Thursday, June 25, 2020

Saint William, Abbot

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Martyrs are numerous on the cycle during the Octave of St. John. But not alone in martyrdom’s peerless glory does our Emmanuel reveal the potency of his grace, or the victorious force of example left to the world by his Precursor. At the very outset, we have here presented to our homage one of those countless athletes of penance, who succeeded John in the desert; one of those who fleeing, like him, in early youth, a society wherein their soul’s foreboding told only of peril and annoy, consecrated a lifetime to Christ’s complete triumph within them over the triple concupiscence, thus bearing witness to the Lord by deeds which the world ignores, but which make angels to rejoice and hell to tremble. William was one of the chiefs of this holy militia. The Order of Monte-Vergine, that owes its origin to him, has deserved well of the Monastic institute and of the whole Church in those southern parts of Italy, wherein God has been pleased, at different times, to raise up a dyke, as it were, against the encroaching waves of sensual pleasures, by the stern spectacle of austerest virtue.

Both personally and by his disciples, William’s mission was to infuse into the kingdom of Sicily, then in process of formation, that element of sanctity upon which every Christian nation must necessarily be based. In southern, just as in northern Europe, the Norman race had been providentially called in to promote the reign of Jesus Christ. Just at this moment, Byzantium, powerless to protect against Saracen invasion the last vestiges of her possessions in the West, was anxious nevertheless to hold the Churches of these lands fast bound in that schism into which she had recently been drawn by the intriguing ambition of Michael Cerularius. The Crescent had been forced to recoil before the sons of a Tancred and a Hauteville; and now, in its turn, Greek perfidy had just been outwitted and unmasked by the rude simplicity of these men, who learned fast enough how to oppose no argument to Byzantine knavery save the sword The Papacy though for a moment doubtful soon came to understand of what great avail these new comers would be in feudal quarrels the jar and turmoil whereof were to extend far and wide for yet two centuries more leading at last to the long struggle betwixt Sacerdotalism and Caesarism All through this period as has ever been the case since the day of Pentecost the Holy Ghost was directing every event for the ultimate good of the Church He it was that inspired the Normans to give solidity to their conquests by declaring themselves vassals of the Holy See and thus fixing themselves on the Apostolic rock But at the same time both to recompense their fidelity at the very opening of their career and to render them more worthy of the mission which would have ever been their honor and their strength, had they but continued so to understand it, this same Holy Spirit gave them Saints. Roger I beheld St. Bruno interceding for his people in the solitudes of Calabria, and there also that blessed man miraculously saved the duke from an ambush laid by treason. Roger II was now given another such heavenly aid to bring him back again into the paths of righteousness from which he had too often strayed, the example and exhortations of the founder of Monte-Vergine.

The Life of our Saint is thus inscribed on the pages of Holy Church:

Gulielmus nobilibus parentibus Verceliis in Insubria natus, vix quartumdecimum ætatis annum expleverat, cum miro quodam pietatis ardore flagrans, Compostellanam peregrinationem ad celeberrimum sancti Jacobi templum aggressus est. Quod iter una amictus tunica, ac duplici ferreo circulo præcinctus, nudisque pedibus prosecutus, asperrima frigoris et æstus, famis et sitis, summo cum vitæ discrimine perpessus est incommoda. Reversus in Italiam, novam ad sanctum Domini sepulchrum peregrinationem molitur; sed quominus propositum exsequatur, varia atque gravissima intercedunt impedimenta, divino numine ad altiora et sanctiora religiosam juvenis indolem retrahente. Porro in Soliculo monte biennium inter assiduas preces, vigilias, chameunias, et jejunia commoratus, divina subnixus ope, cæco lumen restituit; cujus miraculi fama percrebrescente, jam Gulielmus latere non poterat: quare iterum Hierosolymam adire cogitat, et alacris se itineri committit.

William was born of noble parents, at Vercelli in Piedmont. Scarce had he attained his fourteenth year, when already inflamed with wondrous ardor for piety, he performed the pilgrimage to the far-famed Sanctuary of Saint James at Compostella. The which journey he made, clad in one single tunic, with a double chain of iron about his loins, and with bare feet, a prey to extreme cold and heat, to hunger and thirst, and even with danger of life. Being returned into Italy, he was moved to perform a fresh pilgrimage to the holy Sepulcher of our Lord; but each time he was on the point of carrying out his purpose, various and most grave impediments intervened, Divine Providence thus drawing the holy inclinations of the youth to yet higher and holier things. Then passing two years on Monte Solicolo in assiduous prayer and in watchings, in sleeping on the bare ground, and in fastings wherein he was divinely assisted; he restored sight to a blind man, the fame of which miracle becoming gradually divulged, at last William could no longer be hidden: for which reason he thought once more of undertaking a journey to Jerusalem, and joyfully set out on his way.

Dei autem monitu, qui eidem apparuit, a proposito revocatur, utilior ac fructuosior tam apud Italos, quam apud exteras nationes futurus. Tum monasterium in Virgiliani montis cacumine, quod deinde Virginis est appellatum, loco aspero et inaccesso, miranda exædificat celeritate. Socios deinde viros et religiosos adsciscit, eosque ad vivendi normam Evangelicis præceptis et consiliis summopere accommodatam, tum certis legibus ex beati Benedicti institutis magna ex parte desumptis, tum verbo et sanctissimæ vitæ exemplis, informat.

But God appeared to him admonishing him to desist from his purpose, because he was to be more useful and profitable both in Italy and elsewhere. Then ascending Mount Virgilian, since called Monte Vergine, he built a monastery on its summit, on a rugged and inaccessible spot, and that with marvelous rapidity. He there associated to himself certain religious men who wished to be his companions, and taught them both by word and example a manner of life conformable to the Evangelical precepts and counsels, as well as to certain rules taken for the most part from the institutions of Saint Benedict.

Aliis deinde monasteriis erectis, clarior in dies Gulielmi facta sanctitas multos ad eum undique viros perducit, sanctitatis odore, ac miraculorum fama allectos. Nam muti loquelam, surdi auditum, aridi vigorem, varioque et immedicabili morbo laborantes, sanitatem ipsius intercessione receperunt. Aquam in vinum convertit, aliaque complura mirabilia patravit: inter quæ illus non silendum, quod muliercula ad ejus castitatem tentandam missa, in ardentibus prunis humi stratis illæsum se volutavit. De qua re certior factus Rogerius Neapolis rex, in summam viri Dei venerationem adducitur. Demum tempore sui obitus regi aliisque prænuntiato, innumeris virtutibus et miraculis clarus obdormivit in Domino, anno salutis millesimo centesimo quadragesimo secundo.

Other monasteries being afterwards built, the sanctity of William became more and more known, and attracted to him many other persons, who were drawn by the sweet odor of his holiness and the fame of his miracles. For by his intercession, the dumb received speech, the deaf hearing, the withered new strength, and those laboring under various incurable diseases were restored to health. He changed water into wine, and performed many other wondrous deeds: amongst which the following must not be passed over in silence, to wit, that a courtesan having been sent to make an attempt upon his chastity, he rolled himself without hurt amidst burning coals spread upon the ground. Roger, king of Naples, being certified of this fact, was led to hold the man of God in highest veneration. After having predicted to the king and others the time of his death, resplendent in miracles and innumerable virtues, he slept in the Lord, in the year of salvation eleven hundred and forty-two.

Following the footsteps of John, thou didst understand, O William, the charms of the wilderness; and God was pleased to make known by thee how useful are such lives as thine, spent afar from the world and apparently wholly unconcerned with human affairs. Complete detachment of the senses disengages the soul, and makes her draw nigh to the Sovereign Good; solitude, by stifling earth’s tumult, permits the voice of the Creator to be heard. Then man, enlightened by the very Author of the world concerning the great interests that are being at that very time put into play in this work of His, becomes in the Creator’s hands an instrument at once powerful and docile for the carrying out of these very interests, in reality identical with those of the creature himself and of nations. Thus didst thou become, O illustrious Saint, the bulwark of a great people, who found in thy word the rule of right; in thine example the stimulus of loftiest virtue; in thy superabundant penance, a compensation in God’s sight for the excesses of its princes. The countless miracles which accompanied thine exhortations were not without a telling eloquence of their own, in the eyes of new nations among whom success of arms had created violence and had lashed up passion to fury: that wolf, for instance, which, after having devoured the ass of the monastery, was enforced by thee to take its victim’s place in humble service; or again, that hapless woman who, beholding thee inaccessible to the scorching flames on that bed of burning coals, renounced her criminal life, and was led by thee into paths even of sanctity!

Many a revolution, upheaving the land wherein once thou didst pray and suffer, has but too well proved the instability of kingdoms and dynasties that seek not first, and before all things else, the Kingdom of God and His Justice. Despite the oblivion, alas too frequent, into which thy teaching and example have been thrown, protect the land wherein God granted thee graces so stupendous, that land which He vouchsafed to confide to thy powerful intercession. Faith still lives in its people; then keep it up, notwithstanding the efforts of the enemy in these sad days; but make it also to produce fruits in virtue’s field. Amidst many trials, thy monastic family has been able, up to this present age of persecution, to propagate itself and to serve the Church: obtain that it, together with all other Religious families, may show itself, unto the end, stronger than the tempest. Our Lady, whom thou didst serve right valiantly, is at hand to second thine efforts; from that sanctuary whose name has outlived lived the memory of the poet, who unconsciously sang her glories, may Mary ever smile upon the thronging crowds that year by year toil up the holy mount hailing the triumph of her virginity; may she accept at thy hands our hearts homage and desire, although we cannot in very deed accomplish this sacred pilgrimage.

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