“God’s help was sought continuously not only by the martyrs, but also by those known to have led holy lives.”
The early centuries of the Church were the age of the martyrs. The first saints held up for veneration by the Church were those who had died for the faith. After the reign of Constantine, and the adoption of the Catholic faith throughout the Roman Empire, the number of martyrs grew less. The later Roman period saw the birth of monasticism as men withdrew from the world to adhere more closely to Our Lord’s counsels of perfection given in the gospels. Most monks lived together in a communal life, but this period also saw an increase of those who lived a solitary life as hermits.
These hermits were often regarded as saints by the local populations. In many parts of Europe, such as Cornwall in south-west England, towns and villages are named after hermits who lived at this period. These saints, despite their permanent place in the geography of modern Europe, often go unregarded today. In many cases, we know nothing about them, other than that they once existed, and achieved sufficient renown to be locally recognised. For some though, there is still information available that can be rediscovered and made known again.
In the months ahead, The WM Review would like to introduce some of these lesser known saints to our readers. They are waiting to make intercession for us!
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The life of St Friardus
St Friardus almost met the fate of many other hermit saints, that of being unknown to future generations. In his case knowledge of his life was preserved by one fragile thread. The sixth century bishop St Gregory of Tours, wrote down what he knew of his life in his Life of the Fathers (see my review here), explaining:
“There was in those days… a man of great sanctity, named Friardus. I have decided to say something about his life to edify the Church, since I do not know if it has been written about by anyone else.”
Friardus was a peasant, and “the food he needed he derived from the labour of his own hands.” Of his early life St Gregory knew little, except that he was “devoted to God and chaste from his childhood” but “when he had become an adult, he was always praising God, always praying, always keeping vigils.”
His neighbours, we are told, found his way of life ridiculous.
One day, when he and other peasants were busy binding up sheaves of grain, they were plagued by a swarm of wasps. As a result, nobody wanted to harvest that part of the field. Then they decided on a cruel ruse – they would send Friardus!
They mocked him saying:
“Let the blessed one come, let the religious one come, who doesn’t stop praying, who constantly makes the sign of the cross over his ears and eyes, who sends the saving sign of the cross ahead of him on the paths of his journeys. Let him harvest where the swarm is, let him pacify it with his prayer!”
St Friardus considered these words as a slight against Our Lord and, consequently, prostrated himself on the ground and began to pray. After rising he made the sign of the cross over the wasps and said: “Our help is the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth”. All the wasps immediately went back to their nest.
On another occasion, he fell from high in a tree and cried out “Almighty God, save me!” and landed unharmed. He once again said “Our help is the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth” and, rising to his feet, went on his way.
These were not the only “works of power” that Friardus performed as he went about his daily work with continual prayer. Being aware of what God was working through him he began to say to himself:
“If Christ’s cross, the invoking of his name, and the help consequently received from him has so much power that it overcomes any hardship in this world, destroys dangers, wards off dark temptations, and regards all delights of the world as of no value – what, then, have I to do with this world except to abandon everything that belongs to it, to devote my services to him alone through invoking whose name I have been saved from wicked dangers?”
And thus, he left his home and community and went out into the wilderness to live the life of a hermit.
At some point after this making this decision, he agreed with two others to go to “the island of Vindunitta in the territory of the city of Nantes” to “perform penance”. Vindunitta has not been identified precisely, but would have been by the mouth of the Loire, on the western coast of France.
The first of these two men was Sabaudus, who had previously been the abbot of a monastery and a minister to King Clothar I (r. 511-561). Clothar was one of the four sons of Clovis, the Frankish warlord who during his thirty-year reign (481-511) had united most of Gaul under his rule and had converted to the Catholic faith in 508. After Clovis died, his kingdom was divided between his sons, and Clothar, still in his mid-teens, was granted extensive territories along the west coast of France, including Nantes. Eventually Clothar would reunite all of his father’s kingdom under his own control, before dividing it again between his own four sons.
Sabaudus however, in the words of St Gregory of Tours, “took his hand from the Lord’s plough, left the island, and returned to his monastery”. Shortly after this he was killed, in circumstances which are now unknown.
The second of Friardus’s companions was a deacon named Secundellus. After the departure of Sabaudus, these two hermits remained on the island, living in cells at some distance from one another. However, Secundellus too was subjected to temptations by the devil to try to get him to abandon his life of penance. On one occasion Satan appeared in the guise of Our Lord himself and told him:
“I am Christ to whom you pray every day. You have already been made holy and I have written your name in the Book of Life alongside the names of my other saints. Now leave this island and go, heal the people.”
And so Secundellus left the island, without telling Friardus, and went about healing the sick.
On his return to the island, “full of vainglory”, he told Friardus everything that had taken place:
“I have gone away from the island and performed many deeds of power.”
The appalled saint rebuked him, and expounded to him the deceits of the devil:
“Woe to us for, from what I hear, you have been deceived by the Tempter! Go and do penance, lest his tricks deceive you again!”
Secundellus accepted the rebuke and prostrated himself before Friardus, begging his prayers. Friardus replied:
“Go, and let us pray together to his Omnipotence for the salvation of your soul. It is easy for the Lord to take pity on those who confess, for as he said through the prophet: ‘I do not desire the death of the sinner, but that he turn from his way and live.’”
While they prayed Satan returned, once again in the guise of Our Lord Himself, and spoke to Secundellus:
“Didn’t I command you, because my sheep are ill and need a shepherd, to go and visit them and heal them?
This time Secundellus was not deceived and replied:
“I have recognised the truth that you are the Tempter, and do not believe you to be God, whose appearance you have falsely assumed. However, if you are Christ, show me that cross of yours which you have left behind, and I shall believe you.”
And the devil was not able to make the sign of the cross and departed from him. However, he soon returned with a multitude of demons and beat Secundellus to within an inch of his life. After this he never appeared to him again, and Secundellus, recovering from his injuries, spent the rest of his life in prayer and penance.
Friardus continued to grow in virtue and work miracles and show forth God’s power. It would seem that over time a group of monks or disciples gathered around him, because when recounting his death St Gregory of Tours speaks of “brothers” and “companions” who are not mentioned earlier in the narrative. The practice of a man going out into the wilderness to live an eremitical life, but later accepting disciples was common throughout Europe at this time. We are told:
“After he had often foretold his passing to his brothers, one day when he was afflicted with a fever, he said to his companions: ‘Go to Bishop Felix and announce my departure to him, saying: “Your brother Friardus says: ‘Behold I have completed the course of my life and will be released from this world. And so that you may be better informed about the message, I will pass on this Sunday and go to the repose which God, the eternal king, has promised me. Come, I implore you, and let me see you before I die.’”’”
The bishop, being unable to come immediately, sent a message asking him to delay his death a while. On hearing this request of his bishop, St Friardus, who had already got into his bed to die, got out of it again and resumed the ordinary course of his life.
Of this occurrence, St Gregory of Tours exclaims:
“O man of ineffable holiness! Although he hastened to be released and to join Christ, he did not forget charity and obtained permission from the Lord to remain in the world to see his brother in the spirit. And I regard as equal the merit of the one for whose arrival the Lord postponed the holy man’s death. For when Friardus had received word of the delay from the messenger, his fever at once abated and he arose healthy from his bed.”
Eventually the bishop arrived, and the saint’s fever returned. “You made me wait a long time for the journey which I must take, O holy bishop!”, he said. The death of the saint then took place as follows:
“After they had kept vigils for the night, which was one before a Sunday, the saint gave up his spirit at daybreak. When it had left it, the whole cell trembled and was filled with a sweet fragrance. Hence it cannot be doubted that there was angelic power present, showing the saint’s merit by making his cell fragrant with divine scents. After having let it be washed, the bishop buried Friardus’s glorious body in a tomb and Christ received his soul in heaven, leaving the earth dwellers the example of his virtues.”
The bishop mentioned in the narrative is St Felix of Nantes, one of St Gregory of Tours’ suffragan bishops. Thus, we can be assured that St Gregory had reliable sources for his narrative.
In his book, St Gregory draws out certain lessons which he thinks we can learn from St Friardus’s journey from prayerful peasant to renowned hermit miracle worker. He writes:
“The steps by which one ascends to the kingdom of heaven are many and diverse, and I believe it was about these that David said: ‘He places steps in the heart.’ These steps consisting of diverse works are understood to be the ones that make one progress in the service of God, and, as we have often borne witness, no one can tread upon them unless called upon to do so by God’s help. For the author of the psalms speaks of the steps in the middle of the journey when he says: ‘Unless the Lord shall have built the house, those that build it work in vain.’ God’s help was sought continuously not only by the martyrs, but also by those known to have led holy lives, and with it they quickly reached what their spiritual thirst deserved.”
Comparing the ancient martyrs to the confessors of his own time he says:
“For if a martyr’s mind was aflame with the desire for martyrdom, he asked for this support to win the contest; if a holy man sought to adhere to his fast, he mortified himself so as to be strengthened by it; if he wished to keep his body unpolluted, he prayed to be protected by it; if after sinning through ignorance he desired to convert through penitence, he implored it with tears to lift him up; and if he considered doing some good work, he sought to be aided by his help.”
Thus, by continual prayer the confessor is led along the path that leads to holiness:
“It is by the steps of this ladder, so difficult and so high, as arduous as they are diverse, that one ascends to the one Lord with his help. Therefore his help must always be requested, sought, and invoked, so that whatever good the mind conceives, it may carry it out with his help; about this we should continually say: ‘Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.’”
Thus St Friardus:
“constantly sought the protection of this aid in the various trials and afflictions of this world.”
The feast of St Friardus has been kept on 1 August.
St Friardus, pray for us in all our trials and afflictions!
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