July 12, 2021: ST. JOHN GUALBERT
July 12, 2021: ST. JOHN GUALBERT, ABBOT
[Founder of the Order of Vallisumbrosa]
O true disciple of the New Law, who didst know how to spare an enemy for the love of the Holy Cross! teach us to practise, as thou didst, the lessons conveyed by the instrument of our salvation, which will then become to us, as to thee, a weapon ever victorious over the powers of hell.
May the intercession, O Lord, of blessed John, the Abbot recommend us to thee; that what we cannot hope for through any merits of our own, we may obtain by his prayers. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.
Never, from the day when Simon Magus was baptized at Samaria, had hell seemed so near to conquering the Church, as at the period brought before us by to-day's feast. Rejected and anathematised by Peter, the new Simon had said to the princes, as the former had said to the Apostles: “Sell me this power, that upon whomsoever I shall lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost.” And the princes, ready enough to supplant Peter and fill their coffers at the same time, had taken upon themselves to invest men of their own choice with the government of the churches; the bishops in their turn had sold to the highest bidders the various orders of the hierarchy; and sensuality, ever in the wake of covetousness, had filled the sanctuary with defilement.
The tenth century had witnessed the humiliation of the supreme Pontificate itself; early in the eleventh, simony was rife among the clergy. The work of salvation was going on in the silence of the cloister; but Peter Damian had not yet come forth from the desert; nor had Hugh of Cluny, Leo IX, and Hildebrand brought their united efforts to bear upon the evil. A single voice was heard to utter the cry of alarm and rouse the people from their lethargy: it was the voice of a monk, who had once been a valiant soldier, and to whom the crucifix had bowed its head in recognition of his generous forgiveness of an enemy. John Gualbert, seeing simony introduced into his own monastery of San Miniato, left it and entered Florence, only to find the pastoral staff in the hands of a hireling. The zeal of God's House was devouring his heart; and going into the public squares, he denounced the Bishop and his own Abbot, that thus he might at least deliver his own soul.
At the sight of this monk confronting singlehanded the universal corruption, the multitude was for a moment seized with stupefaction; but soon surprise was turned into rage, and John with difficulty escaped death. From this day his special vocation was determined: the just, who had never despaired, hailed him as the avenger of Israel, and their hope was not to be confounded. But, like all who are chosen for a divine work, he was to spend a long time under the training of the Holy Spirit. The athlete had challenged the powers of this world; the holy war was declared: one would naturally have expected it to wage without ceasing until the enemy was entirely defeated. And yet, the chosen soldier of Christ hastened into solitude to “amend his life,” according to the truly Christian expression used in the foundation-charter of Vallombrosa. The promoters of the disorder, startled at the suddenness of the attack, and then seeing the aggressor as suddenly disappear, would laugh at the false alarm; but, cost what it might to the once brilliant soldier, he knew how to abide, in humility and submission, the hour of God's good pleasure.
Little by little other souls, disgusted with the state of society, came to join him; and soon the army of prayer and penance spread throughout Tuscany. It was destined to extend over all Italy, and even to cross the mountains. Settimo, seven miles from Florence, and San Salvi at the gates of the city, were the strongholds whence the holy war was to recommence in 1063. Another simoniac, Peter of Pavia, had purchased the succession to the episcopal see. John, with all his monks, was resolved rather to die than to witness in silence this new insult offered to the Church of God. His reception this time was to be very different from the former, for the fame of his sanctity and miracles had caused him to be looked upon by the people as an oracle. No sooner was his voice heard once more in Florence, than the whole flock was so stirred, that the unworthy pastor, seeing he could no longer dissemble, cast off his disguise and showed what he really was: a thief who had come only to rob and kill and destroy. By his orders a body of armed men descended upon San Salvi, set fire to the monastery, fell upon the brethren in the midst of the Night-Office, and put them all to the sword; each monk continuing to chant till he received the fatal stroke. John Gualbert, hearing at Vallombrosa of the martyrdom of his sons, intoned a canticle of triumph. Florence was seized with horror, and refused to communicate with the assassin bishop. Nevertheless four years had yet to elapse before deliverance could come; and the trials of St. John had scarcely begun.
St. Peter Damian, invested with full authority by the Sovereign Pontiff, had just arrived from the Eternal City. All expected that no quarter would be given to simony by its sworn enemy, and that peace would be restored to the afflicted Church. The very contrary took place. The greatest saints may be mistaken, and so become to one another the cause of sufferings by so much the more bitter as their will, being less subject to caprice than that of other men, remains more firmly set upon the course they have adopted for the interests of God and His Church. Perhaps the great bishop of Ostia did not sufficiently take into consideration the exceptional position in which the Florentines were placed by the notorious simony of Peter of Pavia, and the violent manner in which he put to death, without form of trial, all who dared to withstand him. Starting from the indisputable principle that inferiors have no right to depose their superiors, the legate reprehended the conduct of the monks, and of all who had separated themselves from the bishop. There was but one refuge for them, the Apostolic See, to which they fearlessly appealed; a proceeding which no one could call uncanonical. But there, says the historian, many who feared for themselves, rose up against them, declaring that these monks were worthy of death for having dared to attack the prelates of the Church; while Peter Damian severely reproached them before the whole Roman Council. The holy and glorious Pope Alexander II took the monks under his own protection, and praised the uprightness of their intention. Yet he dared not comply with their request and proceed further, because the greater number of the bishops sided with Peter of Pavia; the archdeacon Hildebrand alone was entirely in favour of the Abbot of Vallombrosa.
Nevertheless the hour was at hand when God Himself would pronounce the judgment refused them by men. While overwhelmed with threats and treated as lambs amongst wolves, John Gualbert and his sons cried to heaven with the Psalmist: “Arise, O Lord, and help us; arise, why dost Thou sleep, O Lord; arise, O God, and judge our cause.” At Florence the storm continued to rage. St. Saviour's at Settimo had become the refuge of such of the clergy as were banished from the town by the persecution; the holy founder, who was then residing in that monastery, multiplied in their behalf the resources of his charity. At length the situation became so critical, that one day in Lent of the year 1067 the rest of the clergy and the whole population left the simoniac alone in his deserted palace, and fled to Settimo. Neither the length of the road, deep in mud from the rain, nor the rigorous fast observed by all, says the narrative written at that very time to the Sovereign Pontiff by the clergy and people of Florence, could stay the most delicate matrons, women about to become mothers, or even children. Evidently the Holy Ghost was actuating the crowd; they called for the judgment of God. John Gualbert, under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, gave his consent to the trial; and in testimony of the truth of the accusation brought by him against the Bishop of Florence, Peter, one of his monks, since known as Peter Igneus, walked slowly before the eyes of the multitude through an immense fire, without receiving the smallest injury. Heaven had spoken: the Bishop was deposed by Rome, and ended his days a happy penitent in that very monastery of Settimo.
In 1073, the year in which his friend Hildebrand was raised to the Apostolic See, John was called to God. His influence against simony had reached far beyond Tuscany. The Republic of Florence ordered his feast to be kept as a holiday, and the following words were engraved upon his tomb-stone:
TO JOHN GUALBERT,
CITIZEN OF FLORENCE, DELIVERER OF ITALY.
Let us read the notice which the Church consecrates to his blessed memory, though with a few differences of detail.
John Gualbert was born at Florence of a noble family. While, in compliance with his father's wishes, he was following the career of arms, it happened that his only brother Hugh was slain by a kinsman. On Good Friday, John, at the head of an armed band, met the murderer alone and unarmed, in a spot where they could not avoid each other. Seeing death imminent, the murderer, with arms out stretched in the form of a cross, begged for mercy, and John, through reverence for the sacred sign, graciously spared him. Having thus changed his enemy into a brother, he went to pray in the church of San Miniato, which was near at hand; and as he was adoring the image of Christ crucified, he saw it bend its head towards him. John was deeply touched by this miracle, and determined thenceforward to fight for God alone, even against his father's wish; so, on the spot he cut off his own hair and put on the monastic habit. Very soon his pious and religious manner of life shed abroad so great a lustre that he became to many a living rule and pattern of perfection. Hence on the death of the Abbot of the place he was unanimously chosen superior. But the servant of God, preferring obedience to superiority, and moreover being reserved by the divine Will for greater things, betook himself to Romuald who was then living in the desert of Camaldoli, and who, inspired by heaven, announced to him the institute he was to form; whereupon he laid the foundations of his Order under the Rule of St. Benedict at Vallombrosa.
Soon afterwards many, attracted by the renown of his sanctity, flocked to him from all sides. He received them into his society, and together with them he zealously devoted himself to rooting out heresy and simony, and propagating the Apostolic faith; on account of which devotedness both he and his disciples suffered innumerable injuries. Thus, his enemies in their eagerness to destroy him and his brethren, suddenly attacked the monastery of San Salvi by night, burned the church, demolished the buildings, and mortally wounded all the monks. The man of God, however, restored them all forthwith to health by a single sign of the Cross. Peter, one of his monks, miraculously walked unhurt through a huge blazing fire, and thus John obtained for himself and his sons the peace they so much desired. From that time forward every stain of simony disappeared from Tuscany; and faith, throughout all Italy, was restored to its former purity.
John built many entirely new monasteries, and restored many others both as to their material buildings and as to regular observance, strengthening them all with the bulwark of holy regulations. In order to feed the poor he sold the sacred vessels of the Altar. The elements were obedient to his will when he sought to check evil-doers; and the sign of the Cross was the sword he used whereby to conquer the devils. At length worn out by abstinence, watchings, fasting, prayer, maceration of the flesh and finally old age, he fell into a grievous malady, during which he repeated unceasingly those words of David: “My soul hath thirsted after the strong living God: when shall I come and appear before the face of God?” When death drew near, calling together his disciples, he exhorted them to preserve fraternal union. Then he caused these words to be written on a paper which he wished should be buried with him: “I, John, believe and confess the faith which the holy Apostles preached, and the holy Fathers in the four Councils have confirmed.” At length having been honoured during three days with the gracious presence of Angels, in the seventy-eighth year of his age, he departed to the Lord at Passignano, where he is honoured with the highest veneration. He died in the year of salvation 1073 on the 4th of the Ides of July; and having become celebrated by innumerable miracles, was enrolled by Celestine III in the number of the Saints.
Another account of St. John Gualbert.
St. John Gualbert was born at Florence of rich and noble parents, and in his youth was carefully instructed in the Christian doctrine and in the elements of the sciences; but afterward, by conversing with the world, he imbibed a relish for its vanities and follies. While a thirst of worldly pleasure kept possession of his desires, and seemed to him innocent, and while he thought a certain degree of worldly pride the privilege of his birth, he was a stranger to the gospel maxims of penance, meekness, and lowliness of heart; and all arguments of virtue lost their force upon him. But God was pleased by a remarkable accident to open his eyes, and to discover to him his errors, and the extent of his obligations. Hugo, his only brother, was murdered by a gentleman of the country; and our young nobleman determined to revenge the crime by the death of him who had perpetrated it, and who seemed out of the reach of the laws. Under the influence of his resentment, which was much heightened by the invectives and persuasion of his own father Gualbert, he neither listened to the voice of reason nor of religion. The motive of revenge is criminal if it creeps into the breast even in demanding the just punishment of a delinquent; much more if it push men to vindicate their own cause themselves by returning injury for injury, and wreaking wrongs on those that inflicted them. But passion stifled remorse, and John was falsely persuaded that his honour in the world required that he should not suffer so flagrant an outrage to pass unpunished. It happened that riding with his man home to Florence on Good Friday, he met his enemy in so narrow a passage that it was impossible for either of them to avoid the other. John seeing the murderer, drew his sword, and was going to dispatch him. But the other, lighting from his horse, fell upon his knees, and with his arms across, besought him by the passion of Jesus Christ, who suffered on that day, to spare his life. The remembrance of Christ, who prayed for his murderers on the cross, exceedingly affected the young nobleman; and meekly raising the suppliant from the ground with his hand, he said, “I can refuse nothing that is asked of me for the sake of Jesus Christ. I not only give you your life, but also my friendship for ever. Pray for me, that God may pardon me my sin.” After embracing each other they parted, and John went forward on his road till he came to the monastery of St. Minias, of the holy Order of St. Bennet. Going into the church, he offered up his prayers before a great crucifix, begging with many tears and extraordinary fervour that God would mercifully grant him the pardon of his sins. Whilst he continued his prayer the crucifix miraculously bowed its head to him, as it were to give him a token how acceptable the sacrifice of his resentment and his sincere repentance were. The divine grace made such deep impressions on his heart, that rising from his devotions he cast himself at the feet of the abbot, earnestly begging to be admitted to the religious habit. The abbot was apprehensive of his father's displeasure; but at length was prevailed upon, with much ado, to allow him to live in the community in his secular habit. After a few days John cut off his hair himself, and put on a habit which he borrowed. His father, at this news of the step his son had taken, hastened to the monastery, and stormed and complained dreadfully; till after some time seeing the steadiness of his son's resolution, and hearing his reasons and motives, he was so well satisfied, that he gave him his blessing, and exhorted him to persevere in his good purposes.
St. John devoted himself to the exercises of his new state, in the most perfect dispositions of a true penitent. He was most exact in every religious observance. He subdued his body with much fasting and watching; never gave way to idleness, but kept himself day and night employed almost in continual prayer. His corporal austerities he animated with a perfect interior spirit of penance, or desire of punishing sin in himself, the more powerfully to move God to compassion and mercy towards him; and he endeavoured by them to facilitate the subjection of his passions, which victory he completed by a watchfulness over the motions of his own heart, and heroic acts of all virtues, especially meekness and humility. But assiduous and humble prayer and meditation were the principal means by which this wonderful change was effected in all the affections of his soul, so that he became entirely a new man. Nothing can have so prevalent a power to still the agitation of passion in the breast, nothing is so fit to induce a smooth and easy flow, and a constant evenness of temper, as a frequent application to the throne of grace. This presence of the mind with the Lord is an absence from the body, or from the tumult of carnal passions. The pure and serene tranquillity that springs up in the soul by an intercourse with heaven, shows that here she is nearest the centre of her true happiness, where earthly things lose all their power of attraction. The very preparation of the heart to wait upon God in this solemn exercise is of admirable use to remove that corruption which inflames the passions. Especially a lively sense of God's infinite greatness, and of our littleness and infirmities, powerfully impressed on our minds by assiduous prayer, soon brings us to a conviction that pride is the root of all our disorders; and enables us to discover its disguises, and to banish it out of our souls. By fidelity and perseverance St. John obtained the victory over himself, and became most eminent in meekness, humility, silence, obedience, modesty, and patience.
When the abbot died our saint was earnestly entreated by the greatest part of the monks to accept that dignity; but his consent could by no means be extorted. Not long after, he left this house with one companion, and went in quest of a closer solitude. He paid a visit to the hermitage of Camaldoli; and having edified himself with the example of its fervent inhabitants, he proceded further, to an agreeable shady valley covered with willow-trees, commonly called Vallis-Umbrosa, in the diocess of Fiesoli, half a day's journey from Florence, in Tuscany. He found in that place two devout hermits, with whom he and his companion concerted a project to build themselves a small monastery of timber, and mud-walls, and to form together a little community, serving God according to the primitive austere rule and spirit of the Order of St. Bennet. The abbess of St. Hilary gave them the ground on which they desired to build, and when the monastery was finished the bishop of Paderborn, who attended the emperor Henry III into Italy, consecrated the chapel. Pope Alexander II in 1070 approved this new Order, together with the rule, in which the saint added certain particular constitutions to the original rule of St. Bennet. From this confirmation is dated the foundation of the Order of Vallis-Umbrosa. St. John was chosen the first abbot, nor was he able to decline that dignity. He gave his monks a habit of an ash colour; and settled among them retirement, silence, disengagement of their hearts from all earthly things, the most austere practice of penance, profound humility, and the most universal charity.
Though most humble and mild, he severely reproved the least tepidity or sloth in others. For the virtue of meekness is not further removed from intemperate anger, which clouds or dethrones reason, than from a vicious defect or tameness and stupidity, which beholds vice with indifference. God has committed to every man a kind of trust and guardianship of virtue, whose rights we are obliged to maintain in proportion to our power, not only by example, but also by advice, exhortation, and reproof, as often as it is reasonable. And he who regards the sins of others with a careless unconcernedness, makes himself accountable for them when it is in his power to prevent them. Superiors especially lie under the most grievous obligations to check and chastise the irregularities and faults of those under their immediate care and inspection. Our saint feared no less the danger of too great lenity and forbearance than that of harshness; and was a true imitator both of the mildness and zeal of the Jewish legislator, whom the Holy Ghost calls “the meekest of all men upon the face of the earth.” St. John was himself a perfect model of all virtues, and tender and compassionate towards all, especially the sick. This compassion for them he learned by his own perpetual infirmities, and weakness of stomach. Such was his humility that he would never be promoted even to Minor Orders, never presumed to approach nearer the altar than was necessary to receive the holy communion, and never would open the church door, but always prayed one in Minor Orders to open it for him. He was very zealous for holy poverty, and would not allow any monasteries to be built in a costly or sumptuous manner, thinking such edifices not agreeable to a spirit of poverty. He founded the monastery of St. Salvi, that of Moscetta, that of Passignano, another at Rozzuolo, and another at Monte Salario. He reformed some other monasteries, and left about twelve houses of his Order at his death. Besides monks, he received lay-brothers, who were exempt from choir and silence, and employed in external offices. This is said to be the first example of such a distinction; but it was soon imitated by other Orders. The saint's charity to the poor was not less active than his love for holy poverty. He would have no poor person sent from his door without an alms, and often emptied all the granaries and stores of his monasteries in relieving them. In a great dearth he supplied, sometimes by miracle, the multitudes of poor people that flocked to his monastery of Ruzzuolo. The saint was endowed with the spirit of prophecy, and by his prayers restored many sick persons to perfect health. The holy Pope Leo IX went to Passignano on purpose to see and converse with this holy man. Stephen IX and Alexander II had the greatest esteem for him. This latter testifies that the whole country where he lived owed to his zeal the entire extinction of simony. The holy man at length fell sick of a sharp fever at Passignano. He called for all the abbots and superiors of his Order, and telling them he was soon to leave them, strongly exhorted them to watch vigilantly over the most exact observance of their rule, and to maintain peace and fraternal charity. After this, having most devoutly received the last sacraments, he died happily on the 12th of July in 1073, being seventy-four years old. Pope Celestine III having caused juridical informations to be taken concerning his virtues and miracles, solemnly enrolled him among the saints in the year 1193.
The eminent degree of penance and sanctity to which the divine grace raised this saint, was the fruit of his mildness in forgiving an injury. Christ not only commands us to pardon all offences, but has recommended this precept to us with his expiring breath, with his head crowned with thorns, and his hands stretched out for us. We renounce the glorious title of being his disciples if, whilst we behold him hanging on the cross, and hear his last prayers, we trample on his sacred law, and harbour malice in our hearts against a brother whom our dying Redeemer commands us to forgive for his sake. Can we be angry with him who is by so many sacred ties our brother, the living son and member of our common Redeemer and Father, and whom we expect to be the associate of our happiness for all eternity? We owe infinitely more to Christ than any brother can owe to us: the least venial sin is an immense debt. Our Divine Master not only conjures us to forgive our brother for his sake, but also makes it our own infinite interest so to do, promising to pardon us our immense debts in the same manner as we pardon others. Shall we, base worms, who have nothing to boast of before men, only our having concealed from them our baseness and ignominy; and to whom the most cruel outrages from creatures would be too mild a treatment, considering our sins; shall we, I say, complain of injuries which we ought to receive with patience and joy, as the easy means of cancelling our own sins, and procuring for ourselves the greatest graces and mercy?
Taken from: The Liturgical Year - Time after Pentecost, Vol. IV, Dublin, Edition 1901;
The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, Vol. II; and
The Divine Office for the use of the Laity, Volume II, 1806.
St. John Gualbert, pray for us.