We may corroborate the evidence of those two Fathers with that of Paulinus, who was secretary to St. Ambrose, and wrote his life, about A. D. 411.
"About the same time," he says, " the holy martyrs Protasius and Gervasius revealed themselves to God's priest. They lay in the Basilica, where, at present, are the bodies of the martyrs Nabor and Felix; while, however, the holy martyrs Nabor and Felix had crowds to visit them, as well the names as the graves of the martyrs Protasius and Gervasius were unknown; so that all who wished to come to the rails which protected the graves of the martyrs Nabor and Felix, were used to walk on the graves of the others. But when the bodies of the holy martyrs were raised and placed on litters, thereupon many possessions of the devil were detected. Moreover, a blind man, by name Severus, who up to this day performs religious service in the Basilica called Ambrosian, into which the bodies of the martyrs have been translated, when he had touched the garment of the martyrs, forthwith received sight. Moreover, bodies possessed by unclean spirits were restored, and with all blessedness returned home. And by means of these benefits of the martyrs, while the faith of the Catholic Church made increase, by so much did Arian misbelief decline."—§ 14.
Now I want to know what reason is there for stumbling at the above narrative, which will not throw uncertainty upon the very fact that there was such a bishop as Ambrose, or such an empress as Justina, or such an heresy as the Arian, or any Church in Milan. Let us consider some of the circumstances under which it comes to us.
1. We have the concordant evidence of three distinct witnesses, at least two of them on the spot when the alleged miracles were wrought; one writing at the time, another some years afterwards in a distant country. And the third, writing after an interval of twenty-six years, agrees minutely with the evidence of the two former, not adding to the miraculous narrative, as is the manner of those who lose their delicate care for exactness in their admiration of the things and persons of whom they speak.
2. The miracle was wrought in puhlic, in the case of a person well known, one who continued to live in the place where it was professedly wrought, and who, by devoting himself to the service of the martyrs who were the instruments of his cure, was a continual memorial of the mercy which he professed to have received, and challenged inquiry into it, and refutation, if that were possible.
3. Ambrose, one of our informants, publicly appealed, at the time when the occurrence took place, to the general belief, claimed it for the miracle, and that in a sermon which is still extant.
4. He made his statement in the presence of bitter and most powerful enemies, who were much concerned, and very able to expose the fraud if there was one; who did, as might be expected, deny the miracle; but who, for all that appears, did nothing but deny what they could not consistently confess, without ceasing to be what they were.
5. A great and practical impression was made upon the popular mind in consequence of the alleged miracles; or, in the words of an historian whose profession it is to disbelieve them, "Their effect on the minds of the people was rapid and irresistible; and the feeble sovereign of Italy found himself unable to contend with the favourite of heaven 1."
6. And so powerfully did all this press upon the
1 Gibbon's Hist. cb. 27.
Court, that the persecution was given up, and the Catholics left in quiet possession of the churches.
On the whole, then, are we not in the following dilemma:—If the miracle did not take place, then St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, men of name, said they had ascertained a fact which they did not ascertain, and said it in the face of enemies, with an appeal to a whole city, and that continued during a quarter of a century. What instrument of refutation shall we devise against a case like this, neither so violently <i priori as to supersede the Apostles' testimony, nor so fastidious of evidence as to imperil Tacitus or Csesar? On the other hand, if the miracle did take place, a certain measure of authority, more or less, surely must thereby attach to St. Ambrose,—to his doctrine and his life, to his ecclesiastical principles and proceedings, to the Church itself of the fourth century, of which he is one main pillar. The miracle gives a certain sanction to three things at once, to the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity, to the Church's resistance of the civil power, and to the commemoration of saints and martyrs.,
Which alternative shall the Protestant accept? shall we retreat, or shall we advance? shall we relapse into scepticism upon all subjects, or sacrifice our deep-rooted prejudices? shall we give up our knowledge of times past altogether, or endure to gain a knowledge which we think we fully have already,— the knowledge of divine truth?