“Poverty in this world always opens up the kingdom of heaven”
Image: The Basilica at Clermont-Ferrand (Source: Wiki Commons CC)
Sixth century Gaul was a brutal place. Over the course of the fifth century, Roman imperial authority had collapsed, and new kingdoms had been carved out by migrating Germanic peoples. The Romano-Gallic population was mostly Catholic, though there were still areas with strong pagan survivals. The new rulers, however, were mostly Arian.
The sixth century opened with the consolidation of control in the hands of the Franks, initially a pagan people, whose kings and leading nobility were Catholic from 496/508 AD onwards. However, conversion to the Catholic faith did not prevent horrendous fratricidal violence tearing the Merovingian royal family apart and dominating political life, as described by Rev. Horace K. Mann:
“[E]ndless plots, counterplots and civil wars, and the constant aggrandisement of turbulent nobles at the expense of kings and people alike… potent causes of fearful disorder in Church and State alike.”
The Church in Gaul at this time presents great contrasts. Many accounts – both contemporary and modern – portray a great deal of corruption amongst the clergy. Pope St Gregory the Great laboured during his pontificate to reform the conduct of the bishops and clergy and to stamp out the practice of simony, which seems to have been widespread. In 601 he complained of the state of Gaul:
“Bad priests are the ruin of the people. Who can intercede for the sins of the people, if the sins of the priests who ought to pray for men are greater? But… neither interest to look into or zeal to punish the evils which exist moves those whose business it is”.
And yet there is another side to the Frankish story.
This is also a time of hermits and ascetics, of monastic foundations and reforms, of bishops whose lives of virtue raised them above their age, and of ordinary people turning to holy places and the relics of the saints for aid in facing the troubles of their times.
St Gregory of Tours reveals both sides of sixth century Gaul to us. His ten books of Frankish history catalogue the crimes of kings, queens and clerics alike, but in his works he also reveals to us the lives of saints, from every background and walk of life.
In this next article in our series on “Little Known Saints of the Catholic Church” I would like to share the life of another hermit, which reveals the holiness obscured by the violence and corruption of sixth century Frankish life. From these hidden sources, the glorious Catholic life of France, “The Eldest Daughter of the Church” would eventually spring forth.
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The Life of St Caluppa
The life of St Caluppa is told to us by a first-hand witness, St Gregory of Tours. As a relatively young man, St Gregory visited the saint in the company of St Avitus, the Bishop of Clermont, and he assures us:
“[W]hat we have narrated, part of it we learned from his own mouth and part we saw with our own eyes.”
In his History of the Franks (UK: here), St Gregory tells us that Caluppa, was “a religious from his youth” and in The Life of the Fathers (UK:here) we are told that “from his earliest years he always sought and found the excellence of the ecclesiastical religious life”. Both of these formulations suggest he was a monk from a very young age, possibly being brought up in a monastery from his childhood. At some point – possibly after he had been a religious some time, St Gregory’s words are not clear – he became a monk of the monastery of Meallat, near the city of Arvernis (modern Clermont-Ferrand).
Of his time at Meallat, we are told:
“[He] conducted himself with great humility toward his brothers. He was so abstemious in eating, however, that he grew weak for lack of nourishment and was unable to carry out his daily work with the other brethren.”
This did not go down well with the other monks:
“As monks will do, they harassed him considerably about this, especially the prior who said to him: ‘Whoever does not choose to work does not deserve to ask for food.’”
Caluppa therefore left the monastery for a valley not far away, as St Gregory relates:
“[N]ot far from the monastery, in the middle of which a natural rock cliff face rose fifty or more feet high, with no connection at all to the other mountains around it. In the middle of this valley a river flowed, gently bathing the foot of the mountain. There was a cave in this rock where people had hidden in former times to escape enemies and the holy hermit went into it.”
Caluppa proceeded to cut deeper into the rock and “made a dwelling which, even today, is very difficult to reach even with a ladder.” Gregory tells us that “the place is so difficult to access that even wild animals have trouble doing so.”
Here Caluppa constructed a small chapel and began to live a life of prayer. However, the ancient serpent was determined to dissuade the hermit from this way of life and sent snakes to disturb him as he prayed. These snakes would cause him great fear by falling on his head and wrapping themselves around his neck as he prayed. However, he did not abandon his place, and continued his life of prayer.
One day therefore two enormous serpents came to him in his cell. The larger of the snakes – Satan himself, thought St Gregory – stood upright, face to face with the saint, “as if he had something to tell him.”
St Gregory takes up the story:
“Caluppa,terrified, froze as though he had turned to bronze; he was unable to move his limbs and even to lift his hand to make the sign of the blessed cross against him. While they both stood for a long time in silence, it occurred to him at the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to say the Lord’s prayer in his heart, since he could not move his lips.
“As he thus spoke silently, his limbs, which had been bound by the Enemy’s art, slowly began to loosen. And he felt that his right hand was free he made the sign of the cross before his face.”
The Lord’s prayer and the sign of the cross freed St Caluppa from this frozen state and he turned towards the largest of the serpents and made the sign of cross in front of it, saying:
“Are you not the one who threw the first human beings out of their home in Paradise? Who stained the right hand of the brother with murder? Who armed the Pharoah to pursue the people of God? Who, in the end, incited the Hebrew people to persecute the Lord out of envy?
“Depart from the servants of God, who have often defeated you, and from whom you have departed in confusion! For you were thrown out in Cain, supplanted in Esau, prostrated in Goliath, and hanged in the traitor Judas! And in the cross of the Lord’s power itself you and your powers and dominations were conquered and destroyed!
“Leave then, Enemy of God, and bow your head before the sign of the divine cross, for you share nothing with the servants of God who inherit the kingdom of Christ!”
As the saint continued to pray in this manner and make the sign of the cross, the serpent was confounded and burrowed into the earth and departed.
While he was focusing on this serpent the other one, however, had begun wrap itself around his legs, but when the saint realised this he ordered him to depart:
“Get behind me, Satan! In the name of Christ, you cannot hurt me anymore!”
And the serpent fled from the cell, and “emitted a loud sound from his lower parts, filling the cell with such a stench that he could not conceivably be anyone except the devil.”
This was the last time that any snakes or great serpents troubled the hermit.
How St Gregory found him living
For many years Caluppa lived his life of prayer and penance:
“[H]e was assiduous in serving God and did nothing except either read or pray; even while eating a morsel of food, he prayed constantly. Occasionally, he took a fish from the river and when he wished to do so the Lord provided it at once. He ate no bread except what was sent from the monastery.
“When the devout brought him bread or wine, he gave it to the needy to eat, that is, to those who begged to receive from him either the saving sign of the cross or a remedy for their illnesses. Thus he also nourished those to whom he gave back their health through his prayers, remembering what the Lord said in the gospel about the crowds that he had healed of various illnesses: ‘I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.’”
The only thing that Caluppa lacked in his cell was water, and this meant that it had to be carried up to him from the bottom of the valley. Therefore:
“[H]e prayed to the Lord to make a spring appear in the cell in which he lives. And the heavenly power that once brought forth water from a rock for the thirsting people was at hand. For immediately after his prayer drops of water burst forth from the stone and dripping frequently began to moisten the ground. And he, rejoicing at this divine gift, made a small hole in the stone in the form of a cistern that could hold about one and a half gallons, collecting water divinely granted to him each day as was sufficient for him and for the boy who had been given to him as a servant.”
This is how the saint was living when the young St Gregory of Tours visited him with St Avitus. The bishop was so impressed with his life that he ordained him as deacon, and afterwards as a priest. Many miracles of healing were obtained by his prayers and pilgrims would make their way to his cell. The saint would never leave his cell, but would appear at a window, from which he would make the sign of the cross.
He died at the age of fifty years old, in the year 576.
St Caluppa’s simple life of prayer and penance was one of many wellsprings of grace, which slowly transformed the life of the Frankish kingdom. If we wish to understand the glory of the France of Charlemagne, or of the High Middle Ages, we must examine its beginnings in the humble poverty of hermits like St Caluppa.
It was as an example of the evangelical counsel of poverty that St Gregory considered St Caluppa. He wrote:
“Poverty in this world always opens up the kingdom of heaven, and not only prepares those who live in it for heaven but also declares them to be distinguished in the temporal world because they have been glorified by miracles. For the chains worn in the prison of contrition opened the gate to Paradise, and when the soul is placed among the angelic choirs, it dances with them in eternal peace.”
St Caluppa, pray for us!
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 There is debate over the date over the baptism of Clovis.
 Mann, Lives, p94.
 St Gregory of Tours, “The Life of the Fathers”, published in Lives and Miracles, (UK:here) ed. and trans. by Giselle de Nie, (London, 2015), p175. All quotations from St Gregory of Tours are from this text unless stated otherwise.