St. Helier of Jersey (& his companion St. Romard) (†555)
St. Aubert of Avranches (†720)
St. Clair of Beauvaisis (& his companion St. Cyrin) (†c.875)
Another category of holy personages who sanctified the soil of the Normandy region is the hermits and ascetics of the area. These rank among the outstanding holy strugglers of any time and place. To this day, their deeds of prayer and ascetic self-denial inspire reverent awe in all who read of them with piety. They are truly the equals of any ascetics of any time or place in the Church’s history.
One of the most remarkable of these figures is St. Helier, as well as his companion in asceticism, St. Romard. St. Helier, the holy hermit of Jersey in the Channel Isles, was born in Tongeren in present-day Belgium, probably between 510 and 520, to the Saxon noble Sigebert, the local governor, and his wife Luzigard, both pagans. The couple was advanced in age and had despaired of ever conceiving a child. On the advice of a Christian priest named Cunibert they prayed to God, promising that if their prayer were granted they would dedicate the child to God and have him brought up in the Christian Faith. St. Helier was born shortly thereafter in answer to their entreaties. His very birth, therefore, was miraculous, in so many ways setting the tone for the remainder of his life.
The miracle child had been promised to the priest Cunibert to be reared in the Faith of Christ, but the parents, almost immediately reverting to their old paganism, put the matter off for seven years. But when a serious paralytic illness befell the young Helier his parents were forced to again have recourse to Cunibert, and upon the child’s recovery his Christian education began. Over the course of his youth St. Helier demonstrated a marked preference for prayer and asceticism, often going about barefoot, frequently fasting, and spurning the luxuries of life in the Great Hall. From early on, miracles began to be associated with his name. He once persuaded rabbits to cease ransacking the family’s garden. He extracted a snake that had slithered into a sleeping man’s mouth. His prayers once cured a person’s blindness.
To his father’s mounting annoyance, St. Helier took scant interest in matters of governance and war. His life even in youth was absorbed in prayer. His father was further incensed by his son’s exclusive reliance on Cunibert’s advice and guidance, so that Sigebert developed a truly mortal enmity toward the priest. This resentment eventually boiled over into outright murder: Sigebert had the holy priest Cunibert decapitated. Horrified, St. Helier fled westward, never again to return home.
The holy youth soon made his way to northwestern Gaul and the region of Normandy. He apparently spent some time in the area of Seine-Maritime, where a village still bears his name. Miracles attended his peregrinations. After some time, he was divinely directed to Nanteuil in the bleakly beautiful Cotentin, where he was instructed to seek out the holy abbot St. Marculf (†558). Here St. Marculf directed a monastic community, which St. Helier promptly joined.
According to the sources, it was only then, at the hands of St. Marculf, that St. Helier at length received baptism. Regardless, during this time St. Helier demonstrated his truly remarkable aptitude for acts of extreme asceticism. He once dug two holes into which he placed sharp stones and which he then filled with water. He then proceeded to stand in them for five years. So as not to slacken through fatigue and perhaps fall over at any point in this ascetic labor, he surrounded the holes with sharpened stakes.
The saint exhibited a clear preference for solitary ascetic struggle and undisturbed contemplation over communal monastic living. When a plea from the nearby island of Jersey (Gersut, or Agna as it was then called) reached St. Marculf, requesting that a holy man be sent to the people there to instruct and confirm them in the Christian Faith, it was St. Helier who was sent to them. This island had been all but depopulated from frequent pagan (possibly Viking) raids. The remaining population, perhaps as small as thirty or so people, desperately needed a teacher and shepherd. The solitary ascetic—along with a companion, Romard—thus set sail to Jersey.
There St. Helier immediately took up the hermetic life in a high, steep rock hollow, difficult of access, on the south coast. From this vantage point he could pray and live the ascetic life undisturbed. St. Romard acted as his intermediary with the local people. From his high rock, St. Helier could also see the sails of ships far in the distance and give warning to the island’s inhabitants of approaching raiders. The tradition persists on Jersey to this day of referring to small dark clouds in the distance as “the sails of Saint Helier.” Both through this vigilance and, presumably, even more so through his prayers, under St. Helier’s watchful protection the local population increased and were strengthened in the Faith. More miracles are also attested from his time there. He healed the lameness of an inhabitant by the name of Anquetil. In addition, once, during a visit from St. Marculf, the two holy men spotted a party of Viking raiders. But when the saints prayed and made the sign of the Cross, a great storm blew up and destroyed the Viking ships, utterly scattering the would-be pillagers.
St. Helier remained in this solitary and severely ascetic mode of life on the high, bare rock on Jersey for another fifteen years, exposed to sun and wind and rain, wasting his body in constant fasting. He ate meagerly, and even then only once a week. At last, weakened to near immobility, he had a vision in which Christ appeared to him and foretold his imminent martyrdom. Three days later, a party of Vandals landed on the island. In the course of their depredations, they dragged the saint down to the shore and, as he was preaching to them, they decapitated him with an axe. However, even then the miracles of the great saint did not cease: Picking up his head, he began walking toward the sea. The raiders, awestruck and filled with terror, immediately retreated from the island, sparing the people further desolation. Further punishment awaited the impious attackers: A sudden storm dashed their ships against the rocks, and all of them perished. This happened in the year 555.
St. Romard then retrieved the holy man’s body which he then placed by itself into a small boat, entrusting its direction to the all-wise Providence of God. The boat travelled back to Normandy, landing at Bréville-sur-mer. There a pious villager collected the body and brought it to the local church. After a funeral was held, as the holy relics were being carried through the church’s north door, they became suddenly and inexplicably heavy and impossible to move further. They were interred there at the entrance, with St. Helier sliding himself into the newly dug hole; and, at that very spot, a healing spring of crystal clear water bubbled forth. This spring, known as the Fontaine de St. Helier, remains at the site, and over the centuries people have had recourse to its waters for the relief and healing of eye ailments. Later St. Helier’s relics were relocated to Beaubec-la-Rosière in the Seine-Maritime.
Our second great ascetic, St. Aubert of Avranches, could just as easily have been classified among either the holy hierarchs or the great monastery founders of the Normandy region. However, as his principal activity seems to have centered on solitary ascetic labor, he is included here.
It was through St. Aubert’s desire for a place for undisturbed and undistracted prayer that religious life was first established on Mont Saint-Michel. Today this towering location, dramatically and picturesquely situated on a tidal island in the Couesnon River on the Normandy-Brittany border, is one of the most famous landmarks in all of Europe, celebrated for its stunning architecture and breathtaking setting. But in St. Aubert’s time it was mostly uninhabited, a forbidding and difficult of access outpost of rock and brush. Its situation might have been rather like that of Meteora in Greece before certain great holy strugglers began establishing communal monastic life there.
The appearance of the Archangel to St. Aubert of Avranches, commanding him tobuild the oratory that would inaugurate monastic life on Mont Saint-Michel Born into a noble family, from early on St. Aubert was distinguished for his piety and great learning. As a result, he was made bishop of Avranches, a commune on the Cotentin Peninsula near the border with Brittany. However, it was while struggling in prayerful solitude near a place called Mont Tombe that the most famous incident of his holy life occurred. In a series of visions the Archangel Michael appeared to the holy ascetic, repeatedly commanding him to erect an oratory on the high, rocky, desolate tidal island. At first the holy man, fearing perhaps that a demonic deception was at work, humbly disregarded the vision. However, it occurred again, and then a third time. During the third and final vision, the great commander of the heavenly hosts, in order to emphasize the seriousness of his point, vigorously poked St. Aubert in the head. Upon awakening and feeling around his head, the holy man discovered (presumably with some alarm) that there was now indeed a hole in his skull at the place where the archangel had poked him! Chastened, he set to work forthwith.
The monastic presence at Mont Tombe, which location was subsequently renamed Mont Saint-Michel in honor of the archangel who ordered its consecration for religious use, grew in time into a thriving Benedictine community. It was dedicated by St. Aubert himself in the year 709. St. Aubert reposed in peace in 720 and was interred at Mont Saint-Michel. Over 1,000 years later, during the Revolution, his holy skull was saved from destruction at the hands of marauding revolutionaries by a quick-thinking doctor who obtained it under the pretext of subjecting it to a scientific examination; today it is treasured at the Saint-Gervais Basilica in Avranches. The hole in the skull remains clearly visible.
The final hermit/ascetic to be discussed here is St. Clair (or Clarus) of Beauvaisis. He was born in Rochester, Kent, in southern England, and later traveled to the area near Rouen where he was martyred after a life of great holiness. His life story was most remarkable and unusual: Born about the year 845 into nobility, he fled marriage to a woman of high rank in order to live wholly devoted to God. His flight brought him to northern France, where he travelled to various towns such as Cherbourg, Valognes, and Saint-Lo, fleeing the vengeful pursuit of his spurned betrothed. He was ordained to the priesthood in 870 by the Bishop of Coutances. With his companion St. Cyrin, he eventually settled in a hermitage in the forested area of the Vexin, where hit men hired by his would-be wife at last found and beheaded him (along with St. Cyrin). The place of his hermitage is now the location of a commune bearing his name. Tradition relates that St. Clair, like St. Helier and a number of other Western martyr-saints who suffered decapitation, took up his own severed head and walked to the nearby fountain, which thereafter became a source of miraculous healings, particularly of ocular ailments. His martyrdom took place around the year 884 (or 875 per another source).
The surnames and place names St. Clair and Sinclair seem to derive from the commune in Normandy bearing this holy man’s name. Thus, a great number of people and places worldwide are, indirectly at least, named for him. The present author’s home county of St. Clair county, Alabama, is one such place. St. Clair of Beauvaisis is commemorated on November 4th.
Thus in the foregoing sketch of the lives of Normandy’s great holy ascetics it has hopefully been made abundantly clear that these figures rank among the greatest of their kind to be found anywhere or in any time period. They serve as dramatic examples of lives given over entirely to God, without any attachment to or regard for earthly status or comfort. They shine with a special brilliance among the constellation of the Orthodox West’s multitudinous great God-pleasers.
To be continued…