October 16, 2017

Saint Gall, Enlightener of Switzerland (+ 646)

It was in Ireland that St. Gall was born, just about the time that St. Comgall founded his famous monastery of Bangor (c. 555) where St. Gall was sent by his parents to be educated. There the young Cellach (St. Gall's name at birth) became well-versed in both Sacred Scripture and poetry.

St. Comgall was a strict and righteous ascetic who guided several thousand monks. Among his disciples was St. Columban (not to be confused with St. Columba or Columcille of Iona) who ordained St. Gall to the priesthood after the latter had spent some years in ascetic labors. With St. Comgull's blessing, St. Gall was chosen together with eleven other monks to accompany St. Columban on a missionary venture.

Full of the evangelistic fervor that characterized the Bangor monks, the group traveled first to England and then, about the year 585, they crossed the channel. Thanks to the support and kindness of a Frankish king, they settled in Annegray, in the Vosges Mountains, where they founded a monastic community. Disciples began to gather, attracted by St. Columban's reputation as a strict ascetic. In 590 St. Columban, together with St. Gall, founded the famous monastery at Luxeuil, a former spa that had been plundered by the Huns. In the ruins of an old house the Irish monks built first a chapel and then established a monastery. The monks became more and more numerous and the fame of St. Columban and his community was such that they were often visited by King Thoudoric (Thierry), son of Childebert II.

In character with his strictness, St. Columban never compromised in applying the teachings and regulations of the Church. He reproached King Thoudoric for abandoning his wife and living with his mistress, an arrangement which suited Theuderic' s mother, Queen Faileuba, for she was thereby able to share her son's power. Although the King had great respect for St. Columban, his willful mother, to protect her interests, managed to estrange the two men and have the holy monk banished from the kingdom.

In 610 St. Columban left Luxeuil with St. Gall and some of the other monks. They went to King Theuderic’s half-brother, King Theodebert of Austrasia whose residence was in Metz. Traveling south through Germany they met with great difficulty in preaching the gospel, being persecuted and expelled from almost every place where they wanted to establish themselves. Finally, a God-fearing priest living near the Lake of Constance, Willemar, allowed them to stay in Bregentz. There the monks built cells and started converting the surrounding pagan populace. But they had to pay for their success. Two of the monks were killed by some of the pagans in their militant resentment of the gospel preaching. The bodies of these two martyrs were placed under the altar of the Brigantina Monastery (later called Mererau).

About this time there occurred an incident recorded by St. Columban's biographer, Jonas of Bobbio, who also knew St. Gall. The latter was given an obedience to fish in the Breuchin, a river which flows into the Lauterne. But he decided to try his luck in the L'Ognan, a tributary of the Aar, instead. He caught nothing. On being reproved by St. Columban for his disobedience, be went as he had been told to the Breuchin and there he had a large catch.

In 612 Theuderic killed Theodebert and became King of Austrasia. Once more St. Columban had to leave his kingdom and move on. He asked St. Gall to accompany him to Italy (where he was to found the famous Bobbio Monastery). But St. Gall, severely ill, was unable to fulfill such an obedience. St. Columban had to accept his disciple's remaining in Bregenz, but as a penance he forbade him to celebrate the Divine Liturgy as long as he, Columban, was still alive.

After St. Columban's departure and St. Gall’s recovery, the latter took some of the monks that had remained in Bregenz, and moved further up the Lake of Constance to what is now Saint-Gall. There they built a few cells. St. Gall studied the local language and converted so many pagans that he was popularly called the Apostle of Constance. He also had the gift of healing and performed several miracles. The daughter of Duke Gonzon (or Gunzon) was possessed by an evil spirit. When St. Gall delivered her from the chains of the devil, her father was so thankful that he wanted St. Gall to become a bishop, but the Saint declined.

True to his strict Celtic monastic training St. Gall carefully guarded himself from acquisitiveness. Money that he could not refuse he distributed to the poor. The chronicle of his Life states that once a deacon of his monastery wanted to keep a precious vase for the altar, St. Gall sternly forbade him: "Do not keep it; one must be able to say with St. Peter: 'Silver and gold have I none'" (Acts 3:6).

After Matins one morning, St. Gall was miraculously informed of the death of St. Columban. He told the other monks and they celebrated a funeral service. One of the monks was then sent to Italy for a report. He returned with the confirmation of St. Columban's repose and a letter from his Bobbio disciples. Among other things, the letter explained that before dying St. Columban had asked them to give his abbot's staff to St. Gall as a token of forgiveness for his incapacity to follow him to Italy three years earlier. St. Gall wept abundantly, for he had never forgotten his spiritual father's love, and until receiving this confirmation of his death, out of obedience he had not celebrated the Divine Liturgy and more than once had refused offers to become bishop. His obedience thereby preserved him in the rigorous monastic life so cherished by the Irish monks.

St. Gall then resumed the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. He spent most of his time in his cell, leaving it only to preach the gospel and to instruct his humble flock. Like St. Seraphim of Sarov centuries later, St. Gall used to spend days and nights praying and meditating on God's word. A bear would visit him and bring him wood. (Today a bear is represented on the town flag of St. Gall as the symbol of the Saint!) The chronicle mentions that the God-fearing King Sigebert (to be distinguished from the one mentioned above) who founded several monasteries, had great veneration for St. Gall. His daughter refused to marry in order that she might become a nun and live close by the holy apostle.

In 625 St. Eustase, abbot of Luxeuil, died. His monks chose St. Gall as his successor, but the Saint declined the position. Luxeuil had become a very rich monastery, and St. Gall’s love for poverty was as firm as his love for obedience and humility.

With his disciples St. Gall followed the rule of St. Columban. It was very strict, based upon absolute obedience, silence, fasting and abstinence. Infractions brought severe consequences.

The only writing of St. Gall that has come down to us is a homily which he delivered when his disciple John became a bishop. St. Gall himself had been proposed for this honor but he again declined, recommending his disciple in his stead. (The text of the homily is found in Canisius' Lectiones Antiquae.)

St. Gall died on the 16th of October 646 (some sources say 630), at an advanced age. (As an added note of interest, the Oxford Dictionary of Saints states that his shrine remained until the Reformation; when it was rifled, his bones were seen to be unusually large.)

Hundreds of saints, bearers of the Orthodox faith, preached and died in Switzerland during the first centuries of Christianity. Aside from those already mentioned, we should not overlook the names of St. Felix and Regula, St. Lucius, St. Emerita, St. Fridolin (who appears on a Swiss cantonal flag!), St. Pirmin, St. Theodulus, St. Ursula and the numerous saints of the Jura, St. Maire--bishop of Lausanne, St. Salonins-Bishop of Geneva. These are but some of those known to us, whose memory is gradually being revived to the glory of God, wondrous in His saints.

Apolytikion in Plagal of the Fourth Tone
As a companion of the great Columban, thou didst travel throughout the lands of the Franks, O Father Gall, thy ascetic life contrasting with that of the worldly prelates whom thou didst encounter. Open to us, we pray thee, the treasures of sacrifice and struggle, that we too may attain the joy of eternal salvation.