Rev. Alban Butler (171173). Volume II: February. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.
St. Stephen of Grandmont, Abbot
His life was written by Stephen de Liciaco, fourth prior of Grandmont, in 1141: but this work seems now lost. Gerard Ithier, seventh prior, and his abridger, fall into several anachronisms and mistakes, which are to be corrected by the remarks of Dom Martenne, who has given us a new and accurate edition of this life, and other pieces relating to it, Vet. Scriptorum Ampliff. Collectio, t. 6. p. 1043. See also Dom Rivet, Hist. Liter. de la France, t. 10. p. 410. Gallia Christ. Nova, t. 2. p. 646.
ST. STEPHEN was son of the virtuous viscount of Thiers, the first nobleman of Auvergne. From his infancy he gave presages of an uncommon sanctity. Milo, a pious priest, at that time dean of the church of Paris, was appointed his tutor, and being made bishop of Beneventum in 1074, kept the saint with him, continued to instruct him in sacred learning, and in the maxims of Christian perfection, and ordained him deacon. After his death in 1076, Stephen pursued his studies in Rome during four years. All this time he seemed to himself continually solicited by an interior voice to seek a sanctuary for his soul in holy solitude, considering the dangers of the pastoral charge, the obligations of leading a penitential life, and the happiness of the exercises of holy retirement. He desired to imitate the rigorous institute of a certain monastery, which he had seen in Calabria, and obtained leave of Pope Gregory VII. to embrace an eremitical life. He therefore returned to the castle of Thiers, the seat of his late parents, to settle his affairs. He had always been their favourite child, and regarded by them as the blessing bestowed on their prayers and fasts, by which they had begged him of God. Being both exceeding pious, they had rejoiced to see him so virtuously inclined; but they being now dead, his other friends vehemently opposed his design of renouncing the world. Stephen left them privately, and travelling through many deserts, arrived at Muret, a desolate, barren mountain, in the neighbourhood of Limoges, haunted by wild beasts, and of an exceeding cold situation. Here he took up his abode, and, by a vow, consecrated himself to the divine service, in these words: I, Stephen, renounce the devil and his pomps, and do offer and dedicate myself to the Father, Son, and Holy Gost, one God in three Persons. This engagement he wrote and kept always by him with a ring as the symbol. He built himself a hut with the boughs of trees, and in this place passed forty-six years in prayer, and the practice of such austerities as almost surpassed the strength of a human body.1 He lived at first on wild herbs and roots. In the second summer he was discovered by certain shepherds, who brought him a little coarse bread; which some country people from that time continued to do as long as he lived. He always wore next his skin a hair-cloth with iron plates and hoops studded with sharp spikes, over which his only garment, made of the coarsest stuff, was the same both in summer and winter. When overcome by sleep, he took a short rest on rough boards, laid in the form of a coffin. When he was not employed in manual labour, he lay prostrate on the ground in profound adoration of the majesty of God. The sweetness which he felt in divine contemplation made him often forget to take any refreshment for two or three days together. When sixty years of age, finding his stomach exceedingly weak, he suffered a few drops of wine to be mixed with the water which he drank.
Many were desirous to live with him and become his disciples. Though most rigorous to himself, he was mild to those under his direction, and proportioned their mortifications to their strength. But he allowed no indulgence with regard to the essential points of a solitary life, silence, poverty, and the denial of self-will. He often exhorted his disciples to a total disengagement of their hearts from all earthly things, and to a love of holy poverty for that purpose. He used to say to those who desired to be admitted into his community: This is a prison without either door or hole whereby to return into the world, unless a person makes for himself a breach. And should this misfortune befall you, I could not send after you, none here having any commerce with the world any more than myself. He behaved himself among his disciples as the last of them, always taking the lowest place, never suffering any one to rise up to him; and whilst they were at table, he would seat himself on the ground in the midst of them, and read to them the lives of the saints. God bestowed on him a divine light, by which he often told others their secret thoughts. The author of his life gives a long history of miracles which he wrought. But the conversions of many obstinate sinners were still more miraculous: it seemed as if no heart could resist the grace which accompanied his words.
Two cardinals coming into France, as legates to the king from the pope, one of whom was afterwards Pope Innocent II., paid the saint a visit in his desert. They asked him whether he was a canon, a monk, or a hermit? He said he was none of those. Being pressed to declare what he was: We are sinners, said he, whom the mercy of God hath conducted into this wilderness to do penance. The pope himself hath imposed on us these exercises, at our request, for our sins. Our imperfection and frailty deprive us of courage to imitate the fervour of those holy hermits who lived in divine contemplation almost without any thought for their bodies. You see that we neither wear the habit of monks nor of canons. We are still further from usurping those names, which we respect and honour at a distance in the persons of the priests, and in the sanctity of the monks. We are poor, wretched sinners, who, terrified at the rigour of the divine justice, still hope, with trembling, by this means, to find mercy from our Lord Jesus Christ in the day of his judgment. The legates departed exceedingly edified at what they saw and heard. Eight days after the saint was admonished by God of the end of his mortal course, after which he most earnestly sighed. He redoubled his fervour in all his exercises, and falling sick soon after, gave his disciples his last instructions, and exhorted them to a lively confidence in God, to whom he recommended them by an humble prayer. His exhortation was so moving and strong that it dispelled their fears in losing him, and they seemed to enter into his own sentiments. He caused himself to be carried into the chapel, where he heard mass, received extreme unction and the viaticum: and on the 8th day of February, 1124, being fourscore years old, expired in peace, repeating those words: Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit. He had passed in his desert fifty years, bating two months. His disciples buried him privately, to prevent the crowds of people breaking in. But the news of his death drew incredible numbers to his tomb, which was honoured by innumerable miracles. Four months after his death, the priory of Ambazac, dependent on the great Benedictin abbey of St. Austin, in Limoges, put in a claim to the land of Muret. The disciples of the holy man, who had inherited his maxims and spirit, abandoned the ground to them without any contention, and retired to Grandmont, a desert one league distant, carrying with them his precious remains. From this place the order took its name. The saint was canonized by Clement III., in 1189, at the request of king Henry II. of England. See Gallia Christ. Nova, t. 2. p. 646.
Note 1. William of Dandina, an accurate writer, in the life of Hugh of Lacerta, the most famous among the first disciples of St. Stephen, published by Martenne, (t. 6. p. 1143.) says, that the saint died in the forty-sixth year after his conversion. His retreat, therefore, cannot be dated before the year 1078, and the foundation of his order, which some place in 1076, must have been posterior to this. Gerard Ithier mistakes when he says that Saint Stephen went to Benevento in the twelfth year of his age; and remained there twelve years. He went only then to Paris to Milo, who was bishop only two years. See Martenne, p. 1053. [back]