The Northern Way

The Life of St. Eligius, 588-660

Book 2

Here begins the second book


1. Eligius once served the eternal king of all princes, Christ, in the palace under secular habit. He remained in this way from the middle of Clothar's time as king of the Franks, through the whole time of the famous prince Dagobert and his son Clovis and even to the beginning of the reign of the junior Clothar. But in those days the simoniac heresy cruelly pullulated in the cities and even to the borders of the Frankish kingdom and most of the time the unhappy queen Brunhild violated the Catholic faith with this contagion even to the time of King Dagobert. The holy men Eligius and Ouen in common council with certain other Catholic men, warned the prince and his optimates that this death dealing virus must swiftly be eliminated from the body of Christ which is the universal church. Their pious petition had its effect and they freely obtained what they had requested devoutly. Thus a single counsel was pleasing to all, accepted in the Holy Spirit and by royal order, that no one who had paid a price should be admitted to sacerdotal offices, nor those who, like rapacious wolves, profited by putting the gifts of the Holy Spirit up for sale. But only men of good reputation and irreproachable life should be chosen for the pontifical offices.

2. And in that spirit they chose Eligius for the merits of his sanctity and good works, now radiating light, for the holy sacerdotal office. He was to preside over the church of Noyon after Acharius, the antistes of that town, had died in the turning of his years. And at the same time, they chose his comrade Ouen who is called Dado to preside over the church of Rouen. So the unwilling goldsmith was tonsured and constituted guardian of the towns or municipalities of Vermandois which include the metropolis, Tournai, which was once a royal city, and Noyon and Ghent and Courtrai of Flanders. They made him pastor in these places because the inhabitants were still caught in the errors of the gentiles. Given over to vain superstition, they were wild peasants who could in no way comprehend the word of salvation. But when the blessed man recognized that he could in no way escape the imposition of the office, he would not permit himself to be consecrated priest until he had run the normal course and time of the clericature. And so there was some delay before he and Ouen were ordained by Deodatus of Matiscon from the lands across the Loire. But by his counsel, in the same day, they earned equally the grace of articulated apostolic benediction. For it was the time when all the people of Gaul celebrate the rogations. Therefore gathering together in Rouen on the fourteenth day of the third month, in the third year of the reign of the younger Clovis, the Sunday before the litanies, among crowds of people and flocks of priests and psalling choirs of the consecrated, we had the grace to be made bishops by that bishop, I to Rouen and he to Noyon. And being thus made bishop he removed to his see where he presided with more dignity than I can narrate. There is no amount of words sufficient or no flowing abundance of prayers to pour out that can tell his goodness as it should be told. Can I go on?

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3. With the care of a solicitous pastor, he cast his eye over the towns or municipia committed to him and their surroundings. But in Flanders and Antwerp, Frisians and Suevi and other barbarians coming from the seacoasts or distant lands not yet broken by the plow, received him with hostile spirits and averse minds. Yet a little later after he gradually began to insinuate the word of God among them by the grace of Christ, the greater part made truce and the barbarian people left their idols and converted, becoming subject to the true God and Christ. Thus like a light shining from heaven or the rays of the sun breaking through, he illuminated every barbarian land.

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5. In the town of Noyon he built a monastery of handmaids of Christ where he introduced a great congregation and strict institution of life. And for that he designated an ample piece of land and all thigs that were necessary for such a monastery. And many other monasteries were likewise built by him and his disciples which are known today among the Gauls for many of his disciples now head churches and many rule healthfully over monasteries and many have been preferred to the episcopal regimen over the highest churches.

6. Among other miracles of his virtue it was conceded to that most holy man from the Lord that the bodies of holy martyrs, which had until then been hidden from the people through many ages, were brought to light when he investigated and searched with the great ardor of his faith. Some had formerly been venerated by people in places where they were not while being completely ignored in the places where they were certainly buried. But from the time that Eligius, consecrated bishop, was given as pastor to the churches, not a few were declared found by the people. Among them first and foremost the holy martyr Quentin was sought with great urgency in the beginning of his episcopate. He who had been hidden in the past advanced openly in public. When Eligius was first given to that place as bishop, a certain unprincipled man called Maurinus, who wore a religious habit in public, was cantor in the royal palace. Having won praise for telling the King's fortune, he became swell-headed. His heart shameless and his actions dissipated, deceived with the audacity of his presumption, he began to clamor that he would seek and find the body of the martyr Quentin for himself. But the Lord revealed his shamelessness and the merits of Eligius. As soon as he broke the earth with a hoe, the handle stuck to the digger's hands until the miserable man abandoned his presumptuous work. On the following day, he died miserably, his hands seething with worms. And after that, all the people were afraid and even men of respectable lives did not dare approach Eligius about this business. But as soon as he was ordained, Eligius began to search the place energetically. The saint had undoubtedly come from the town of Vermandois and had been buried on the mountain where the martyr was once raised from the flood by Eusebia. But Eligius, instigated by God's nod, considered this in his mind and openly proclaimed to the people that his body was not where they had been venerating him but rather in another place altogether. And when his mind had thus been stimulated for some time, he began to launch a probing investigation through the pavements of basilicas here and there trying to sense some sacred tomb. But when no sign of a tomb appeared, the brothers began to abandon him, fearing among themselves that such an investigation betokened a proud mind which would end in a sorry death. Moreover, they tried to turn his mind from the idea because the antiquity of the body and the length of time assured that it must be consumed and reduced to dust. But when he realized this opposition by his brothers, he cried to them loudly: "Oh brothers, don't, I beg you, don't impede my devotion. For I believe my Creator will not deign to defraud me of such a treasure when I long for it so much." And persisting he went on a three day fast praying loudly to Christ the Lord with tears and vowed that he would not take any food until he knew that he would deserve what he wanted.

His faith and his constancy were so great that he might overcome in this way just as he believed it had been done [before], that sometimes he could speak with God as to his earthly lord and that he would decree what he proposed and indubitably he believed that God would complete it. Whence when he was drained by so much, he said: "You lord Jesus, Who know all things before they happen, You know that, unless You show me a sign of this witness's body who suffered for Your name's sake, unworthy as I am, I will never act as bishop to these people but rather I will be an exile from this province and take myself away somewhere to die among the beasts." What more? Persisting in the work begun, he went with his helpers to diverse churches where they hoped to find something. In one such place, which no one had suspected, he ordered digging in the back of the church. But when they had opened a trench nearly ten feet deep, their hopes vanished. But as the middle of the third night flowed by, Eligius grabbed the hoe and, throwing off his cloak, began with all his strength to dig at the holy ground with his hands by the light of candles and lamps. And soon at the bottom of the ditch, to the side, he began to scratch at the earth and uncovered the wrapping of the holy body. Then filled with great joy, he opened the tomb with the hoe he held in his hand and a fragrant odor with a great light spread from it so that Eligius could barely sustain his strength in the power of that odor and that light. A globe of splendor proceeded from the tomb at the striking blow. It shed the strength of its brightness so much that it blinded the eyes of those who were standing around and changed night to day in the greater part of the region. Whence all who had kept watch in that hour gathered. Though ignorant of the cause, they knew they had been given a great sign from Heaven. For this happened in the middle of night and the night was dark and stormy but the spreading radiance was like the light of day and it shone for some time before it grew dim.

Having found the holy body, Eligius kissed it with tears of joy and raising it from the depths of the ground he divided the desired relics into eleven parts. As he extracted the teeth from the jaws, a drop of blood flowed out from the root of each tooth. He abstracted nails of wondrous magnitude which the persecutors had fixed into the body at the time of his passion from the head and other limbs and sequestrated them with the relics. He divided the hair and chose the most beautiful reliquaries to hold each one. And then he brought the body to the altar wrapped in the most precious silk and decently laid out. And he built a tomb wonderfully decorated with gold and gems. He widened the church to hold greater gatherings of people and decorated it. And then he distributed the relics which he had taken from the saint's body to many places where they healed many invalids praying for help.

7. After that, with much labor and urgency, he found the holy martyr Piaton in the territory of M‚lentois at the town of S‚clin and showed similarly enlarged nails from the body in proof to the people. Then he composed the body elegantly decked out as a martyr and fabricated an urbane mausoleum above it. And at Soissons, he wonderfully composed the holy martyred brothers Crispin and Crispinian, removed from a certain crypt, and decorated them with ornaments in sign of their memory. And at Belloacus he found and similarly fabricated and composed the blessed martyr Lucian a comrade of Saint Quentin. And now my tongue is insufficient to develop the tale of how much more he did so diligently in memory of the saints.

8. Beyond this he labored much in Flanders. He joined the struggle at Antwerp where he converted many erroneous Suevi; with apostolic authority. Protected by the shield of Christ, he destroyed many fanes. Wherever he found any sort of idolatry, he destroyed it at the foundation. And all the while he kept to the sober discipline of religious virtue, frequently assailed and often even provoked to contumely by an ingrate and perfidious people, he was at no point moved from his original teaching, but ever more gentle, patient, humble, and kindly himself, he prayed the Lord for them. Thus he scoured and composed the land around him smoothly with ineffable subtlety. With hope for the future, he solicitously put his faith in words softly studied enough to stimulate the idle minds of the barbarians and lift them to love of the eternal fatherland. He preached peace to the troubled, quiet to the violent, gentleness to the ferocious, teaching all to gather as one in the church, to build monasteries and to serve God sedulously with good works. Not a few barbarians were converted by this oratory, suddenly springing up as fecund crops and a fruitful harvest in a dry and barren field. You would see many people hurry to repent, give up their wealth to the poor, free their slaves and many other works of good in obedience to his precepts. Oh, how many gentiles did Eligius industriously pluck from error to join them to the venerable flock of Christ. How many followed his example, spurning the allurements of the world to embrace the blessed life of monks! How many maidens at his persuasion, refused carnal nuptials to be received into the bosom of mother church as worthy spouses of Christ! How large the flock of both sexes gathered in a single year that he cleansed with his own hands in the holy font in the paschal solemnity! How sweetly he lifted them out, men and women, old and young, drawing them manfully from the jaws of the enemy with assiduous and salubrious admonition, he converted so many to the way of salvation. And among so many infants, you would also see many decrepit in age with tremulous limbs, hoary heads, wrinkled faces, reborn in the sacred font under his hands and suddenly rejuvenated in their white garments. And you would see many hurrying to the purifying confession and, like a most learned physician, Eligius restored those who were wounded by the arrows of the enemy to health so that no scar remained on them and no crime of prior guilt attended them. But what further remains? Certainly it is clear and evident that he provoked many to imitate him through divine grace. Indeed, these were the virtues that shone most brightly in him: modesty with shame, wisdom with simplicity, severity with kindness, learning with humility, humility with rigor. And when he was most merciful with others, he was harshest with himself. Pious with others he was severe in his own abstinence; generous to all but miserly with himself. Among his colloquies, his holy words always resonated; solicitous for peace, careful for the health of the fatherland, he prayed the prince day and night for the quiet of the churches wherever they were and for peace, and calling upon his name in whom the strength of the spirit and magnificence of heavenly grace were in concord.

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