Overcoming the Earth: The Life and Works of Our Blessed Martyr, Severinus Boethius

Boethius’s feast day is October 23rd, and these remarks were shared on the following Sunday to commemorate a figure who, once so well known to people of faith, has become obscure to the modern Church. With Hallowtide just past, it is fitting to reflect on exemplary lives of faith such as that lived by Boethius.

Unlike many medieval saints, Boethius was never ordained, never entered the ministry, and never entered monastic orders. He was a scholar and a politician in early sixth century Rome working under the rule of the Germanic barbarian, King Theodoric. Theodoric recognized the talents of Boethius, and both admired and feared him. He admired Boethius for his learning in the seven liberal arts, the academic curriculum of the time, and for his skill at reconciling differences between politicians of both church and state. Theodoric’s admiration led him to install Boethius as consul of Rome in 510, and he gave the same honor to Boethius’s sons in 522. That same year, Theodoric made Boethius Master of Offices, which gave him executive power over affairs both foreign and domestic.

But Theodoric feared Boethius’s close ties to the Emperor Justinian and the Eastern Church. As an Arian who denied the doctrine of the Trinity, Theodoric feared that Boethius’s attempts to reconcile eastern and western Trinitarian disputes might lead to a Roman rebellion that might seek help from Byzantium to regain independence from Ostrogothic rule. So when the Senate falsely accused Boethius of treason, an accusation that stuck only as a result of political enemies Boethius had made defending the public welfare, Theodoric had Boethius imprisoned on false charges and brutally executed with no trial.

Among other works, Boethius had written five theological tracts for his friend, Pope John I, referred to collectively as the Opuscula Sacra, where Boethius used his training in logic and philosophy to defend the Christian faith. Two of these argued for the rationality of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, and one of these includes his formulation of personhood as “an individual substance of a rational nature,” a definition still in use by modern theologians. A third treatise defended the orthodox view of Christ’s nature as God and man, and a fourth explained how the goodness of creation, including human goodness, logically depends upon the goodness of God. The final treatise, On the Catholic Faith, explicates general foundational doctrines for all Christian believers.

However, Boethius wrote his most important work, The Consolation of Philosophy, while imprisoned and on death row. Admitting his despair at the loss of his former life and freedoms, Boethius portrays himself in dialogue with Lady Philosophy, his lifelong object of study. Philosophy reminds him that earthly goods come and go, but the only value of earthly goods is in their power to turn our sights to the Father of Heavenly Lights, from whom comes every good and perfect gift and does not alter like the shifting shadows. He reminds himself and us that nothing in this world can yield satisfaction to our longing for happiness, and seeking after such frail goods will only lead to despair. Philosophy means the Love of Wisdom, and true wisdom resides in conforming our broken desires to the only essential source of happiness: the light of Divine Love which orders all things and grants all earthly gifts their true meaning.

Boethius reminds us that the mind of God is not limited to human perceptions of time and space, that all existence depends on his loving sustenance, for it is in God in whom we live, and move, and have our being. Boethius reminds us that our vision can be transformed to understand the world from this God-centered perspective. “Superata tellus sidera donat” – “Overcome the earth, and you will be given the stars,” Lady Philosophy tells the imprisoned Boethius. Despite his prison walls, Boethius remembered that true freedom comes from God, and regardless of station or situation in life, that freedom is available to all who turn from the misery of self-rule, and instead obediently remember that we live in the sight of a just and moral judge who sees all things.

By Anthony G. Cirilla, Nov. 5th

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