January 16 is the commemoration of one of the most important of the Irish missionary saints, Fursey of Péronne . His was a multi-faceted career and in the paper below, one of a series on Celtic missionary saints, Father W.H. Kirwan gives a stirring account of his life and labours in Ireland, Britain and the Continent. There are various commonplaces of medieval hagiography to be noted, prophecies of the saint's future greatness at the time of his birth, for example, or the means by which his final resting place was decided. The author also touches on the later medieval fame of Saint Fursey which saw him associated with a series of visions and brings us details of some of the miracles attributed to him. So, enjoy the wealth of detail contained here in Father Kirwan's work as he presents a full and well-written account of Saint Fursey of Péronne:
IN the course of these short studies of the lives and labours of some Celtic Missionary Saints we have up to the present travelled from the northern shores of Ireland, first, to the Western Highlands of Scotland, in the company of St. Columba; and next, through Burgundy and the east of France, through Switzerland and across the Alps as far as the central ridge of Northern Italy, in company with St. Columbanus. The last scene of our journey was the shrine of St. Columbanus in the ancient abbey church of Bobbio, on the pine-clad slopes of the Apennines.
The subject of our present study will take us in another direction, and set before us a different kind of scenery. We must transport ourselves in spirit from the high heights and clear, rarefied atmosphere of the Apennines, and return again to the shores of Ireland; not, however, to the rugged wilds of Donegal, or the bleak cliffs of the northern sea, but to the softer scenery of that low-lying plain by the western ocean that forms the fringe or borderland to Joyce's country and the mountains of Connemara. A considerable part of this plain is occupied by the waters of two extensive lakes, the upper and smaller of the two being ten miles long and over four miles in breadth, whilst the lower and larger lake covers an area of 52,000 acres, and is twenty-seven miles long, varying in breadth from seven to over ten miles, narrowing, however, to a channel at its lower end. The name of the upper and smaller lake is Lough Mask, and of the larger and lower lake Lough Corrib. Towards its upper or northern end Lough Corrib opens out into a vast expanse of water, studded in all directions with small and well-wooded islands. Viewed in the sunlight of a summer's day this part of the lake presents a veritable fairy scene of beauty, full of soothing tints, from the emerald green foliage of the thickly clustered trees reflected in its waters, to the fleecy white clouds moving gently through the soft blue sky above, in an atmosphere that is never without at least some faint suggestion of lingering mist. I have seen no better or truer description of this upper part of Lough Corrib than that given by Miss Margaret Stokes in her work on the Irish Saints. She had ascended a rising ground near the shores of the lake towards evening, and tells us that: —
From this point the view was magical. The silvery lake, streaked with placid blue, lay south of me; while to the west arose the mystic mountain range, upon whose heights the seer may have watched the morning vapour rise, fold by fold, and detach itself in floating forms, like the veiled figures of his heavenly vision. Meanwhile the evening was drawing on: the low marshy lands were slowly changing beneath the pomp of radiant light that glowed upon them as the sun cast down its slanting rays, before it sank along the edges of the hills. Pool after pool was touched with golden light, and the rushes that fringed their borders cast long reflections upon the illumined waters, like eyelashes veiling the liquid depths of some soft human eye. Beyond the low ground the grand masses of the mountains rose in dark violet depths of colour against the crimson and the gold of heaven. From high Ben Levi and the gloomy range above Lough Mask, along Lacamra and Kirkaun to where the distant Hill of Doon melted into the summer sky, the eye travelled on to the low ranges of lar Connaught. In the middle distance the lake changed from blue and silver into liquid gold save where it made a two-fold image of the sweet-wooded islands on its bosom, or the dark lines of the tall reeds beneath which it slept its golden sleep on the shore.
It would, however, require the skill and delicate perception of an artist, or the instinct of a poet, to express adequately the special charm of this scenery so unique in character, and so removed from all other examples of comparison. The scenery which nearest approaches to it in character that I have seen is that of Lake Thrasymene, between Cortona and Perugia in Italy, by whose reedy shores Hannibal defeated the Romans, and on one of whose islands St. Francis of Assisi passed his Lent. Lake Thrasymene, however, has only three islands, whereas those of Lough Corrib can be counted by the hundred, and it is even said— though, I take it, erroneously— to possess an island for every day in the year. It was on one of these islands, in the opening years of the seventh century, that St. Fursey, the subject of this present sketch, was born. The circumstances of his birth partake of a romantic interest. His father's name was Fintan, a son of the King of Munster and, like his father before him, a pagan. It so happened that Fintan went on a visit to the King of Leinster, and at the court of that king he met the Princess Gelges, the king's only daughter, and a fervent Christian. Gelges made use of the opportunity of their intercourse by trying to convert Fintan to Christianity, with the result that not only Fintan became a Christian, but he also fell violently in love with the Princess Gelges; and although her father would not hear of her marriage with Fintan, yet she became in time so enamoured of him, that they both arranged a secret marriage unknown to the king and his courtiers. After a time, however, and when a child was about to be born to Gelges, the king discovered their marriage, and being a man of passionate nature, his fury knew no bounds, and he ordered Gelges to be burnt alive for daring to disobey him.
In spite of the heart-rending tears and supplications of Gelges, and her pleading for the sake of her unborn child the king remained implacable. A fire was prepared, and Gelges was led to be bound to the stake, when, lo! at the very spot where her last tears were falling, a fountain of water suddenly sprang up from the earth, whilst, with equal suddenness, there fell torrents of rain from the heavens with the result that the fire was extinguished, and many of those present were so struck with awe that they were converted to the Christian faith. Gelges, her garments untouched by the fire, was yielded up to Fintan by the king who still, however, remained unconverted, and ordered both Fintan and Gelges to be driven out of his dominions.
Where were the helpless couple to turn at such a crisis in their lives ? Who would harbour and tend Gelges with her yet unborn child? In his anguish of heart and perplexity of mind Fintan bethought him of his saintly uncle, Brendan, who, then well advanced in years, was presiding as over a monastery situated on an island in Lough Corrib, called Inchiquin. Here he had come to rest, and end his days after his many labours, and on his return from much voyaging across the waters of the Atlantic, where he had discovered that western continent, to be known in later ages as America, and which was to be evangelized by so many apostles from his own nation and peopled by so many millions of his own race. Truly had he 'cast his bread upon the waters,' to be returned to him a thousand-fold in many days, and carried the first seed of that which is now a stately tree yielding its fruits for the healing of the nations and states which form the new world of the west.
St. Brendan, then, whose name is in the calendar of God's Church, and who is styled in history Pater Laboriosus, had founded his monastery on the island in Lough Corrib called Inchiquin, not far from the shore.
I shall never forget [writes Miss Stokes] that delightful ferry and the first sight of the long low island to which St. Brendan retired for rest, after his voyages in search of the New World in the western ocean, after his visit to St. Gildas in Wales, who named him Pater Laboriosus. On this island he retired to die, and close by, at his sister's nunnery at Annaghdown, he breathed his last, within sight of this island. The rising ground encircling the creek is covered with wild wood, the grassy island lies in the middle distance. From its highest point the eye roams over the wide reaches of the lake to the islands of Inchagoill, the wooded Ardilaun, Inismacatreer, and numberless other islands, to the fine amphitheatre of mountains at whose feet Lough Mask and Lough Corrib extend. It was strange to travel back in thought to the time when, 1,300 years ago, this ferry was crossed by students from far and near, seeking the knowledge of letters and religion from Brendan, and Meldan, and Fursa.
St. Brendan, like a true monk, when founding his monastery on Inchiquin, had not been unmindful of the apostolic injunction, 'Forget not hospitality,' and had raised a hospice on the island for the reception of pilgrims and travellers. Here it was, in this hospice, that St. Brendan received his nephew Fintan and his wife upon their arrival, listened to the tale of their sorrows and troubles, and poured consolation into their hearts. The first night of their sojourn on the island a wondrous light was seen shining over the hospice, and that same night Gelges gave birth to a male child, whom St. Brendan baptized, giving him the name of Fursa, which is the Gaelic for Virtue, and which in Latin is Fursaeus, in French Furci, and in its English form Fursey. From this circumstance of the miraculous light that St. Brendan had seen shining over the hospice on the night when Fursey was born, he had a divine presentiment that the child was destined, like the Baptist, to 'go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, to enlighten those that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.' Therefore did St. Brendan conceive in his heart a very special predilection for his grand-nephew, and he besought his parents to dedicate the child to the service of God in the monastic state from his infancy.
And so it came about that when, later on, Fintan and Gelges departed from Inchiquin, Fursey was left to be taught and trained by St. Brendan in his island monastery. Thus the child drank in from his infancy the combined monastic and apostolic spirit of St. Brendan, and grew gradually to resemble him also in his strangely restless spirit and attraction for missionary enterprise, which had carried his grand- uncle over the waters of the Atlantic in search of a new world to be gained to Christ. So Fursey grew up in the monastery under the tuition of St. Brendan, till the time came when he was old enough to stand alone. When that time arrived his saintly master had passed away from this world, whilst on a visit to his sister, St. Briga, at her monastery, which he had built for her at Annaghdown, which lies only a short distance to the south from Inchiquin.
Meanwhile Fintan and Gelges, St. Fursey's father and mother, had made their home on rising ground not far from the eastern shore of Lough Corrib, at a place known even to this day as Ard Fintain, and where some remnants of an ancient rath or fortification can still be traced. Here two sons were born to them, Foillan and Ultan. Both these younger brothers of St. Fursey joined him later on at Inchiquin, and entered the monastic state. St. Fursey who, after the death of St. Brendan, succeeded him, spent some years in training his disciples on his island home, until he felt called to make a new foundation of his own on the mainland. At a short distance from the small town of Headford may still be seen, surrounded by a graveyard, the ancient and venerable ruin of Killursa, a corruption of Killfursa, 'Church of Fursa or Fursey.' The western end of the little ruined church is undoubtedly not later than the beginning of the seventh century. The west door is a fine example of the primitive Celtic way of building, and is quite Egyptian in its austere simplicity. Anyone who has visited the island of Inchagoill out in the middle of Lough Corrib would not fail to be struck with the resemblance between this building and the two small ruined churches on that island; and archaeologists are agreed in attributing the more ancient of the two to the fifth century, and it has been handed down by an unbroken tradition that it was built by St. Patrick near the tomb of his nephew, and has always been known as 'Temple Padraig.'
The fame of the sanctity of St. Fursey had now been widely spread, and large numbers came to join him at his new monastery, to become his disciples. Hither also there followed him his two brothers, Foillan and Ultan. It was here at Killursa that St. Fursey had those world-famed visions which were destined to have such far-reaching influence on the religious thought, not only of his own age, but on the whole course of medieval religious thought. Some writers have even gone so far as to attribute to these visions of St. Fursey the entire formation of the theology of the Middle Ages concerning the state of souls after death; but that, of course, is a gross exaggeration, although their influence can certainly be traced in the popular conception and artistic expression of that portion of Catholic eschatology. No doubt the fact of the Anglo-Saxon Benedictine monk, St. Bede, having embodied in his ecclesiastical history an account of these visions is largely responsible for their widespread popularity. St. Bede, to judge by the way in which he narrates them, would seem to have believed in the objective reality of the visions of St. Fursey. It is, however, quite outside the purpose of this short sketch to enter into any discussion of such a delicate psychological and difficult theological question as that of the relative objective and subjective elements in the visions of the saints. Suffice it to say that they are not matters of Divine Faith, and can claim only from us a natural human belief, and the reasonable reverence and respect due to them as the experiences of souls living in close union with God. This attitude of mind towards them is insisted upon by the Church in the well-known decree concerning this subject of Pope Urban VIII.
A significant fact, however, worth bearing in mind is, that certain modern students of the Divina Comedia, both in Germany and in France, as well as in Italy, are of opinion that the visions of St. Fursey furnished Dante with some of the chief sources of his immortal epic. There are, moreover, some beautiful passages in these visions which convey to our minds the fundamental principles of the spiritual life in language which reminds us of Thomas a Kempis and of the spiritual writers of later ages. For instance, St. Fursey, whilst raised from the earth in ecstasy, sees the souls of St. Meldan and of St. Beoan, who had preceded him into the next world, in the glory of heaven, and hears words from each of them of instruction and warning. St. Meldan says to him: ‘What dost thou fear? Thy journey is but for a day; go forth and preach to all that the day is at hand, that the judgment is nigh; urge the teachers in the Church of Christ to provoke the souls of the faithful to the sorrow of repentance, and to bring them back to health by feeding on the sacred Body and Blood.'
St. Beoan says to him: —
Preserve thy life by using the creatures of God; denying thyself, reject the evil; be a faithful steward, temperate in all things, for though the poor and the needy and the prisoner may beg, the rich should give to those that are in want. Let there be no discord in the Church of God; let those that are in monasteries eat their own bread, working in silence. Therefore be neither always in retirement nor yet always in the world, and, when alone, keep your heart with diligence, obeying the divine commandments, and, when in public, be intent on the salvation of souls; and though all may oppose and fight against you give good for evil, and with a pure heart pray for your enemies. For he who hath resignation in his heart can change the fierceness of wild beasts to gentleness. No sacrifice of works is so acceptable to God as a patient and a gentle heart, to which, God helping it, adversity and loss is gain. Go forth, therefore, and tell the chieftains of this land of Ireland that if they abandon their iniquity and repent they may attain salvation. And announce these very tidings to the priests of Holy Church, for our God is a God jealous lest the world should be loved before Him, and lest men, seeking the things of this world and delaying to repent till late in death, should receive their just reward and suffer fiery torment.Looked at from a purely human point of view, these visions of St. Fursey show a descriptive power that is most remarkable, and hard to match in the literature of that period. Take as an example of this vivid descriptive power the passage describing the end of the saint's ecstasy and his return to bodily consciousness: —
It was at the sound of the crowing of the cock, when the rosy morning light illumined his face, that the angelic music suddenly ceased; his friends, who stood around, beholding a motion of the mantle laid over him, uncovered his face. The man of God, now in the body, inquired of them, saying, 'Why do ye, amazed, utter such disturbing sounds?' They answering him related the whole matter in due order; at what hour in the evening he had fallen into a trance, and how, until the crowing of the cock they had watched around his lifeless body. But he, still dwelling on the angelic brightness and sweetness of his vision, thought with anxiety of the warning he had received, and he mourned to think there was no wise man there with whom he could commune of the things which he had seen, and feared lest the angels should return and find him unprepared. He then sought for and received the communion of the sacred Body and Blood and lived in suffering on that day and another.
Does not this set before us a picture worthy of the brush of one of the old masters? As an example of word painting it brings to our mind some of the earlier Latin hymns of the Breviary for the office of Lauds. 'Cock crow,' Galli cantus as it was wont to be called, or, perhaps, the opening canto describing the dawn, of the Purgaiorio of Dante. But the time at our disposal precludes our dwelling here at any further length on these visions of the saint.
Little else survives at present to mark the scene of St. Fursey's visions at Killursa, save the ancient ruins of his small monastic church, standing in the midst of its graveyard, where for so many centuries, and up to the present day, the devout instinct of the people has impelled them to lay the mortal remains of their beloved dead under the protection of their patron saint. This strangely persistent instinct of the people for burying their dead near the ruins of the old churches of the early Irish saints is a cause of that unseemly, and to some minds irreverent, over-crowding of all the old graveyards in Ireland, that so often shocks the ideas and feelings of foreigners; and yet it cannot be denied that in no other nation is there a deeper or more enduring memory and reverence for the dead than there is in Ireland, where the past seems so often of more account and more real than the present. Understanding from the divinely-sent message which he had received in his visions that it was the will of God that he should go forth as a missionary to preach the gospel, St. Fursey departed from his beloved solitude by the shores of Lough Corrib, and in company with his two brothers, Foillan and Ultan, destined like himself to be venerated hereafter as saints in the Church's calendar, he made his way out of Connaught into Munster, where he assisted at an ecclesiastical council, in the acts of which his name appears. Having settled the affairs of his monastery, the saint next proceeded for the space of one year to visit the islands around the Irish coast, preaching to their inhabitants, and holding spiritual conferences with the many hermits and monks who then inhabited them. Then, on the anniversary of the day on which he had been taken out of the body to see the visions sent to him by God, an angel appeared to him, and made known to him the day on which he was to set out to preach in foreign lands, telling him, moreover, that he was to spend twelve years in missionary labours. The last act of St. Fursey before setting out from Ireland was to ordain as priests three of his monks, which shows us that he must himself already have received episcopal consecration. The names of these three monks ordained by St. Fursey, and who were destined to have an equal fame with his own, are Algein, Etto, and Gobhan, and they afterwards became respectively the patron saints of the French towns called St. Algise, Avesnes, and St. Gobain.
The journey of St. Fursey and his companions can be traced by documentary and archaeological evidence from Lough Corrib to Kilmainham, near Dublin, and thence to a place known since as Kilfursa, near Dundalk, in the county of Louth. Whilst waiting on the shores of the bay of Dundalk for the moment of their departure a great storm arose and lasted three days, during which St. Fursey and his companions spent their time in prayer and fasting, till the morning of the third day, when, just as St. Fursey was reading at the altar the prayer of the Mass called ‘The Secret,' the storm suddenly ceased, and in fair weather they set sail for the shores of Britain. Traversing Wales, and passing through the Midlands of England, St. Fursey and his companions continued their journey till they arrived in East Anglia, at a place now called Burghcastle in Suffolk, known to the Romans as Garianonum, and to the Saxons, as Cnobheresburgh, not far from Yarmouth and Beccles. Garianonum is reckoned in the Notitia imperii as one of the stations of the count of the Saxon shore, whose jurisdiction reached as far as Portus Adurni, the modern Portslade and Aldrington, here, hard by, in Sussex. Extensive remains of the Roman castrum or fortified camp still exist at Burghcastle, composed of flint and triple rows of narrow red Roman bricks.
The ancient round tower still stands at the west end of the old parish church of Burghcastle, and although the church is of course now in Protestant hands, the memory of St. Fursey has been of late revived by the erection of a stained glass window with the figure of the saint copied from an old miniature in the British Museum. When St. Fursey arrived at Burghcastle he found it to be the residence of a Saxon chief or king, called Sigebert, who had been tor long an exile in France, where he had become a Christian. William of Malmesbury, in his Chronicle, says of him that 'He was a worthy servant of the Lord, polished from all barbarism by residence amongst the Franks.'
During his exile Sigebert had become acquainted with a saintly Burgundian named Felix, whom he persuaded to accompany him to England on his restoration to his kingdom, and when St. Fursey arrived Felix had already become the Bishop of East Anglia.
St. Felix, the Burgundian whom St. Fursey met at Burghcastle, is venerated amongst the saints on the 8th of March, and his name still survives in the town called Felixstowe, near Harwich.
Sigebert received St. Fursey gladly, and made him a grant of land whereon to found a monastery, where Sigebert himself, later on, renouncing the world and his kingly rank, became a monk. St. Bede, in his ecclesiastical history, tells us that during his sojourn at Burghcastle, St. Fursey 'converted many unbelievers to Christ, and confirmed in His faith and love those that already believed.'
After spending five years at Burghcastle, and establishing there his monastery, St. Fursey, with twelve companions, set out, in the year 638, for the final scenes of their missionary career in France. It has been conjectured that the choice of his destination was largely determined by the counsels of St. Felix, the Burgundian Bishop of East Anglia.
Landing at the mouth of the Somme, he divided his companions into two companies. Three of his monks, named Rodalgus, Algeise, and Corbican, he sent on before him along the banks of the Somme, the Seine, and the Meuse, in which regions they became the founders of churches. St. Fursey himself, with the remaining nine of his company, proceeded first to a spot only a short distance from the coast called St. Riquier, then knowm as Centule, where a monastery' had already been founded just fifty years previously by another Irish missionary saint named St. Caidoc,
The existing medieval abbey church of St. Riquier is looked upon by experts as one of the finest specimens of the best period of French Gothic architecture. It occupies the site of the monastery founded by St. Caidoc, and changed its name to St. Riquier in memory of a Frankish nobleman of that name who there became a monk, and died in the odour of sanctity. Here St. Fursey would have felt at once quite at home and amongst friends. He does not, however, appear to have made any long stay at St. Riquier, but proceeded onwards along the Roman road till he came to a place now called Frohens le Grand, which philologists tell us is a corruption of Forshen, or Fursham, 'the House of Fursey.'
It so happened that on the day that St. Fursey reached this place the only son of its ruler or duke, Haymon, had died, and the saint, who found the duke distracted with grief for the loss of his only child, strove to comfort him and asked to be allowed to spend the night watching by the dead body, to which the duke willingly assented. During the night, in answer to St. Fursey's prayers, the dead child was restored to life, and Haymon in the early morning found him alive and praising God in company with the saint.
This miracle so impressed Haymon that he strove to detain the saint in his territories, and offered him a place called Mezerolles to build a monastery, which, however, St. Fursey declined. Finally, when Haymon saw that St. Fursey would not stay with him, he besought him to reveal to him the time of his departure from this world wherever he might go. To this request the saint replied: 'When you see me reappear with three bright lights in one night, then will you know that I am about to depart.'
Many other miracles were wrought by the saint in his progress through this part of France which we must pass over for want of time to narrate them.
The fame, however, of this first miracle of raising Duke Haymon's son from the dead soon spread far and wide. At that time the Mayor of the Palace to King Clovis II was a good Christian man named Erchenwald, to whom Clovis had granted the fortress or stronghold of Peronne in Picardy. No sooner, therefore, did St. Fursey set out from the territory of Duke Haymon than Erchenwald went forth to meet him to a place now called Grand Court, and conducted him to Peronne. All who have read Sir Walter Scott's specially fine novel Quentin Durward will remember his graphic description of Peronne, and the low-lying marshy flats around it. The towm is situated on a gentle incline above the level of the somewhat Dutch-like scenery of its neighbourhood. Local tradition has well preserved the traces of the route by which St. Fursey travelled to Peronne from St. Riquier: —
If [writes Miss Stokes] you will take your map of Picardy, and mark every holy well dedicated to St. Fursey in this district, you will seem to have his line of progress clearly indicated from St. Riquier to Peronne, and these wells lie close along the Roman road reaching from Abbeville to Doullens ; thence to Yvrench, about six miles from St. Riquier, where there is a Fontaine de St. Furci, still visited by pilgrims suffering from the diseases of the eye. Again, Maison Ponthieu, in the Canton of Crecy, at Frohens, Outrebois, le Meillard, Authicule, Mailly, in the Canton d'Acheux, to Grand Court and Pys, in the Canton d'Albert, on to les Boeufs, a village which takes its name from the bullocks which drew the bier of St. Fursey at his funeral, when his body was borne from Frohens to Peronne.No sooner had the saint arrived at Peronne, escorted by Erchenwald, than the fame of his miracles began to reach the ears of King Clovis and Queen Bathilde, who both besought him by offers of land to settle near Paris. St. Fursey accepted the royal offer of a site for the foundation of a monastery at Lagny, near Chelles, where Queen Bathilde had founded a royal abbey for nuns, six miles from Paris. Whilst St. Fursey was at work, labouring with his own hands at building the monastery of Lagny, Erchenwald had begun for him the erection of a splendid basilica, on the spot called 'the hill of swans,' at Peronne.
St. Fursey would seem to have spent some years ruling his monastery at Lagny, near Paris, visiting Peronne from time to time, where we are told he won many souls to God. He was employed during part of this period by the Bishop of Paris as his auxiliary Bishop.
Meanwhile, as Erchenwald's basilica was reaching completion the days of our saint's earthly pilgrimage were drawing to a close. One day, whilst he was wondering whom he could choose as the head of his monastery at Lagny after his departure, there came a loud knocking at the abbey gate, and, on the door being opened, the travel-stained and weary figure of a monk was seen outside. He said he had travelled far and wide in search of Fursey, his dearly-beloved master, who had formed and trained him in the spiritual life, and was told that he would find him at Lagny. St. Fursey recognized in this monk one of the first of his early disciples by the shores of Lough Corrib, who, unable to rest without his master, had set out from Connaught, resolved to travel about until he found him again. The name of the monk was Aemilianus, and he was specially dear to St. Fursey, who at once appointed him to be his successor at Lagny, and when all was arranged, having blessed him and all his monks, he set out on his journey to Peronne, to take possession of the new monastery with its basilica, raised for him by the Mayor of the Palace, Erchenwald. But it was not God's will that he should ever see with his mortal eyes the completed shrine where his body was afterwards to rest, for when he had reached Mezerolles, the spot where Duke Haymon had first offered him a site for a monastery, he became suddenly ill with a sickness which he knew was unto death, and breathed forth his soul, surrounded by the companions of his journey, amongst whom was Maguille, afterwards to be venerated as a saint and the founder of Monstrelet on the River Authie. He it was who assisted St. Fursey in his last moments, and celebrated the Mass of Requiem at his funeral.
Meanwhile the saint had not forgotten his promise of making Duke Haymon aware of the time of his departure from this world, and so, just as Haymon was about to begin his midday meal, there appeared to him three figures bearing three lighted tapers, which they placed upon the table at which he was seated, and disappeared. Haymon at once called to mind the words of St. Fursey, and leaving his meal untouched hastened to Mezerolles, where he arrived in time to assist at the obsequies of the saint, in memory of which event it was customary for centuries to keep three candles burning before the shrine of St. Fursey whenever his sacred relics were exposed. St. Fursey died in the year 650. A dispute arose at the time of his death between Duke Haymon and Erchenwald, the Mayor of the Palace, as to which of them was to possess his mortal remains. This dispute was decided by both parties agreeing that two bullocks should be yoked to the bier on which his body reposed, and that wherever they should go that there the saint's body should remain. The bullocks at once took the road towards Peronne, and ascending the Hill of Swans, stopped at the porch of the new basilica which Erchenwald had built for the saint and his monks. St. Eligius, or in French Eloi, who is venerated as the patron saint of goldsmiths and jewellers, and who was then living, made a shrine of precious metals in which the body of St. Fursey was preserved for 656 years, when St. Louis, King of France, on his return from his first crusade, had a new shrine made to contain the sacred relics, and himself assisted at their translation from the old shrine to the new one, on September 17, 1256.
Here are the words of the official account of the translation of the body of St. Fursa: —
In the year of the incarnation of our Lord 1256, 15 days before the Kalends of October (September 17), Sunday after the Octave of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary; in the presence of Monseigneur Louis, the illustrious King of France, and the Venerable Fathers, Vermonde, Bishop of Noyon, by the Grace of God; William, Bishop of Beauvois; Watier, Bishop of Tournai; Rudolf, Bishop of Therouanne, in the presence of many religious personages, abbots, etc., and a great number of Christians assembled there, was the translation of the glorious Confessor, St. Fursa, Patron of Peronne, effected, by the hands of the said Bishops in presence of the said King Louis, eye witness, and the precious relic has been laid and enclosed in a new shrine in the church of Peronne. In memory of which we, Louis, by the Grace of God, King of France, have here affixed our seal, with the seals of the above named Bishops.In the Annals of the Four Masters Peronne is styled 'Cathair Fursa in France.'
There can be no doubt that the chief glory of Peronne during all the Middle Ages and down to the eve of the French Revolution, beyond the fact of its impregnable strength as a fortress, was the great church of St. Furci, where his relics reposed. That church, like so many others, perished during the Revolution, but the relics of the saint were saved from destruction, and after being hidden during the Reign of Terror were finally placed in a chapel dedicated under the invocation of St. Furci in the church of St. John where they remain to the present day. Five years after his death St. Fursey was venerated as the patron saint of Peronne. His shrine was guarded by a collegiate chapter of Irish canons, visited by generations of pilgrims, and enriched by their offerings. To this day a large painting of St. Fursey, of great artistic merit, executed in the seventeenth century, is preserved in the town hall of Peronne. It bears this inscription: 'Sanctus Furseus Peroneorum Patronus.'
The Rue St. Furci still recalls the saint's name, and over the altar in his chapel in the church of St. John stand three statues. In the midst is the saint himself, and on each side of him are his two brothers, St. Foillan and St. Ultan. A large stained-glass window at the back of the altar represents the chief events in the life of the saint, together with some of his miracles. His festival is kept on January 16. Lagny, near Paris, where the saint lived during nearly all the years of his sojourn in France, and where his abbey was founded on land granted from the royal domain of King Clovis II. in 645, five years before his death, became a nursery of saints during the remainder of the seventh and the early part of the eighth centuries. This abbey was destroyed by the invasion of the Northmen, who ascended the Marne at the beginning of the ninth century. It was rebuilt from its ruins in the eleventh century, and survived till the end of the eighteenth century, when it was finally destroyed during the French Revolution. St. Fursey is still the patron saint of the town of Lagny, and his holy well still supplies the fountain in the middle of the town from whence the townspeople still draw their water.
St. Fursey 's two brothers, St. Foillan and St. Ultan found their way into Flanders, where they lived some time with St. Amand at Ghent. There they became acquainted with St. Gertrude, the abbess of Nivelles, of royal blood, who, after the foundation of her abbey, employed them in teaching Holy Scripture to her nuns, and in preaching in the country around Nivelles. She afterwards made a grant of land to St. Ultan between the Meuse and the Sambre, not far from Maestricht, where he built a monastery. Of the other companions of St. Fursey, two — St. Gobhan and St. Algise — have given their names to the French towns called after them, St. Gobain and St. Algise, not far from Laon, where there still lingers the memory of other companions of St. Fursey, who after sojourning at Laon penetrated finally into the Ardennes, where memorials of them still exist.
In concluding this study of the lives and labours of St. Fursey and his companions it will be well to bear in mind the paramount importance attached by them, amidst all the passing events of their lives, to the one great work, transcending, in their estimation, all other works, the work of prayer. It was from the constant and habitual gravitation of their lives towards their true centre through prayer that they obtained light and strength to guide and sustain them in all their journeyings and labours. This, before all other works, they regarded, with St. Benedict, as the opus Dei, the 'work of God,' to which nothing was to be preferred. Prayer was ever the chief motive power of their lives.
There is nothing that stands out more prominently in the history of the early Celtic saints than their passionate love for prayer, and their wondrous assiduity in praying. There is, perhaps, no more startling record in the Lives of the Saints than the account of the way in which these Celtic saints gave themselves to prayer: so much so, that many who read in the Life of St. Patrick how he recited every day the entire Psalter of 150 psalms, and adored God during each day with 300 genuflections, and 200 during each night, are inclined not to believe it, and to think it impossible. When, however, they find much the same kind of religious practices circumstantially recounted by various writers, independently of each other, concerning many others of the early Irish missionary saints in other lands, it becomes wellnigh impossible to doubt the existence of such practices amongst the Celtic saints in general.
That the daily recital of the entire Psalter was the practice in the earlier ages of the Church cannot be doubted; for St. Benedict, in his rule, speaks of the custom of reciting the 150 psalms in the course of a week, which has been the groundwork ever since of the Roman Breviary, as a sign of the falling off of primitive fervour when monks were accustomed to the daily recital of the entire Psalter.
For well over a thousand years have St. Fursey and his companion missionary saints been living in the light of the beatific vision in heaven. There we salute them with the genuine homage of a true devotion in Splendoribus sanctorum, sharing in the everlasting joy of their Lord, with whom 'a thousand years are as one day, and one day as a thousand years.'
W. H. KIRWAN.
SOME CELTIC MISSIONARY SAINTS: ST FURSEY in Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Volume XXXII (1912), 170-187.
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