October 21, 2020

The Only Case of a Stylite in the Western World


In 591 Saint Vulfilaic (also known as Wulphy, Walfroy, Wulflaicus), a monk of Lombardy, had a pillar erected for him at Treves, and stood upon it barefoot, enduring great hardship in the winter. The bishops therefore compelled him to come down and to live like other monks, telling him that the severity of the climate would not permit him to imitate the great Symeon of Antioch. He obeyed his superiors, but with tears and reluctance. He died around 600 and was buried in his hermitage, today known as Mont Saint-Walfroy. This is the only instance that we know of a stylite or pillar monk in the Western world. On July 7, 979, his relics were translated to Yvois. A broken slab is all that remains of the location of the tomb of Saint Vulfilaic at Mont Saint-Walfroy, destroyed by war and lost. He is commemorated annually on October 21st. 

Saint Gregory of Tours, in his History of the Franks (8.15), speaks of his encounter with Saint Vulfilaic:
"We started on the journey and came to the town of Yvois and there were met by deacon Vulfilaic and taken to his monastery, where we received a very kind welcome. This monastery is situated on a mountain top about eight miles from the town I have mentioned. On this mountain Vulfilaic built a great church and made it famous for its relics of the blessed Martin and other saints. While staying there I began to ask him to tell me something of the blessing of his conversion and how he had entered the clergy, for he was a Lombard by race. But he would not speak of these matters since he was quite determined to avoid vain­glory. But I urged him with terrible oaths, first promising that I would disclose to no one what he told and I began to ask him to conceal from me none of the matters of which I would ask. After resisting a long time he was overcome at length by my entreaties and protestations and told the following tale: 
'When I was a small boy,' said he, 'I heard the name of the blessed Martin, though I did not know yet whether he was martyr or confessor or what good he had done in the world, or what region had the merit of receiving his blessed limbs in the tomb; and I was already keeping vigils in his honor, and if any money came into my hands I would give alms. As I grew older I was eager to learn and I was able to write before I knew the order of the written letters [before I could read]. Then I joined the abbot Aridius and was taught by him and visited the church of Saint Martin. Returning with him he took a little of the dust of the holy tomb for a blessing. This he placed in a little case and hung it on my neck. Coming to his monastery in the territory of Limoges he took the little case to place it in his oratory and the dust had increased so much that it not only filled the whole case but burst out at the joints wherever it could find an exit. In the light of this miracle my mind was the more on fire to place all my hope in his power. Then I came to the territory of Trèves and on the mountain where you are now built with my own hands the dwelling you see. I found here an image of Diana which the unbelieving people worshiped as a god. I also built a column on which I stood in my bare feet with great pain. And when the winter had come as usual I was so nipped by the icy cold that the power of the cold often caused my toe­nails to fall off and frozen moisture hung from my beard like candles. For this country is said to have a very cold winter.' 
And when I asked him urgently what food or drink he had and how he destroyed the images on the mountain, he said: 'My food and drink were a little bread and vegetables and a small quantity of water. And when a multitude began to flock to me from the neighboring villages I preached always that Diana was nothing, that her images and the worship which they thought it well to observe were nothing; and that the songs which they sang at their cups and wild debauches were disgraceful; but it was right to offer the sacrifice of praise to all-powerful God who made heaven and earth. I often prayed that the Lord would deign to hurl down the image and free the people from this error. And the Lord's mercy turned the rustic mind to listen to my words and to follow the Lord, abandoning their idols. Then I gathered some of them together so that by their help I could hurl down the huge image which I could not budge with my own strength, for I had already broken the rest of the small images, which was an easier task. When many had gathered at this statue of Diana ropes were fastened and they began to pull but their toil could accomplish nothing. Then I hastened to the church and threw myself on the ground and weeping begged the divine mercy that the power of God should destroy that which human energy could not overturn. After praying I went out to the workmen and took hold of the rope, and as soon as I began to pull at once the image fell to the ground where I broke it with iron hammers and reduced it to dust. But at this very hour when I was going to take food my whole body was so covered with malignant pimples from sole to crown that no space could be found that a single finger might touch. I went alone into the church and stripped myself before the holy altar. Now I had there a jar full of oil which I had brought from Saint Martin's church. With this I oiled all my body with my own hands and soon lay down to sleep. I awoke about midnight and rose to perform the service and found my whole body cured as if no sore had appeared on me. And I perceived that these sores were sent not otherwise than by the hate of the enemy. And inasmuch as he enviously seeks to injure those who seek God, the bishops, who should have urged me the more to continue wisely the work I had begun, came and said: "This way which you follow is not the right one, and a baseborn man like you cannot be compared with Symeon of Antioch who lived on a column. Moreover the situation of the place does not allow you to endure the hardship. Come down rather and dwell with the brethren you have gathered." At their words I came down, since not to obey the bishops is called a crime. And I walked and ate with them. And one day the bishop summoned me to a village at a distance and sent workmen with crowbars and hammers and axes and destroyed the column I was accustomed to stand on. I returned the next day and found it all gone. I wept bitterly but could not build again what they had torn down for fear of being called disobedient to the bishop's orders. And since then I am content to dwell with the brothers just as I do now.'"