Wednesday 3 November 2021

Saint Malachy of Armagh, November 3

Saint Malachy's Vision of his Dead Sister

November 3 is the feast of Saint Malachy of Armagh (c.1094-1148), who is also the diocesan patron of Down and Connor. He is an important saint with a European-wide reputation and one who enjoyed the friendship of the great Saint Bernard of  Clairvaux. As regular readers of the blog will know, the overwhelming majority of the Irish saints found in our calendars were never formally canonized as the official process we have today only began to develop in the twelfth century. Indeed, it is Saint Malachy who has the distinction of being the very first Irishman to be formally canonized, an event which took place within fifty years of his death. The account below of his career has been taken from an unattributed and undated collection of three Irish saints' lives, drawing heavily of course upon Saint Bernard's own hagiographical tribute The Life and Death of Saint Malachy, the Irishman:




In the fifth century Ireland was converted from heathenism to Christianity. Through the three succeeding ages it became the principal seat of learning in Christendom. So happy a distinction was owing to the labours and apostolic lives of the native ecclesiastics, who were never known to abuse the great immunities and secular endowments conferred on them by the Irish princes. This change from idolatry to the gospel was brought about in a period when the Roman empire in the West was torn to pieces, and when inundations of pagan nations seized on the greater part of Europe. In that state, providence, ever watchful over the Church, erected an asylum in this remote island for its repose and extension. For three hundred years the Christian youth of the continent flocked hither to be instructed in the science of the saints, and in the literature which leads to it. In the ninth century Ireland began to feel the grievances which followed the invasion of the sanctuary in other countries. It was infested in its turn by heathen barbarians, who under the general name of Normans, ravaged at the same time the maritime districts of France, England, and Scotland, and finally, made establishments in all. Nothing sacred had escaped their depredations; wherever their power prevailed they massacred the ecclesiastics, demolished the monasteries, and committed their libraries to the flames. In these confusions the civil power was weakened; and kings contending with a foreign enemy, and with vassals often equally dangerous, lost much of their authority. The national assemblies, the guardians and framers of law, were seldom convened ; and when convened they wanted the powder, perhaps the wisdom, to restore the old constitution, or establish a better on its ruins. Through a long and unavoidable intercourse between the natives and the oppressors of religion and law, a great relaxation of piety and morals gradually took place. Vice and ignorance succeeded to the Christian virtues and to knowledge. Factions among the governors of provinces ended in a dissolution of the Irish monarchy on the demise of Malachy II. in 1022; and, through the accumulation of so many evils, the nation was, in a great degree, sunk in barbarism. 

It was in this state of the nation that the glorious saint, whose life we are writing, was born. Malachy, called in Irish Maol-Maodhog O' Morgair, was a native of Armagh; his parents were persons of the first rank, and very virtuous, especially his mother, who was most solicitous to train him up in the fear of God. When he was of age to go to school, not content to procure him pious tutors whilst he studied grammar at Armagh, she never ceased at home to instil into his tender mind the most perfect sentiments and maxims of piety; which were deeply imprinted in his heart by that interior master in whose school he was from his infancy a great proficient. He was meek, humble, obedient, modest, obliging to all, and very diligent in his studies; he was temperate in diet, vanquished sleep, and had no inclination to childish sports and diversions, so that he far outstripped his fellow-students in learning, and his very masters in virtue. In his studies, devotions, and little practices of penance he was very cautious and circumspect to shun as much as possible the eyes of others, and all danger of vain-glory, the most baneful poison of virtues. For this reason he spent not so much time in churches as he desired to do, but prayed much in retired places, and at all times frequently lifted up his pure hands and heart to heaven in such a manner as not to be taken notice of. When his master took a walk to a neighbouring village without any other company but his beloved scholar, the pious youth often remained a little behind to send up with more liberty, as it were by stealth, short inflamed ejaculations from the bow of his heart, which was always bent, says St. Bernard.

To learn more perfectly the art of dying to himself, and living wholly to God and his love, Malachy put himself under the discipline of a holy recluse named Imar or Imarius, who led a most austere life in continual prayer, in a cell near the great church of Armagh. This step in one of his age and quality astonished the whole city, and many severely censured and laughed at him for it; many ascribed this undertaking to melancholy, fickleness, or the rash heat of youth; and his friends grieved and reproached him, not being able to bear the thought that one of so delicate a constitution and so fine accomplishments and dispositions for the world, should embrace a state of such rigour, and, in their eyes, so mean and contemptible. The saint valued not their censures, and learned by despising them with humility and meekness to vanquish both the world and himself. To attain to the true love of God he condemned himself whilst alive, as it were, to the grave, says St. Bernard, and submitted himself to the rule of man; not being like those who undertake to teach what they have never learned, and by seeking to gather and multiply scholars without having ever been at school, become blind guides of the blind. The simplicity of the disciple’s obedience, his love of silence, and his fervour in mortification and prayer, were both the means and the marks of his spiritual progress, which infinitely endeared him to his master, and edified even those who at first had condemned his choice. Their railleries were soon converted into praises, and their contempt into admiration: and many, moved by the example of his virtue, desired to be his imitators and companions in that manner of life. Malachy prevailed upon Imar to admit the most fervent among these petitioners, and they soon formed a considerable community. Malachy was by his eminent virtues a model to all the rest, though he always looked upon himself as the last and most unworthy of that religious society. A disciple so meek, so humble, so obedient, so mortified, and devout, could not fail, by the assiduous exercises of penance and prayer, to advance apace to the summit of evangelical perfection. 

Imar, his superior, and Celsus or Ceallach, Archbishop of Armagh, judged him worthy of Holy Orders, and this prelate obliged him, notwithstanding all the resistance he could make, to receive at his hands the order of deacon, and some time after, the priesthood, when he was twenty-five years old, though the age which the canons then required for priestly orders was thirty years, as St. Bernard testifies; but his extraordinary merit was just reason for dispensing with that rule. At the same time, the Archbishop made him his vicar, to preach the word of God to the rude people, and to extirpate evil customs, which were many, grievous, and inveterate, and most horribly disfigured the face of that Church. Wonderful was the zeal with which St. Malachy discharged this commission; abuses and vices were quite defeated and dispersed before his face; barbarous customs were abolished; diabolical charms and superstitions were banished; and whatever squared not with the rule of the gospel could not stand before him. He seemed to be a flame amidst the forests or a hook extirpating noxious plants: with a giant's heart he appeared at work on every side. He made several regulations in ecclesiastical discipline, which were authorized by the bishops, and settled the regular solemn rehearsal of the canonical hours in all the churches of the diocese, which, since the Danish invasions, had been omitted even in cities: in which it was of service to him, that from his youth he had applied himself to the Church music. What was yet of much greater importance, he renewed the use of the sacraments, especially of confession or penance, of confirmation, and regular matrimony. St. Malachy, fearing lest he was not sufficiently skilled in the canons of the church to carry on a thorough reformation of discipline, and often labouring under great anxieties of mind on this account, resolved, with the approbation of his prelate, to repair for some time to Malchus, bishop of Lismore, who had been educated in England where he became a monk of Winchester, and was then for his learning and sanctity reputed the oracle of all Ireland. Being courteously received by this good old man, he was diligently instructed by him in all things belonging to the divine service, and to the care of souls, and at the same time, he employed his ministry in that church.

Ireland (like so many other countries in those ages) being at that time divided into several little kingdoms, it happened that Cormac, king of Munster, was dethroned by his wicked brother, and, in his misfortunes, had recourse to Bishop Malchus, not to recover his crown, but to save his soul; fearing Him who takes away the spirit of princes, and being averse from shedding more blood for temporal interests. At the news of the arrival of such a guest, Malchus made preparations to receive him with due honour; but the king would by no means consent to his desires, declaring it was his intention to think no more of worldly pomp but to live among his canons, to put on sackcloth, and labour by penance to secure to himself the possession of an eternal kingdom. Malchus made him a suitable exhortation on the conditions of his sacrifice, and of a contrite heart, and assigned him a little house to lodge in, and appointed St. Malachy his master, with bread and water for his sustenance. Through our saints exhortations the king began to relish the sweetness of the incorruptible heavenly food of the soul, his heart was softened to compunction; and whilst he subdued his flesh by austerities, he washed his soul with penitential tears, like another David, never ceasing to cry out with him to God: Behold my baseness and my misery, and pardon me all my offences. The sovereign judge was not deaf to his prayer, but (according to his infinite goodness) heard it not only in the sense in which it was uttered, purely for spiritual benefits, but also with regard to the greatest temporal favours, granting him his holy grace which he asked, and in addition, restoring him to his earthly kingdom. For a neighbouring king, moved with indignation at the injury done to the majesty of kings in his expulsion, sought out the penitent in his cell, and finding him insensible to all worldly motives of interest, pressed him with those of piety, and the justice which he owed to his own subjects; and not being able yet to succeed, engaged both Malchus the bishop, and St. Malachy to employ their authority and command, and to represent to him that justice to his people, and the divine honour, obliged him not to oppose the design. Therefore, with the succours of this king and the activity of many loyal subjects, he was easily forced again upon the throne; and he ever after loved and honoured St Malachy as his father. Our saint was soon after called back by Celsus and Imar, both by letters and messages to Armagh.

The great abbey of Benchor, now in the county of Down, lay at that time in a desolate condition, and its revenues were possessed by an uncle of St. Malachy, till it should be re-established. This uncle resigned it to his holy nephew that he might settle in it regular observance, and became himself a monk under his direction in this house, which, by the care of tho saint, became a flourishing seminary of learning and piety, though not so numerous as it had formerly been. St. Malachy governed this house some time,and, to use St. Bernard’s words, was in his deportment a living rule, and a bright glass, or, as it were, a book laid open in which all might learn the true precepts of religious conversation. He not only always went before his little flock, and in all monastic observances, but also did particular penances, and other actions of perfection, which no man was able to equal; and he worked with his brethren in hewing timber, and in the like manual labour. Several miraculous cures of sick persons, some of which St. Bernard recounts, added to his reputation. But the whole tenour of his life, says the saint, was the greatest of his miracles; and the composure of his mind, and the inward sanctity of his soul, appeared in his countenance, which was always modestly cheerful. A sister of our saint, who had led a worldly life, died, and he recommended her soul to God for a long time in the sacrifice of the altar. Having intermitted this for thirty days, he seemed one night to be advertised in his sleep that his sister waited with sorrow in the church-yard, and had been there thirty days without food. This he understood of spiritual food; and having resumed the custom of saying Mass, or causing one to be said for her every day, saw her after some time admitted to the door of the church, then within the church, and some days after to the altar, where she appeared in joy, in the midst of a troop of happy spirits; which vision gave him great comfort.

St. Malachy, in the thirtieth year of his age, was chosen bishop of Connor (now in the county of Down), and as he peremptorily refused to acquiesce in the election, he was at length obliged by the command of Imar, and the archbishop Celsus, to submit. Upon beginning the exercise of his functions he found that his flock were Christians in name only, but in their manners savage, vicious, and worse than pagans. However, he would not run away like a hireling, but resolved to spare no pains to turn these wolves into sheep. He preached in public with an apostolical vigour, mingling tenderness with a wholesome severity; and when they would not come to the church to hear him, he sought them in the streets and in their houses, exhorted them with tenderness, and often shed tears over them. He offered to God for them the sacrifice of a contrite and humble heart, and sometimes passed whole nights weeping and with his hands stretched forth to heaven in their behalf. The remotest villages and cottages of his diocese he visited, going always on foot, and he received all manner of affronts and sufferings with invincible patience. The most savage hearts were at length softened into humanity and a sense of religion, and the saint restored the frequent use of the sacraments among the people: and whereas, he found amongst them very few priests, and those both slothful and ignorant, he filled the diocese with zealous pastors, by whose assistance he banished ignorance and superstition, and established all religious observances, and the practice of piety. In the whole comportment of this holy man, nothing was more admirable than his invincible patience and meekness. All his actions breathed this spirit in such a manner as often to infuse the tame into others. Amongst his miracles St. Bernard mentions, that a certain passionate woman, who was before intolerable to all that approached her, was converted into the mildest of women by the saint commanding her in the name of Christ never to be angry more, hearing her confession, and enjoining her a suitable penance; from which time no injuries or tribulations could disturb her.

After some years the city of Connor was taken and sacked by the King of Ulster; upon which St. Malachy, with a hundred and twenty disciples, retired into Munster, and there, with the assistance of King Cormac, built the monastery of Ibrac, which some suppose to have been near Cork, others to be in the isle of Beg-erin, where St. Imar formerly resided. Whilst our saint governed this holy family in the strictest monastic discipline, humbling himself even to the meanest offices of the community, and, in point of holy poverty and penance, going beyond all his brethren, the archbishop Celsus was taken with that illness of which he died. In his infirmity he appointed St. Malachy to be his successor, conjuring all persons concerned, in the name of St. Patrick, the founder of that see, to concur to that promotion, and oppose the intrusion of any other person. This he not only most earnestly declared by word of mouth, but also recommended by letters to persons of the greatest interest and power in the country, particularly to the two kings of Upper and Lower Munster. This he did out of a zealous desire to abolish a most scandalous abuse which had been the source of all other disorders in the churches of Ireland. For two hundred years past, the family out of which Celsus had been assumed, and which was the most powerful in the country, had, during fifteen generations, usurped the archbishopric as an inheritance; insomuch, that when there was no clergyman of their kindred, they intruded some married man and laymen of their family, who, without any holy orders, had the administration and enjoyed the revenues of that see, and even exercised a despotical tyranny over the other bishops of the island. Notwithstanding the precaution taken by Celsus, who was a good man, after his death, though Malachy was canonically elected, pursuant to his desire, Maurice, one of the above-mentioned family, got possession. Malachy declined the promotion, and alleged the dangers of a tumult and bloodshed. Thus, three years passed till Malchus bishop of Lismore, and Gillebert, bishop of Limerick, who was the pope’s legate in Ireland, assembled the bishops and great men of the island, and threatened Malachy with excommunication if he refused to accept the archbishopric. Hereupon he submitted, but said: “You drag me to death. I obey in hopes of martyrdom; but, on this condition, that if the business succeed according to your desires, when all things are settled, you shall permit me to return to my former spouse, and my beloved poverty.” They promised he should have the liberty so to do, and he took upon him that charge, and exercised his functions with great zeal through the whole province, except in the city of Armagh, which he did not enter for fear of bloodshed, so long as Maurice lived, which was two years more. 

At the end of five years, after the demise of Celsus, Maurice died, and, to complete his iniquities and increase his damnation, named his kinsman Nigellus for his successor. But King Cormac, and the bishops, resolved to instal St. Malachy in that see, and he was acknowledged the only lawful metropolitan in the year 1133, and thirty-eighth of his age. Nigellus was obliged to leave Armagh, but carried with him two relics held by the Irish in great veneration; and the common people were foolishly persuaded that he was archbishop who had them in his possession. These were a book of the gospels which had belonged to St. Patrick, and a crosier called the staff of Jesus, which was covered with gold, and ornamented with rich jewels. By this fallacy some still adhered to him, and his kindred violently persecuted St. Malachy. One of the chief amongst them invited him to a conference at his house with a secret design to murder him. The saint, against the advice of all his friends, went thither, offering himself to martyrdom for the sake of peace; he was accompanied only by three disciples, who were ready to die with him. But the courage and heavenly mildness of his countenance disarmed his enemies as soon as he appeared amongst them: and he who had designed to murder him, rose up to do him honour, and a peace was concluded on all sides. Nigellus not long after surrendered the sacred book and crosier into his hands; and several of the saint’s enemies were cut off by visible judgments. A raging pestilence, which broke out at Armagh, was suddenly averted by his prayers, and he wrought many other miracles. Having rescued that church from oppression, and restored discipline and peace, he insisted upon resigning 'the archiepiscopal dignity, according to covenant, and ordained Gelasius, a worthy ecclesiastic, in his place. He then returned to his former see: but whereas the two sees of Connor and Down had been long united, he again divided them, consecrated another bishop for Connor, and reserved to himself only that of Down, which was the smaller and poorer. Here he established a community of regular canons, with whom he attended to prayer and meditation, as much as the external duties of his charge would permit him. He regulated every thing, and formed great designs for the divine honour.

To obtain the confirmation of many things which he had done, he undertook a journey to Rome: in which one of his motives was to procure palls for two archbishops; namely, for the see of Armagh, which had long wanted that honour through the neglect and abuses of the late usurpers, and for another metro-political see which Celsus had formed a project of, but which had not been confirmed by the Pope. St Malachy left Ireland in 1139; conversed some time at York with a holy priest named Sycar, an eminent servant of God, and in his way through France visited Clairvaux, where St. Bernard first became acquainted with him and conceived the greatest affection and veneration for him on account of his sanctity. St. Malachy was so edified with the wonderful spirit of piety which he discovered in St. Bernard and his monks, that he most earnestly desired to join them in their holy exercises of penance and contemplation, and to end his days in their company; but he was never able to gain the pope’s consent to leave his bishopric. Proceeding on his journey, at Yvree in Piedmont he restored to health the child of the host with whom he lodged, who was at the point of death. Pope Innocent II. received him with great honour; but would not hear of his petition for spending the remainder of his life at CLairvaux. He confirmed all he had done in Ireland, made him his legate in that island, and promised him the pall. The saint in his return called again at Clairvaux, where, says St. Bernard, he gave us a second time his blessing. Not being able to remain himself with those servants of God, he left his heart there, and four of his companions, who, taking the Cistercian habit, afterwards came over into Ireland, and instituted the abbey of Mellifont, of that Order, and the parent of many others in those parts. St. Malachy went home through Scotland, where king David earnestly entreated him to restore to health his son Henry, who lay dangerously ill. The saint said to the sick prince: “Be of good courage; you will not die this time.” Then sprinkled him with holy water, and the next day the prince was perfectly recovered.

St. Malachy was received in Ireland with the greatest joy, and discharged his office of legate with wonderful zeal and fruit, preaching every where, holding synods, making excellent regulations, abolishing abuses, and working many miracles. One of these St. Charles Borromeo used to repeat to his priests, when he exhorted them not to fail being watchful and diligent in administering in due time the sacrament of extreme unction to the sick. It is related by St. Bernard as follows. The lady of a certain knight who dwelt near Benchor, being at the article of death, St. Malachy was sent for; and after suitable exhortations, he prepared to give her extreme unction. It seemed to all her friends better to postpone that sacrament till the next morning, when she might be better disposed to receive it. St. Malachy yielded to their earnest entreaties, though with great unwillingness. The holy man having made the sign of the cross upon the sick woman, retired to his chamber; but was disturbed in the beginning of the night with an uproar through the whole house, and lamentations and cries, that their mistress was dead. The bishop ran to her chamber, and found her departed ; whereupon, lifting up his hands to heaven, he said with bitter grief and remorse: “It is I myself who have sinned by this delay, not this poor creature.” Desiring earnestly to render to the dead what he accused himself that he by his neglect had robbed her of, he continued standing over the corpse, praying with many bitter tears and sighs; and from time to time turning towards the company, he said to them: "Watch and pray.” They passed the whole night in sighs and reciting the psalter, and other devout prayers; when, at break of day, the deceased lady opened her eyes, sat up, and knowing St. Malachy, with devout bow saluted him: at which sight all present were exceedingly amazed, and their sadness was turned into joy. St. Malachy would anoint her without delay, knowing well that by this sacrament sins are remitted, and the body receives help as is most expedient. The lady, to the greater glory of God, recovered and lived some time to perform the penance imposed on her by St. Malachy; then relapsed, and with the usual succours of the church happily departed. 

St. Malachy built a church of stone at Benchor, on a new plan, such as he had seen in other countries : at which unusual edifice the people of the country were struck with great admiration. He likewise rebuilt or repaired the cathedral church at Down, famous for the tomb of St. Patrick; whither also the bodies of St. Columba and St. Bridget were afterwards removed. St Malachy’s zeal for the re-establishment of the Irish church in its splendour moved him to meditate a second journey into France, in order to meet Pope Eugenius III. who was come into that kingdom. Innocent II. died before the two palls which he had promised could be prepared and sent. Celestine II. and Lucius II. died in less than a year and a half. This affair having been so long delayed, St. Malachy convened the bishops of Ireland, and received from them a deputation to make fresh application to the apostolic see. In his journey through England, whilst he lodged with the holy canons at Gisburn, a woman was brought to him, who had a loathsome cancer in her breast; whom he sprinkled with water which he had blessed, and the next day she was perfectly healed. Before he reached France the Pope was returned to Rome: but St. Malachy determined not to Cross the Alps without first visiting his beloved Clairvaux. He arrived there in October, 1148, and was received with great joy by St. Bernard and his holy monks, in whose happy company he was soon to end his mortal pilgrimage. Having celebrated Mass with his usual devotion on the feast of St. Luke, he was seized with a fever,which obliged him to take to his bed. The good monks were very active in assisting him; but he assured them that all the pain they took about him was to no purpose, because he should not recover. St. Bernard doubts not but he had a foreknowledge of the day of his departure. How sick and weak soever he was, he would needs rise and crawl down stairs into the church, that he might there receive the extreme-unction and the viaticum, which he did lying on ashes strewed on the floor. He earnestly begged that all persons would continue their prayers for him after his death, promising to remember them before God; he tenderly commended also to their prayers all the souls which had been committed to his charge; and sweetly reposed in our Lord on All Souls’-day, the second of November, in the year 1148, of his age fifty-four; and was interred in the chapel of our Lady at Clairvaux, and carried to the grave on the shoulders of abbots. At his burial was present a youth, one of whose arms was struck with a dead palsy, so that it hung useless and without life by his side. Him St. Bernard called, and taking up the dead arm applied it to the hand of the deceased Saint, and it was wonderfully restored to itself, as this venerable author himself assures us. St. Bernard, in his second discourse on this saint, says to his monks: “May he protect us by his merits, whom he has instructed by his example, and confirmed by his miracles.” At his funeral, having sung a Mass of requiem for his soul, he added to the Mass a collect to implore the divine grace through his intercession; having been assured of his glory by a revelation at the altar, as his disciple Geoffroy relates in the fourth book of his life. St. Malachy was canonized by a bull of Pope Clement (either the third or fourth), addressed to the general chapter of the Cistercians, in the third year of his pontificate.

Two things, says St. Bernard, made Malachy a saint, perfect meekness (which is always founded in sincere profound humility) and a lively faith: by the first, he was dead to himself; by the second, his soul was closely united to God in the exercises of assiduous prayer and contemplation. He sanctified him in faith and mildness. It is only by the same means we can become saints. How perfectly Malachy was dead to himself, appeared by his holding the metro-political dignity so long as it was attended with extraordinary dangers and tribulations, and by his quitting it as soon as he could enjoy it in peace: how entirely he was dead to the world, he showed by his love of sufferings and poverty, and by the state of voluntary privations and self-denial, in which he lived in the midst of prosperity, being always poor to himself, and rich to the poor, as he is styled by St. Bernard. In him this father draws the true character of a good pastor, when he tells us, that self-love and the world were crucified in his heart, and that he joined the closest interior solitude with the most diligent application to all the exterior functions of his ministry. “ He seemed to live wholly to himself, yet so devoted to the service of his neighbour, as if he lived wholly for them. So perfectly did neither charity withdraw him from the strictest watchfulness over himself, nor the care of his own soul hinder him in any thing from attending to the service of others. If you saw him amidst the cares and functions of his pastoral charge, you would say he was born for others, not for himself. Yet if you considered him in his retirement, or observed his constant recollection, you would think that he lived only to God and himself.”

Lives of Saint Malachy, St. Laurence O'Toole and St. Kevin: with a brief notice of some Irish shrines and reliquaries (Dublin, n.d.), 1-22. 

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