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The Life And Writings Of Saint Patrick -Saint Patrick

Lerins is a name that is dear to every Christian scholar, for it was during many centuries a nursery of learning and holiness, whilst the tide of barbarism swept over the decaying empire of Rome. The ancient Leron and Lerina are two small islands off the coast of Var, and quite near Cannes, in the south of France. They are now called St. Marguerite and St. Honorat, from the holy sister and brother who first chose them to be their monastic homes. St. Honorat, the smaller but far more celebrated island, is less than a mile from St. Marguerite, and hides itself, as it were, behind the larger island from the gaze of the curious eyes on shore. But it is very beautiful, above all when the beams of a southern sun light up the sparkling waves that dash on its rocky fringe, and reveal the snowy Alpine peaks in the blue distance, and all the charms of the enchanted shores of this fairy island, with its flowery meads and crown of crested pines breathing out their sweet odours on the bland and balmy air. Hence we find that Lerins has been called not only the Island of the Saints, but an earthly Paradise, and the Pearl of the Sea, and one enthusiastic poet has said that in Lerins he would wish to live for ever, for there is no more beautiful spot in all the world.

But Lerins was very different when Honoratus first landed towards the close of the fourth century on its rocky shores. It is fortunate that we have an authentic account of his life and character from his own beloved disciple, St. Hilary, who succeeded him in the See of Arles, and preached his funeral oration, as well as in the affectionate references made to him by several other members of his saintly island family.

Honoratus, like Sulpicius Severus, belonged to a consular family of Cologne, and received an education befitting his high station. His father was a vain, worldly-minded man, who even delayed the baptism of his son for some years, lest he might give his young heart to God. But his efforts were vain, because God called. Leaving parents and wealth and family behind him, as obstacles to his salvation, he resolved, in company with his brother, to serve God in solitude, and leave the world for ever.

Accompanied by an aged priest named Coprasius, whom they took as guide and spiritual director, the brothers travelled through Italy and Greece, visiting the sacred places and holy solitaries, of whom they had heard so much in their own palace by the Rhine. But his brother dying on the journey, Honoratus returned to Gaul with his remains, and after the burial resolved, with his director and a few companions, to take possession of the lonely island of Lerins, and there serve God in solitude for the rest of his life. Hilary, who knew the island well, describes its state at the time. It was a desert—exactly what Probus calls it—horrid, with wild growths, and so full of venomous snakes, that no one ventured to set foot upon its shores. When the tide rose a little, and the water dashed over the rocks, these serpents came out of their holes and roamed over the whole island. Then there was no open space for cultivation, and no fresh water to be found in its arid wastes. But Honoratus, strong in faith and armed by prayer, was not deterred from his purpose.

At his strong prayer a fountain of limpid water burst forth from the arid rock, and is flowing still, as many a tourist knows, in all its sweetness and purity. The serpents disappeared before the man of God, or, if any remained, they were never known to hurt anyone. At first, Honoratus and his companions dwelt in separate cells made of interlaced pine boughs, and in separate parts of the island. They were true solitaries, living on herbs and fruit, with abundance of pure water to drink. Abiding in the desert like John the Baptist, they were clothed like him in a single coarse garment, made of hair or skin; but they walked, as holy men do still, bare-headed and shoeless. These were, so far as we can ascertain, ‘the bare-footed solitaries in the desert,’ with whom, according to Probus, St. Patrick lived for eight years. When he joined them first, about the year 406, they had not yet built their monastery, or formed themselves into a regular community; but it was just then in process of formation. For we are expressly told by St. Hilary, in very beautiful language, that Honoratus had the arms of his love wide open to receive all who came to his lonely island, and that he cared for them with more than the love and tenderness of a father. The fame of the holy island and of its sainted founder soon spread over all Gaul, and, as might be expected—for it was the spirit of the time—crowds came to Lerins, not only from Gaul, but, as Hilary says, from all parts of the earth, differing in character as much as they differed in language. But Hilary received them all with loving kindness, and in him ‘they found home and country and kindred.’

It must be borne in mind, too, that at this early period there was no other monastery in the West except Marmoutier, and perhaps a few others, so that this holy island naturally attracted crowds of strangers to its shores, seeking God in solitude.

Then Hilary found it necessary to build a church, and gather his solitaries into a regular community. With their own hands they built their church in the centre of the island, where the modern church now stands; and with their own hands, too, they rooted out the wild brakes; they cleared away the useless trees; they quarried the stones from the rocky soil, forming new and fertile fields, in which they planted fruit trees, and corn, and vines, making that desert smile as a rose, and produce teeming crops of all that was necessary for their self-denying and simple lives. St. Patrick must have seen it all, for it was during the years of his sojourn there that this wondrous change was accomplished. He must have had his own share in the blessed work, and seen with his own eyes how much strong hands and loving hearts can do for God—and the lesson was not lost upon him during the sixty years of his own manifold toils in Ireland.

But Lerins soon became something more than a place of prayer and labour for God; it became a great school where all the sacred sciences were taught with signal success. It was in his cell at Lerins that the great St. Vincent of Lerins wrote his immortal ‘Commonitorium,’ or Admonition, in which he lays down, for all time and for all men, a Rule of Faith that can never be assailed—‘Teneamus id quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus creditum est.’ It was to Lerins that Eucherius, who has been described as ‘the greatest of the great pontiffs of his age,’ retired from one of the highest offices in the empire with his wife and children, whom he left—the girls with their mother at St. Marguerite, and the boys at Lerins. It was from Lerins he himself was called to preside over the great Church of Lyons; and it was in Lerins he wrote his beautiful spiritual treatises: ‘De Laude Eremi,’ and ‘De Contemptu Mundi et Secularis Philosophiæ.’ It was in Lerins that Cassian and Salvianus, with a host of other great writers of the time, received most of their training in divine wisdom. From Lerins there issued not only prelates and doctors of high renown, but Popes and Cardinals and statesmen and philosophers. More than once, too, its soil was reddened with the blood of martyred monks, especially at one great slaughter in A.D. 730, when hundreds of them were slain. With good reason, therefore, did Pius IX. declare, that Lerins became a nursery of Saints for the Church, of Apostles for the nations, and of Pontiffs for the episcopal Sees; and such it remained down to the date of its suppression in 1788.

The island was shortly afterwards purchased by an actress, who loved its natural beauty, but made its sacred sites the scene of unholy revels. From the actress it passed to an Anglican minister, who unwittingly sold it in 1859 to an agent of the Bishop of Frejus. The Bishop at once took steps to restore the island to its ancient and holy purpose, with the final result that it was given over in 1867 to a branch of the great Cistercian family, and is at the present moment the seat of a flourishing community, numbering some sixty brothers, with more than twenty priests, who are ruled by the Vicar-General of the Order, whose seat is the Abbey of Lerins. So once more Lerins has been restored to its ancient splendour, and now, as of old, to the saints of God.

It is manifest that Patrick must have learned much in a school like Lerins, under the guidance of a spiritual father like Honoratus, whose very letters, so sweet and gracious, seemed to have been written with honey on tablets of wax, and in the society, too, of the noble Gallo-Romans, who had given up everything for God. And how they must have sometimes pitied the poor British monk who was tending swine in barbarous Scotia, whilst they were declaiming in the schools of Rome and Arles, and who had, as might be expected, so little of that “Romana eloquentia,” of which, as Hilary tells us, Honoratus was himself a master. But eloquence is not everything; and the British monk in the end accomplished a task greater than they did. One thing is certain—we could never understand the life of St. Patrick, as he himself and his deeds have revealed it to us, except we understood how he was trained in the School of Christ, and spent a long noviciate under the greatest masters of the spiritual life.






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