Daily homily thoughts, 1/21

FEAST OF ST. MEINRAD – JAN 21
THE VITA OR PASSIO
OF VENERABLE MEINRAD
THE HERMIT[1]

1. Before relating the passion and death of the venerable man Meinrad, I would like to turn back for a while and first offer a little something about when he was born, where he lived and whence he came, where or rather to whom he was first sent to learn his letters, under what abbot he took upon himself the keeping of the monastic life, and how also, from battle in common with his brothers, he entered on the single contest of the desert. After all that, I will come back to the things I have proposed to deal with more fully.

2. In the time of Charles, most glorious emperor of the Franks, who was first among them to receive the name of Caesar, Meinrad was born in Alamannia, in the country which of old was called Sülichgau after the village of Sülchen.[2] His parents were Alamenni, and were noted more for the nobility of their lives than for their acquaintance with riches. When at length he had reached the age when he might suitably study letters, his father took him to the island which the old called Sindleozesaugia from the name of a certain priest called Sindleoz. Sindleoz was the first to build lodgings for monks on the island. At the command of the most noble Perahtold of the Alemanni, he persuaded St. Pirmin with his companions to live there, in the time of Pippin, king of the Franks,[3] and named the island for himself. It was here, then, that the boy Meinrad was led by his father, and put in the care of a man in all things most honorable, the monk Erlebald, who was as well related to Meinrad by marriage. When he saw that the child was of good character, Erlebald willingly accepted the task of raising him. He taught him carefully and by his instruction brought him to such a point that he instilled him with no small knowledge of Sacred Scripture. For from the earliest age, the boy avoided the frivolities and errors in which youth are usually entangled, and applied his mind to take in those things which his teacher had taught.

3. When he was twenty-five years old, Meinrad was raised to the office of deacon, and not long afterwards to the rank of priest, doing as did his teacher. This was when Louis, the son of Charles, reigned as emperor, and the abbot of the island was a man named Hatto.[4] Hatto was very distinguished for his teaching, good works, and nobility of life, and was bishop of the Church of Basel. He renounced the affairs of the active life, however, and gave himself over to the beauty of the contemplative life. So it was that, elected by all the brethren [823], Erlebald was put in charge of the island and the brothers, and with the permission of Louis, the emperor, placed in the office of abbot.[5] Having taken up this charge, he at once persuaded the venerable man Meinrad to accept the yoke of the rule and undertake to keep the standard of monastic life. Meinrad consented to this sound advice, made his promise, and strove with every effort to keep what he had promised. He was always prompt to obey, strict in fasting, zealous in prayer, generous in works of mercy, and most of all in humility did he place himself beneath all.

4. While he grew strong in these ways, Meinrad was assigned by the abbot to a certain small cell belonging to the monastery, close by Lake Zurich, into which the river Limmat empties, so that Meinrad could be in charge of the school there, and share with many to the Lord’s advantage the talent with which he had been enriched. Some time passed while he was so engaged. One day, he took with him some students he had brought up, and crossing the lake, entered a deserted place which adjoined the lakeshore. He went all the way to the Pennine Alps,[6] and to the village of Cham, in order to fish and to find a place for a hermitage. So they came to a certain river which flowed down in that solitude. And there the blessed man engaged his companions in fishing; but he himself wandered about alone by himself, contemplating the solitude, for he was very much on fire with love of this solitary place. After pasturing his mind for a long time on this thought, he returned to his comrades and found them weighed down with no small catch of fish. And he said to them: “Thanks be to God, who has generously and mercifully enriched us with these gifts. Now my sons, if you please, we must return to look after our home.” They returned, and came down to the village located not far from the shore.

5. There they entered the inn of a certain woman, rested a little while, and refreshed themselves with food and drink. But the man of God, discerning that this woman was God-fearing and very ready to look after guests, opened to her the secret desire of his mind. And he began: “O woman dear to Christ, did you want to hear it, I would show you the secret of my heart. But before I do, I ask you to keep my will and words hidden, until you see whether the work can be accomplished which I think myself to have conceived with a devout mind. I love living in this lonely place beyond all riches, and were I to find someone who wanted to supply my bodily necessities out of the love of God, I would want even now to locate my cabin here, so that I could be free to be more intimately in prayer. But since I am denied this consolation at present, I ask that in the meantime what I desire be hidden.” Inspired by God (as I believe), the woman replied: “I will reveal your secret to no one as long as it is against your wish, but you should know that if you decide to persist in your undertaking, I will supply your necessities for the sake of God, and help you in your vow as much as I can.” Returning thanks for this promise, Meinrad walked back to his cell, whence he set out, and there he begged God with continual fasts and prayers to deign to establish in his soul his divine will about this matter. At length, strengthened with divine inspiration, Meinrad left the cell and the school over which he had presided, and visited the woman again, for he wanted to find out whether or not she was willing to persist in her promise. When he saw that she had remained constant in the offer of the promised aid to him, he [c829] built a hut for himself in a lonely place,[7] not far from the village where the woman lived. There Meinrad served the Creator unceasingly with fasts and prayers; and the woman, as well as other pious people, provided him with the necessities of life.

6. For seven years Meinrad served the heavenly king there; but since he was not strong enough to bear the multitude of people who came to him, he moved and found a piece of level ground among the mountains, very difficult to reach, four miles away from the lake shore. There with the help of some pious people and especially of a certain abbess named Heilwiga [c836], he built a cabin, the bare necessity for his vow, and he remained in that place for the rest of his life. He mortified himself with the greatest fasts, as much as human frailty allowed, and prayed without ceasing. He gave out as alms to his visitors all those things which faithful men and women used to send him.

7. One day while he was praying, it happened that a great host of demons surrounded him from every side, and the servants of darkness so overshadowed him that he could no longer see even the light of day. They exhausted him with terrible threats and the greatest horror. Prostrate in prayer, as the situation required, he commended himself with every desire to the holy Lord. Things went on so for a long time. Then, he saw a light from the east. Following this light, an angel came to him where he was lying prostrate in prayer in the midst of the evil spirits; and with great authority, the angel ordered the impious array to depart, and to dare not inflict further temptation or terror on Meinrad. After the host left, the angel consoled Meinrad as one friend another, and departed. And so from that day on, as the venerable man himself used to say, he suffered no further terror from evil spirits.

8. Afterwards, it happened as well that a certain brother from the monastery came to visit Meinrad. Meinrad received him and the companions who had come with him willingly, and he kindly furnished all the things which befit guests, as much as was possible. When the time for vespers had come, and the stars by their shining suggested sleep, they renewed themselves with the sweet discourse of conferences, and after Compline went in to sleep, the visiting brother and his companions in separate places, and the venerable man in his private chamber. After he had refreshed his body with sleep for a little while, the man of God arose and watched in vigil with his accustomed prayers. The visiting brother, though resting in bed, passed the whole night practically sleepless. While he cast his eyes curiously here and there, he saw a child of wondrous beauty in white robes, who seemed to him about seven years old, come out of the oratory. And the child went in to the man of God, prayed with him, and talked about various matters with him. Although the brother could hear the sound of the boy’s conversation, he nevertheless did not understand the sense of it. And the child stood by the brother, who was fully awake, and warned him about certain things, which the brother himself said he was altogether forbidden to speak about openly.
For the sake of brevity, I omit many wonders concerning Meinrad, which a full and faithful account would set forth, and turn to how he gained the palm of martyrdom.

9. After Meinrad had lived in that lonely place for twenty-six years [861?], serving the Lord in fasts and by abstinence from all worldly things, it came about that by the inspiration of the one who entered the serpent and through its mouth deceived our first parents and threw them out of paradise, two men made their way to his cell in order to kill him. They came to the village on the shore of Lake Zurich, and asked in what direction lay the path leading to his cell. After it had been pointed out to them, and getting up in good time after the night, they went up the path shown to them, driven by the terrible spirit that had filled them. For a long time, however, they strayed from the right path leading to his cell. At length, much annoyed, they got to where they wanted to be after the greater part of the day was spent. Meinrad, keeping watch with his accustomed prayers, was devoutly offering the solemnity of the Mass to the Creator. Before the evil men entered his cell, however – one of whom was called Richard and was from the nation of the Alemanni, and the other of whom was called Peter and was born of the nation of the Raetians – [before they entered his cell, I say,] the chickens which the venerable man raised there saw the men come near, scattered through the hermitage as if they were being chased by a fox, and filled the woods with a resounding and unusual clamor and unheard of noise, such that the thieves themselves were astonished and wondered greatly at it, and in their own minds perceived that it was unnatural. Nevertheless they were not distracted from their task, and approached the chapel where the man of God, as was said, was reconciling God to himself with abundant prayers, and as foreknowing what was going to happen, had received the Lord’s body as the viaticum of his death with a pure heart and devout mind. For already the man of God sensed that his slayers were at hand; still, he did not offer himself to them at once, but delaying yet a little while, kept the door of his chapel closed so that he could linger yet a little while in prayer. He completed his prayer forcefully, and taking up in his hands the reliquaries of the saints one by one, he kissed them reverently, and commended his agony to the Lord and to the saints whose relics he reverently embraced. The evil men, now arrived, were watching him do this through a kind of hole in the wall. At last this strong athlete went out to the fight with God’s help, and did not deny his presence to the murderers. First offering them words of greeting, he then said: “O friends, why have you come so late? Why didn’t you hurry and come and hear the Mass of my humility so that I could pray to our common Lord on your behalf? But even now go in, ask God and his saints to be gentle with you, and afterwards return to me, so that, whatever blessing I can offer you from God, I may be given up for his love. And so finish the work which you have come to do. They went into the oratory, therefore, not intent on that to which they had been urged, but rather on the evil they had come to commit, and they came back to him quickly. The man of God gave them his tunic and cuculla, and added as well bread and drink, saying: “Take these things from my hands; indeed, after you have finished what you have come to do, you can take for yourselves whatever you want of these things here. For I know that you have come to kill me. But I beg one favor of you. After you have ended the course of my present life, place these candles which you see and which I have made for this very purpose, one burning at my head and one at my feet. Then afterwards quickly leave this place, lest those who are used to visit me come upon you and force you to pay the penalty of your crime.

10. All at once then Richard grabbed the blessed man around his waist with his filthy hands, and holding fast, crushed the little Meinrad in his arms, emaciated as he was by fasting; and with an oath, he ordered his companion to club the holy man. After Peter had weakened Meinrad by beating him about the sides and legs, while the holy man raised his hands to God, Richard said: “You good-for-nothing, why don’t you hit him in the head and finish him off? If you don’t hurry up, I’ll do it myself and fast.” And at once he took up the club and landed a blow on Meinrad’s head with all his might. So stricken, the holy man sank to the ground half dead. And flinging themselves on him, they strangled him with their hands until he breathed out his spirit. Meinrad’s soul then went forth, and in the very last gasp of breath, an odor of such sweetness came out and filled the whole cell, as if perfumes of all aromas had been strewn around and were sending out their fragrance. Then the thieves stripped him of the clothing he was wearing, carried the man of God to the bed where he used to rest, and put him in it. They put a cloak underneath him, and a bedcovering over him; and, as the man of God had asked when alive, they took the candles, placed one at his head, and ran with the other to the chapel to get a light from the flame that burned continually in the oratory. Coming back to the little body of the dead man, they found the unlit candle that they had put there burning brightly. Suddenly, such great fear entered them that they did not dare to touch any of the things related to the service of the altar. So taking up the clothing and some bedcoverings, they retraced their steps in haste back to where they had come from.

11. But while they were fleeing from there [861?], some ravens – who used to come regularly to the servant of God when he was alive and take what was offered from his hands – followed the thieves, as if wishing to vindicate the dead man, and filled the woods with loud cawing. And flying as close to the murderers’ heads as they could, they made public the crime that had been committed. Not long afterwards, the evil men were arrested, and the crime which they had committed in secret was revealed, since God did not wish to postpone the punishment of the sin that they had merited by killing the servant of God. For indeed, after the judge and the Christian people under count Adalbert condemned them to it, they were burned alive.

12. The candle which they had put at the head of the man of God and which was lighted by heaven, however, burned down to the straw which they had put over his body. The fire burnt part of the straw and went all the way up to the limbs of the dead man. When it touched them, however, just as it was divinely lit, so also it was extinguished at the command of God. From this, however, the news of his death spread abroad. When it became known, the venerable abbot Walter[8] and the brothers living under him took the body of the man of God from his hermitage, and transferring it to the monastery of Reichenau, buried it there with due honor. So suffered the holy martyr, on the twenty-first day of January in the eight hundredth and sixty-third year from the incarnation of the Lord, while Louis reigned as king over the east Franks, in the twenty-eighth year of his reign.

[1] Translated from the “Vita S. Meginrati,” edited by 0. Holder-Egger, Monuments Germaniae Historics, Scriptores v. 15, pt. 1, pp. 444-448. The dates in brackets – [ ] – are from this edition, as are the remainder of the notes.

[2] In the text: Sulihkewe and Sulich. Sülichgau is a region between present day Rottenburg and Tübingen.

[3] Rather, in the time of Charles Martel, it would seem, c. 724.

[4] Abbot 807-823. Thus, the events are to be dated somewhere from 814 to 823.

[5] Abbot 823-838.

[6] Rather, the Swiss Alps, it would seem.

[7] Mt. Etzel.

[8] Abbot 858-864.